Planning How to End it All – Part One

No, no, I’m not about to jump off a bridge. This weekend I attended a half-day workshop called “Ending it All” at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA.

Some of us can nail the beginning of a story, novel, or essay. Some can do the middle. Some can do both. What stymies most of us is ending it all, i.e., putting those two words down when we’re finished: The End.

I’ve drafted a very complex novel about the year 2000 in what was then still Yugoslavia. The story involves assassinations of government officials, the criminal underworld, ethnic cleansing, election politics, and even disillusioned Russian soldiers. In other words, a lot of plot threads. And since the bulk of my writing has been non-fiction (government reports), I like all my threads tied up loosely.

Also, because my work is based on current events and recent history, as events move on, sometimes that affects what I’ve written. I have to go back and “finish” a thread–either by weaving some more of it or snipping it.

Some feedback I got on that draft was that the ends were tied too neatly, so much so the ending went on and on and on and…

You get the picture.

Hence, my attendance at Rebecca Makkai’s excellent workshop, “Ending it All.” Makkai is a novelist (The Borrower), short story writer, and non-fiction writer, and her workshop was eye-opening. I never knew there were so many different types of endings! Over the next few days, I’m going to recap this workshop and the useful points Makkai made.

Here are her “rules” (and she acknowledges rules are made to be broken) about an ending:

  • It has to “feel” like an ending, and the best judge of what that feels like is the writer.
  • It has to honor any promises you made to the reader, i.e., if it’s a murder mystery you must reveal the killer.
  • It needs to add to the story, i.e., “and then this happened.”
  • It needs to be poetic, even musical.
  • It needs to be “surprising, but inevitable.”
  • It needs, in some small, subtle way, to refer to the beginning.
  • And, sometimes, it doesn’t have to happen at all.

Makkai says when an ending doesn’t work, “It’s quite likely because it’s not long enough.” We’re tempted, she says, to get to the zinger of our last line when we should be imbuing the penultimate paragraphs with meaning. She uses a musical term for this–ritardando, or the gradual slowing which marks the end of a musical composition.

Despite the fact Makkai says we can’t really categorize or classify endings, she did provide “descriptors” of the kinds of endings writers have used. For each descriptor, she provided examples, some from contemporary literature, some from the classics, and even some from movies and television programs.

In discussing types of endings I may refer to the actual endings of the examples Makkai provided, so Spoiler Alert; however, I’m only talking about the ending as a stand-alone, pretty meaningless unless you’ve read the entire piece. And I was heartened that I’d read or seen most of her examples; that gave the workshop even more meaning.

Here are the descriptors of endings I’m discussing today:

1. Endings that deal with resolution, or lack thereof

The first sub-descriptor for this type of ending is Stasis, which is the intentional lack of resolution. Anton Chekov was a master of this, and the example Makkai provided was his short story “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” which is the story of two people, married to others, who meet at a Black Sea resort and fall in love (a common theme of Russian writers even into the 20th century). The ending shows both of them wondering what to do about their situations and, boom, that’s it. Makkai mentioned this is very difficult to pull off and that most literary mavens consider it a rather old-fashioned device. What seems to work better for contemporary fiction is the “stasis of a character,” i.e., a character who doesn’t change even though the world around him or her has, often in significant ways.

The next sub-descriptor for this type of ending is the Intrinsic Ending, which involves a final, decisive act or event. This is so dramatic and so final that the story has to be over, it can’t continue. Examples were Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and John Updike’s story “A&P.” If this is the type of ending you chose, Makkai says, you have to make certain you don’t just show the final, concluding event but also its impact.

Next is the Game Changer, an ending which destabilizes everything else in the story, or, as Makkai says, “pulls the rug out from under you.” Examples were the movie The Sixth Sense (where the protagonist finds out he’s been dead all along), Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (where we find out the previous 300 pages was just the protagonist introducing himself to his therapist, who is now ready to begin), and Ian McEwan’s Atonement (one I haven’t read). Other examples of the Game Changer ending are Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” Makkai’s only admonition about using this type of ending? “Do not ever, ever, under any circumstances, have a character wake up and realize it was all a dream, or anything equally insulting to the reader.”

The final descriptor for this type of ending (resolved or unresolved) is The Breakup, where the author abruptly pulls us away from characters we’ve come to like. Examples were Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and John Updike’s Couples. Makkai adds you can’t do this just to be perverse to the reader, but only because it’s the right way to end the story. In each example she provided, she indicated the story could end no other way than how it did.

Tomorrow: Endings that Address Meaning and Endings that Emphasize Musicality and Sound.

National Short Story Month – Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

This is the second of several posts for May celebrating National Short Story Month.

