Planning How to End it All – Conclusion

If you haven’t read Parts One and Two from Monday and Tuesday, respectively, click here for Part One then here for Part Two. Otherwise, this is the conclusion of a recap of a half-day workshop, sponsored by WriterHouse and conducted by Rebecca Makkai, I took this past weekend. The workshop was entitled “Ending it All.”

6. Endings that Rely on the Structure of the Whole Piece

The first ending under this descriptor is the Extrinsic Ending, where the story must end because of a time constraint or time period, e.g., the end of an era or some set event. When we reach that set event, we know the story is done. Examples of set events are a school year, a holiday, a war, a party, even someone’s entire life. Because of this established deadline, the tension within the story gets amped up. Examples include Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (obvious), the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (made into an excellent movie), or the Harry Potter series, “as a whole, as well as each volume,” says Makkai.

Back in Part One (see the link in the first paragraph) when I listed Makkai’s Rules for Endings, the last one reads, “And, sometimes, it doesn’t have to happen at all.” That’s the Tangential ending, which, on the surface, has nothing whatsoever to do with what’s come before, except, Makkai says, “it has everything to do with what’s come before.” It’s an ending which is often metaphorical. Her example was Amy Hempel’s story, “The Dog of the Marriage.”

The next type of ending is the Return to an Enveloping Structure, where the ending is  like an inside joke because it may refer to something from the beginning. This is also related to the Rule for Endings, “Surprising but Inevitable.” The best example Makkai provided was the structure of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. The protagonist returns to his old boarding school, walking around the campus; then, the balance of the book is about his remembering what happened while he was a student. Finally, the novel concludes with the protagonist walking about the campus while he compares war and life at boarding school. This type of ending is a reflection on what’s going on inside a character’s head.

The final type of ending in this descriptor is the Elegaic, which is a combination of the Philosophical and Extrinsic Endings, and it’s quite often a lament, in lyrical language, for a time gone by or a person no longer with us. The best possible example for this type of ending is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which ends in a single paragraph of such beauty it tears you completely away from the dystopian world McCarthy has just put us in and you’re glad for that break.

7. Endings that Play with Time

The first kind of ending under this descriptor is the Telescopic Ending, where you zoom out, into the future, to a point where the readers and the characters have some distance from the events in the book. From the future they have more wisdom and perspective to grasp what has happened. It’s a look back on the timeframe of the story, which up until this point was the “present.” The subjunctive tense is generally used for this type of ending, e.g., “Years later, he would look back, etc.” Makkai’s example is short enough to include here, from Alice Munro’s story, “Post and Beam.”

It was a long time ago that this happened. In North Vancouver, when they lived in the Post and Beam house. When she was twenty-four years old, and new to bargaining.

The second type of ending is the Many Years Passed…, the academic term for which is “Prolepsis.” Makkai terms it a subcategory of the Telescopic Ending, but we “live” in this ending for a while–a whole chapter or an epilogue–but just long enough to see something new happen. It is longer than the Telescopic Ending, but it’s really just a glimpse. Makkai says, “If you give too much information on too many people, it ends up looking like the end of Animal House.” Examples include the movie The Breakup or the novel by Eleanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints.

Then, there’s the Predictive Ending, where we’re not quite in the future but the narrator is certain where we’re going. The future tense usually characterizes this kind of ending, and for some real interest, Makkai says, you can twist this: The narrator is delusional in his or her predictions, but we, the readers, know they’re never going to happen. The ending of Jill McCorkle’s story, “Intervention,” which is about a failed intervention for an alcoholic spouse, is the perfect example of this type of ending.

And finally, we have the old stand-by, the Flashback, technically called Analepsis. The ending goes back to an earlier point in the timeline of the story, a decisive moment in a character’s life. We may know of it but haven’t yet witnessed it, or it may be a disaster we know is going to happen because of what has gone before. It can also encompass a moment of hope before that disaster and is, says Makkai, a good way to end a very sad story, i.e., with a note of hope even if it’s false and bittersweet. The example was from Israeli author Etgar Keret’s story “Joseph,” which is about witnesses to a suicide bombing. Other examples were Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, and Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me.

Makkai capped all this off with a story ending which included most of the different types of endings, and that was the end to the story “Safari” from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. This is probably the best story within that novel in stories as a stand-alone. If you haven’t read it, do so. It’s beautiful and devastating at the same time, or as Makkai describes it, “It’s elegaic. It’s telescopic, but there’s a bit of flashback effect, too….There’s a revelation (in the form of some particularly devastating dialogue). It’s lyrical. It’s sensory and immediate. And I’d argue that both the telescoping and the revelation at the end are, to a certain extent, game changers.”

After all the academic “stuff,” we took a break then came back to an exercise. We took a story everyone knows–in our case it was Hansel and Gretel–and rewrote the ending using some of the descriptors Makkai had just explained. This was a very practical application of all which had come before. We had great fun doing this, and it helped to cement endings in all our heads.

Makkai sent us home to look at the endings of some of our favorite books, to see which descriptor they fit, and to write some good endings of our own. Years later, I would look back on this class as one of the most significant learning experiences in my writing career and, knew, that had I not taken it, my own happy ending would have been different, very different.

Okay, what type of ending was that?

 

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.