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Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever

At first, Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor reads like a comical story, but since you know this is a Cheever story you will be expecting a sombre turn before the end.

WHAT IS CHRISTMAS IS A SAD SEASON FOR THE POOR ABOUT?

An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to. Each passenger regales him with a story of their own kind of loneliness. Over the course of Christmas Day, it turns out each of the residents has prepared a present and a dinner with dessert for Charlie, who can’t possibly eat all of it, and spreads it across the floor of his locker room.

After drinking too much of the liquor that has been gifted to him over the course of Christmas Day, he gives one lady a fright by joking with her:

“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!” Mrs. Gadshill shrieked.

This gets him fired. To make himself feel better about the day, he puts all of his presents into a burlap sack and takes them to his landlady, who has lots of children and not all that much money. This woman accepts them on behalf of the children, but when Charlie has left, the narrator tells the reader that in fact these children have had lots of presents all day and aren’t quite sure what to do with new ones. So she plans to regift the as-yet unopened ones to a family she feels is even less well-off than herself.

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To what extent do screenwriting tips apply to writers of children’s literature?

tl;dr: Storytelling tips on writing for adults absolutely apply when crafting stories for children. But in children’s fiction, the concept of genre may not be as useful as when trying to sell a screenplay to Hollywood.

Screenwriting is some of the most dense storytelling there is, along with short stories. There’s a lot more room in an adult novel for meandering, though this varies according to genre. What about modern children’s literature, though? If you read children’s books more than 50-odd years old, you’ll notice a lot more meandering, but modern children’s books are competing with the screen, and must attract the attention of an audience who is used to the tightness of screenwriting. So more than ever, writing for children demands a tight narrative also.

There are a lot of books on storytelling out there, and many of them are written with screenwriters in mind, that is, unless you want to get into the real academic stuff, usually with something like ‘narratology’ in the title.

I’ve read a number of screenwriting books although I have no plans to write a screenplay, and most of them went in one ear and out the other — they were of no actual use when it came down to crafting a story. The three-act theories to me feel intuitively wrong. Advice to make something big happen smack-bang in the middle of the story feels wrong also, because what has the page number got to do with anything?

One day I was looking for a certain book in the library and came across Anatomy Of Story by John Truby, which was beside the book I had looked up on the computer.

(Isn’t that often the way? That’s the main problem with the digitisation of library resources — often it’s the book right next to the one you thought you wanted that you actually want, and you can only learn this by visiting a bricks and mortar library.)

Turns out, script doctor John Truby, like me but more so, is no great fan of the three-act-structure advice dished out to beginning storytellers, precisely because it is advice only applicable to beginners. The truth is, storytelling is a lot more complex than that.

Using notes from a podcast interview Truby did for Curious About Screenwriting Network (because there’s too much in his book to bulletpoint here!), and Cheryl Klein’s book specifically aimed at creators of stories for children, Second Sight, I’m going to think about children’s stories alongside films for adults. This should be pretty easy, since stories for children aren’t all that different from genre fiction and mainstream film. Cheryl Klein agrees about the adult-equalled complexity when it comes to modern children literature:

If you study the history of children’s literature, it begins with morality tales. There’s a set of German children’s stories called Struwwelpeter about little Peter, who wouldn’t cut his fingernails or his hair, and Pauline, who burnt herself up by playing with matches. But as children’s fiction has evolved through the last hudnred and fifty years or so, it’s taken on the literary and psychological complexity that adult fiction has had for centuries, away from the moral and heavy-handed, toward the complex, the nuanced, the real.

 

my two favourite writing books

my two favourite writing books

First, John Truby on…

WHY MOST WRITERS FAIL

Truby says it’s not what most people think — most people think it’s ‘who you know’ over ‘what you know’ when it comes to selling stories. That’s not true in screenwriting (and not true in children’s literature, either). It’s not all about pitching, either. Truby says that the skill of pitching is overrated. Unless you have a track record as a professional nobody will take a pitch seriously. A script with a great story is the only thing that matters. Most writers fail because they don’t know the story techniques professionals use. Most writers have been using the wrong craft all along.

Screenwriting has been dominated by the idea of ‘three-act-structure’. This way of understanding story has its merits, especially for when you’re first starting to write. But this is the only training that most writers get, and is strictly for beginners. The only chance any writer has to succeed as a storyteller worldwide is to learn the techniques that professionals use.

TEN OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNIQUES WRITERS MUST KNOW

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How To End A Story

 

Quotes From Writers About Ending Stories

A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.

The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.

Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.

– from The Literary Lab, Loose Endings

 

A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.

Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.

– Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

 

Provide an ending worthy of the beginning.

