The ‘New Equilibrium’ is a storytelling term to describe part of the ‘denouement’, as traditionally known. It’s the part of a story where we are left with a sense of what the main character’s life is like now. This comes right after the Self Revelation sequence. The main character has undergone a change (unless it’s a sit-com) and their life will be better than before, worse than before, or just plain old different.
In any case, the audience wants enough clues to guess how life is going to turn out for them from here on in.
DIFFERENCES OF OPINION
There is often controversy about where a film ‘should have’ ended. Audiences want different things from their endings. Take Adventureland, a 2009 coming of age film. Hang out at review forums and you’ll soon notice that a lot of people think the story should have ended with the main character saying goodbye on the hill. Realistically, in the real world, he would probably never see these people again. But this is movie land, and we see a (dream?) sequence in which his crush moves to New York and they live happily ever after. The screenwriters decided the audience of this film would appreciate a happy ending, but the scene on the hill would certainly have been enough of a ‘New Equilibrium’ from a storytelling point of view. All we really needed to know was that the main character is moving on and his life is going to be completely different in New York.
This is where literary short stories deviate from traditional story structure… sometimes. Sometimes we are given very little clues about about how life will be from now on, with short stories sometimes ending at the Self Revelation moment. ‘Get in, get out’, with emphasis here on the ‘get out’. I’m talking specifically about short stories which are what I’d describe as ‘epiphanic moments’. A character makes some small discovery about something/someone. Even in these stories, if you go back you’ll be able to ‘extrapolate’ what their life will be like from now on. In short, short stories require more imaginative work on the part of the reader.
(Genre short stories work the same as longer works, with all seven steps.)
EXTRAPOLATED ENDINGS IN NEVER-ENDING PICTURE BOOKS
I’m sure the storytelling gurus consider this last step unnecessary but I include the ‘extrapolated ending’ as a final optional step in storytelling because some stories leave us with an open ending, in which case the work of finishing off is left up to the audience. Since audience members will vary on this, I like to consider it a separate step from the ‘New Equilibrium’ the author has chosen for us.
There is a very common sort of extrapolated ending in picture books — you can probably guess what it is.
It is often implied that the same adventure is about to happen all over again. Perhaps there will be a bit of a tweak. Picture books are unique in that they are the only book designed to be read at least 50 times by both a young and old audience, so this particular story structure encourages readers to think beyond the last page, and acknowledges that they’ll probably be back.
EXAMPLES OF IMPLIED REPEATS
Not all picture books are sweetness and light and routine and comforting, however. This is a fairly new trend (though was already observed by kidlit critics in 1988 — see the work of Sheila Egoff in Give Them Wings) but contemporary popular children’s books are increasingly likely to be open ended.
Famously, This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen have rather gory implied endings. (The sneaky but cheeky fish protagonist gets eaten, for example.) What would have happened if Jon Klassen had shown the little fish being eaten by the big fish? (Or more likely, inside the big fish’s stomach wondering what happened.) This would have probably been considered too much for the youngest popular audience. In short, an extrapolated ending allows children with the capacity for gore to imagine what they like, while more sensitive types don’t have to go there at all.
HORRORS AND IRREPRESIBLE BADDIES
Here’s something picture books have in common with horror films.
In Dead Calm (to take just one example), the audience is left with a sense of calm, knowing that the man and woman have defeated the sociopathic killer. But just before the end, we are given evidence that the killer is not in fact dead. The entire story is about to repeat itself, only this time it may not go so well.
Here’s the thing about horror opponents — they are mechanical in their behaviour and you can’t kill them, no matter how hard you try. Ghosts come back as different kinds of ghouls, possessed creatures show up in different, more invasive places and so on and so forth.
PARABLES, FAIRYTALES AND PARABLE-SPOOFS
Those really old fables and Charles Perrault fairytales offer a moral lesson after the new equilibrium in which we extrapolate that this particular character is not going to make the same mistake ever again… and neither should you.
The “Ripped Pants” episode of Spongebob Squarepants does the same thing, with a musical outtake instead of the didactic paragraph, in a spoof of a parable about recycling the same joke.