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

A story that starts so sweetly just has to be warm and cozy and delightful, doesn’t it? There are scenes of children playing and adults chatting about spouses, the weather, and taxes. The older folks complain that young people don’t follow traditions any more. Young boys scamper about, stuffing their pockets with rocks and building a pile of stones–typical boy stuff in a typical small town. Those of us who grew up in one of them (and in my case came back to one) will recognize this. How very bucolic and dreamy.

However, this is a story by Shirley Jackson, so there’s nothing bucolic and dreamy about it. “The Lottery” is the stuff of nightmares, and that’s what makes it another of my favorite short stories. (I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’m harmless. Mostly.) Most of Jackson’s work is dark because she sees things in the everyday that others don’t. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Richard Matheson, masters of the macabre all, have acknowledged her influence on their work. When The New Yorker published “The Lottery” in June 1948, it received more mail about it than any previous story, most of it questioning why the magazine had published a horror story?

“The Lottery” describes one day for the 300 citizens of a small, rural town, unnamed and where it is we don’t know, nor does it matter. Jackson acknowledged she based it on Bennington, VT, her home town, something I’m sure didn’t exactly thrill her neighbors. In the story, every year at 10 o’clock on a particular day in June, the town–as does every town and city–holds a lottery. The responsibility for preparing for the lottery falls to one man, who is replaced by a volunteer when he decides he doesn’t want to do it anymore. Tradition is very important to the lottery, though necessary changes have occurred. The black box used to hold the lottery slips formerly held wood chips; however, when the population grew, the box was too small to hold all the chips. The man in charge of the lottery changed to paper. Over the many years of the lottery, much of the paraphernalia for the black box and the original black box itself have disappeared or disintegrated. Now a three-legged stool gets placed in the town square, and the black box sits atop it. Otherwise, everything is the same as it’s been for countless years and innumerable lotteries. One old man boasts that this is his 77th lottery, his “seventy-seventh time.”

The purpose for the lottery, other than it’s tradition, is never explained, which adds to the darkness of the story. Those would have been wasted words. It’s enough to know the lottery is and always will be.

As people arrive for the appointed time, they chat as friendly neighbors about harmless things. When I first read this story in high school and reached this point in the story, I remember thinking, how boring. They’re all standing around talking about commonplace things, much like my father at the cattle market or my mother at the hair dresser. What was so good about this story was eluding me.

Then, you feel the tension mount as everyone walks up to the black box when his or her name is called and removes a folded piece of paper. Everyone must keep the paper folded until all have chosen. There is a brief dispute about whether a young woman draws along with her family or her husband’s. Once that’s settled, the reveal can begin.

At a signal, people unfold their papers and hold them up for all to see. Jackson’s prose lets you “hear” the sighs of relief as paper after paper is blank–except for one, which has a black spot on it that “Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company office. Yes, there are lots of allusions to dark and black things throughout the story. I always envisioned a colorless town with people in drab clothing, though there’s no such description.

Soon, it’s obvious someone isn’t owning up to having the black spot, one Tessie Hutchinson. She knows she has the dreaded piece of paper and even though she knows it’s futile to try to hide it, she clenches it in her fist. Her husband is the one who pries her hand open and shows everyone the paper with its black spot.

The villagers back way, leaving Mrs. Hutchinson alone, but they are only moving to pick up their stones from the pile the boys made earlier. Other stones are scattered about, and you get the impression they have been used and reused time and time again. Someone actually puts stones in the hands of Mrs. Hutchinson’s small son because everyone must participate. She begs and pleads, but no one–not her husband, not her children–will help her or stop the inevitable. This is tradition and must be upheld.

Shirley Jackson was renown for not giving interviews or explaining her stories, though the reaction to “The Lottery” compelled her to offer this:

“Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” (July 22, 1948, San Francisco Chronicle)

Today, we read of stonings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and are repulsed. We attribute such actions to backwardness, and we are so smugly certain civilized people don’t do such things, that we have evolved beyond being slaves to tradition. Really?

Jackson was married to literary critic Stanley E. Hyman, who wrote the preface for a posthumous anthology of Jackson’s stories. He noted her purpose in “The Lottery” wasn’t to simply horrify but to incite subversion, and she was pleased when she learned the aparteid government of South Africa had
banned the story there because they considered it subversive. Many critics then and since have speculated Jackson wrote on the dark side because of a traumatic childhood or was neurotic–the usual reasons given when women write something other than children’s stories or romances. Hyman felt her writing gave voice to our inner, post-Holocaust, Cold War fears of mutually assured destruction and getting the enemy first.

One of Jackson’s two novels, The Haunting of Hill House, I read soon after I finished “The Lottery.” Don’t bother to see any of the movie adaptations. Just read the novel instead. It will scare the absolute bejesus out of you, not with gory, explicit scenes of mayhem or murder, but with the careful, thoughtful juxtaposition of words. Nothing else will ever scare you as much.

Except, perhaps, the last line of “The Lottery”:

“‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,'” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”