Often it’s helpful when you start writing a story to have at least a vague sense of what the ending will be. That little bit of knowledge serves as a beacon to guide you as you make choices about the story.

[One] reason an ending may fail to satisfy is that the author is trying to spare the characters some hurt, this time the anguish of confrontation. Remember, you cannot protect your characters—the words protagonist and antagonist have agony built in.

– Schaum’s quick guide to writing great short stories by Margaret Lucke

 

The ending must answer the question you posed at the outset. Does it? Clearly and unequivocally?

– from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham

 

Don’t dither. Avoid weak, throat-clearing closes, just as you’d avoid throat-clearing, inconclusive openings. Let the ending be the ending, without waffling afterthoughts.

All the subordinate characters possible should be shuffled offstage, their work done, as the ending approaches, to leave the major characters alone in the central spotlight.

Settle the important things—not everything…Just as good openings start in médias res, with something already in progress, good linear endings don’t wait till every bit of the dust has settled.

Most important of all, though: don’t introduce a new plot. Stay with the main plot.

– Anson Dibell, from Plot: Elements of Fiction Writing

 

A story, like a sentence, can end in only four ways: with a period, an exclamation point, a questionmark, or an ellipsis…

The needs of your story and your attitude may dictate ending with the feeling of a period, an image or line of dialogue flatly making a declarative statement such as “Life goes on.” “Love conquers all.” “Good triumphs over evil.” “That’s the way life is.” “There’s no place like home.”

An ending can give the effect of an exclamation point if the intent of the work is to stir action or create alarm. Science fiction and horror films may end on a note of “We are not alone!” or “Repent or perish!” Stories of social awareness may end with a passionate tone of “Never again!”, “Rise up and throw off chains of oppression!”, or “Something must be done!”

In a more open-ended approach to structure, you may want to end with the effect of a question mark, and the feeling that uncertainties remain. The final image may pose a question such as “Will the hero Return with the Elixir or will it be forgotten?” An open-ended story may also trail off with the feeling of an ellipsis. Unspoken questions may linger in the air or conflicts may remain unresolved with endings that suggest doubt or ambiguity. “The hero can’t decide between two women, and therefore…”, “Love and art are irreconcilable, so…”, “Life goes on…and on… and on…”, or “She proved she’s not a killer, but…”

One way or another, the very ending of a story should announce that it’s all over, like the Warner Bros. cartoon signature line “That’s all, folks”. Oral storytellers in addition to using formulas like “…and they lived happily ever after”, will sometimes end folk tales with a ritual statement like “I’m done, that’s that, and who’ll ease my dry throat with a drink?” Sometimes a final image, such as the hero riding off into the sunset, can sum up the story’s theme in a visual metaphor and let the audience know it’s over. The final image of Unforgiven, a shot of Clint Eastwood’s character leaving his wife’s grave and returning to his house, signals the end of the journey and sums up the story’s theme.

– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.

The ending must make use of those same forces and conflicts, with nothing important left out and nothing new suddenly appearing at the last minute.

Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn’t need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we’ve all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.

– from The Literary Lab, Loose Endings

 

A successful ending must be tied not only to the author’s implicit promise and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to the protagonist’s nature. A test for your ending is this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be No.

Finding the right ending sometimes takes time. Once it took me thirteen years.

– Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

 

Provide an ending worthy of the beginning.

Often it’s helpful when you start writing a story to have at least a vague sense of what the ending will be. That little bit of knowledge serves as a beacon to guide you as you make choices about the story.

[One] reason an ending may fail to satisfy is that the author is trying to spare the characters some hurt, this time the anguish of confrontation. Remember, you cannot protect your characters—the words protagonist and antagonist have agony built in.

– Schaum’s quick guide to writing great short stories by Margaret Lucke

 

The ending must answer the question you posed at the outset. Does it? Clearly and unequivocally?

– from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham

Twist Endings

The Return may have a twist to it. This is another case of misdirection: You lead the audience to believe one thing, and then reveal at the last moment a quite different reality.No Way Out flips you a totally different perception of the hero in the last ten seconds of the film. Basic Instinct makes you suspect Sharon Stone’s character of murder for the first two acts, convinces you she is innocent in the climax, then leaps back to doubt again in an unexpected final shot.

There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such Returns, as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”. A poor young husband and wife make sacrifices to surprise each other with Christmas presents. They discover that the husband has sold his valuable watch to buy his wife a clip for her beautiful long hair, and the wife has cut off and sold her lovely locks to buy him a fob for his beloved watch. The gifts and sacrifices cancel each other out but the couple is left with a treasure of love.

– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

My mother hates watching magic shows. She feels she’s being tricked. Of course, she is right. Other people love being tricked. They love magic shows and marvel at the magician’s skill.

I also know readers who hate stories with twists in the tale. They feel they’ve been strung along, manipulated and then lured into a trap as an author’s prey. Other readers marvel at the skill of a tricky writer. These are the readers who can enjoy a tricky ending.

Which kind of reader are you?

When I read a story I always seem to begin playing “Guess the Ending” about two-thirds of the way through. If I’m very lucky, I lose. There’s a disappointment about winning, and delicious fun in being faked out.

-Dennis Whitcomb, The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing

Some Classic Films With Twist Endings

Thrillers, horror and mystery seem especially suited to the twist. How many of these do you know and remember? How many did you see coming? Which ones did you like?

  • Sixth Sense
  • Seven
  • The Others
  • Signs
  • Saw
  • The Stepford Wives
  • Terminator 3
  • Flightplan

Here are some more. Do you agree with the list?

Some masters of story-telling trickery:

  1. Agatha Christie (by setting up false villains. The twist ending is almost mandatory in a good mystery.)
  2. Roald Dahl (in numerous ways, especially in his short stories.)
  3. Michael Crichton (e.g. Prey)

Whatever your enjoyment of twist endings (a.k.a. switch endings, the subverted trope), there is much skill involved in doing it well. First of all,inexperienced writers (or readers) may think they are twisting the ending when they’re falling into cliche.

The Wire

John Yorke explains that a ‘twist’ might simply be a refusal to follow the usual story structure — what he refers to as ‘archetypal’ story structure:

Archetypal endings can … be twisted to great effect. The Wire found an extremely clever way of subverting the normal character arc — by brutally cutting it off at an arbitrary point. The death of Omar Little at the hands of a complete stranger works precisely because it’s so narratively wrong; it undercuts the classic hero’s journey by employing all its conventions up to the point of sudden, tawdry and unexpected death. Effectively saying this is a world where such codes don’t operate, such subversion also has the added bonus of telling us just how the cruel and godless world of Baltimore drug-dealing really works.

Into The Woods by John Yorke

If you’re not sure what is meant by archetypal story structure, see here.

HOW TO STUFF IT UP

1. The viewpoint character wakes up and it’s all a dream. (Didn’t you do this as a kid, at least once? I did, when time ran out in class.) Similar to this: the VP character is actually crazy and it never happened after all. In fact, any ending in which the reader learns ‘It never happened at all’. This is a disappointment because there is no usually no epiphany, nothing to be learned and the reader feels they have wasted their time.

2. The viewpoint character is already dead. (Okay, I recently wrote a story like this but I had to be very careful to make it different.)

3. Introduce something random, out of left field, something obviously contrived and tacked on. Storytelling is like writing a transactional essay in this respect: Never introduce anything new in a conclusion. You’ll end up with classic plot holes.

4. The Shock Value Ending. Someone gets killed off for no good reason. Or similar.

5. Unnecessary Complexity. Some post-modern story-tellers expect an audience to read/watch something more than once, and carefully, before making any sense of it. If this is your style, you’ll attract a specific sort of audience. Many people would rather not put in all that work.

RULE OF THUMB

If you’re going to use a twist ending, have the twist affect someone other than the reader. The twist must affect a character.

DON’T WRITE ABSURDISM

Absurdism was more popular with earlier audiences. Done well, everything does connect, but avoid the bad kind of absurdism where one weird thing happens after another. This is one way to create an unpredictable plot, but unpredictable doesn’t go far enough. Endings have to feel both surprising and inevitable.

It turns out that people don’t actually want to say, “I had no idea that was going to happen!” In fact, they’re often delighted to say, “I knew that was going to happen!” People love to get to know characters, and they feel clever when they can predict those characters’ reactions.

Defying expectations is easy. Creating expectations is hard. To create expectations, you have to write consistent, believable, well-defined characters.

— The Secrets Of Story, Matt Bird

AN ALTERNATIVE POINT OF VIEW

Twists are overrated. Predictable isn’t as bad as you think it is. Audiences don’t need a twist in everything, or even in most things, so don’t manoeuvre one in to be tricky.

storytelling twist

HOW TO PUT A GREAT SWITCH IN AN ENDING

1. Engender empathy in a character then expose that character for what they really are.

Bad characters are actually good. Good characters are actually bad. Such endings can make us question our own quickness to judge. It encourages us to see shades of grey in character, and this is its own epiphany. The trick-ending has a special kind of ‘epiphanic moment’, known as the ‘anagnorisis’ (discovery) – the protagonist’s sudden recognition of their own or another character’s true identity or nature.

2. Foreshadow without telegraphing.

In a good twisted tale, you can read the story again and see hints at what’s coming. You can enjoy the tale a second time in a completely new way. ‘Telegraphing’ is basically ‘stuffing up an attempt at foreshadowing’ by dropping such heavy-handed hints that any audience with half a wit knows exactly what’s coming at the end. Aim to foreshadow. Avoid the telegraph. At the end of the tale we should see how certain inconsistencies become logical.

Sometimes foreshadowing is done by making use of a ‘plant’ – an object that is ‘planted’ earlier but doesn’t become important until later. The plant is useful in any kind of storytelling, even if there’s no particular twist. e.g. in Six Feet Under, Brenda is writing a novel about the sexual exploits of a fictional character. The audience knows that she is not writing fiction; we’ve seen enough scenes where she has sex with a random stranger, confesses to her prostitute friend then types away on her laptop. One day, she writes a scene about a guy wearing a certain baseball cap. Nate reads her work. Then, while sitting on the veranda with Brenda, the guy turns up, wearing the planted baseball cap. This leads to the end of their first engagement.

Where something – be it an object, situation or character – is introduced early in a story for use much later, this is known as Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov himself, said that everything mentioned in a short story must have a use. Do not include a gun unless there is some use for the gun.

When the author makes use of false foreshadowing, it’s then called a Red Herring. This is most acceptable in mystery and detective stories. Readers of other genres may have little time for this technique.

SEE ALSO: Types Of Literary Shadowing

3. Irony

For example, after a long hard struggle, we learn the struggle wasn’t necessary. (e.g. Office Space, the movie.)

Or, what a baddie gains wasn’t worth the sacrifice. Can you think of an example?

SEE ALSO: This post on irony

TWIST ENDINGS AND CERTAIN LITERARY TECHNIQUES

1. Flashback

Flashback, or analepsis, comes in useful for a variety of reasons, not least to provide a reader with backstory. In a trick ending, the flashback is used to suddenly reveal information/vital memories which provide the missing information needed to complete the puzzle.

2. The Unreliable Narrator

e.g. Notes on a Scandal (Zoe Heller), Je Ne Parle Pas Francais (Katherine Mansfield).

The reader is told a story through the eyes of a certain character who doesn’t quite have the story right. We eventually work out for ourselves that we haven’t been told the whole truth. We meet unreliable narrators in real life, too. Have you ever started a new school or workplace and been told, on your very first day, to avoid certain people in the playground or workplace because they’re idiots or whatever? Eventually, you work out the true balance of power and you realise the person who tried to get you onside on your very first day was the very person who needs friends most, because that’s the person who is ostracised.

3. The Cliffhanger

The ending is unresolved. The characters are left in the lurch.

Some readers really hate cliffhangers. So why would you do this to your readers, who’ve loyally followed you all the way to the end? Maybe to recreate the Zeigarnik effect, in which frustrating and unresolved emotions are those best remembered.

Cliffhangers are best used at the end of a series, and only when another series follows. This will keep the audience coming back for more, without letting them down.

4. Reverse Chronology

The story opens after some pivotal event and works backwards via flashbacks or scenes which are dated and timed. Amnesia stories often work like this: A character wakes up and has no idea who he is. He works it out little by little.

5. Non-linear Narration

Readers have to work hard to get these stories, because we are given a series of random scenes and expected to piece the story together ourselves. Lost makes use of this technique and I, for one, can’t be bothered. Quentin Tarantino does it better in Pulp Fiction. The story may begin in medias res (in the middle of things), jump backwards for say, two thirds of the story, then exist in the present for the final third, after the cliffhanger. These stories are also non-linear, but audiences can grasp these kind more easily.

Remember, when matching wits with the reader, that your readers will be on the lookout for the twist in the tale. Especially readers of short stories, who tend to be the most widely read group of people of the lot.

comic from Poorly Drawn Lines

Related Links

Spoilers don’t ruin stories after all

Tara Maya talks in terms of the ‘plunge’ ending versus the ‘twist’

30 Films With Twist Endings from TF

A Goodreads list of books with twist endings

Twist and Shout? – The literary twist considered from Sulci Collective

When Your Surprise Ending Is Not A Surprise from Tracy Marchini

 

Open Endings

Storytellers have thought of many ways to create a circular feeling of completion or closure, basically by addressing the dramatic questions raised in Act One. However once in awhile a few loose ends are desirable. Some storytellers prefer an open-ended Return. In the open-ended point of view, the story-telling goes on after the story is over; it continues in the minds and hearts of the audience, in the conversations and even arguments people have in coffee shops after seeing a movie or reading a book.

Writers of the open-ended persuasion prefer to leave moral conclusions for the reader or viewer. Some questions have no answers, some have many. Some stories end, not by answering questions or solving riddles but by posing new questions that resonate in the audience long after the story is over.

Hollywood films are often criticized for pat, fairy tale endings in which all problems are solved and the cultural assumptions of the audience are left undisturbed. By contrast the open-ended approach views the world as an ambiguous, imperfect place. For more sophisticated stories with hard or realistic edges, the open-ended form may be more appropriate.

from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

 

Michael Connelly On Tidy Endings

michael-connelly-books

In an interview  at The Bestseller Experiment podcast, bestselling crime writer Michael Connelly says that he doesn’t tidy everything up in his novels. Connelly has a background as a crime journalist, and in his real world earlier career many, many crimes were never tidied up. When he left to become a full time novelist he left many files open-ended. This was a reminder to him that real life is vastly different from fiction. He tidies his book endings up a lot more than is done in real life, but refuses to tidy absolutely everything.

A Brief History Of Open Endings

A number of significant changes took place as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the way we tell stories – endings are just as likely now to consist of an ‘open ending’, partly to add an air of uncertainty and partly because in a godless universe death doesn’t mean what it once did. As Shakespearean scholar Jan Kott noted before him, ‘Ancient Tragedy is loss of life, modern Tragedy is loss of purpose’. Characters nowadays are just as likely to drift into meaningless oblivion as to die.

Into The Woods by John Yorke

Links About Ending Stories

 

Endings 08: Poetry Endings

I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

– Robert Frost

Endings 06: Short Story Endings

The truth is that although everything in any work of fiction should contribute to the whole, the last few paragraphs of a novel are relatively unimportant. A novel is so long that by the time the reader comes to the end, 99 percent of the plot, character development, theme and everything else are over. And since the structure of a novel usually requires a climax followed by a denouement, the very end of a novel is a time of decreasing tension. Noting startling, new or highly emotional is likely to turn up this late in such a lengthy tale. A short story is much different. The climax may be the ending. Even when an additional scene follows the climax, it is likely to carry heavy symbolic significance. And the shorter the story, the more important the last few paragraphs become.

In a certain kind of short story, the last sentence is especially crucial.

— Nancy Kress, from Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Kress makes a distinction between the ‘plotted short story’ and the ‘contemporary literary short story’. The plotted short story basically follows classic story structure (Weakness/Need/Problem, Desire, Opponent, Plan, Battle, Self-revelation, New Equilibrium). What she calls ‘Literary’ short stories work differently and don’t follow those rules. In a literary story, perhaps nothing is resolved. Readers unused to these stories often say, “Nothing happened,” or may think they’re missing the last page, or didn’t ‘get it’. Sometimes the point is that there is no resolution — because life can be like that. These stories are ‘the question minus the answer’. Literary stories make their point via symbolism.

One thing about the short story is that it’s kind of an exotic, hothouse version of the “real” story. It does a little more—there’s more compression, of course, but also a higher expectation of shapeliness and some kind of aesthetic closure—a moment where the wires the writer has filled with current get a chance to really cross.

— George Saunders

We regularly reject stories where we feel the endings aren’t fully earned. I can best summarize this to mean, that for me, when I read a story where I feel the writer is working toward an end but the rest of the piece isn’t supporting that conclusion, whether it be emotionally, on a plot level, or thematically, that ending isn’t fully earned. […]

A story’s ending is most powerful when it feels like the culmination of everything that has been bubbling throughout it — the character’s motivations and actions, the preoccupations of the prose. I know that, in the past, incredibly strong stories that end with a seemingly random disaster have been hotly debated. We get upset when we come to the end of a carefully crafted story and a character who we’re invested in suddenly dies, or is injured, or it turns out (please, no!) has been dreaming this whole time — with no clear reason, we’re often left wondering what the author’s intention was. For example, one of our honorable mentions (which, overall, we really enjoyed) for this last contest ends with a shot being fired (though it’s not clear that any harm is done by it), and neither one of us was sure why. Though this sort of violence is built to more thoroughly in this story than others, here it seemed to take the place of a deeper reflection or significance.

Of course, there are degrees to this. I think that story endings can often be strengthened. One of the most common edits I make to pieces we do accept is to change the ending. Take, for example, “Family, Family,” our second-place Fall Fiction Contest winner. (Read it now to prevent any spoilers.) Though the original ending felt natural enough, all of our editors thought that it was lacking power and that it could have had a clearer “takeaway,” so I flat-out asked the author what she meant by it. Her answer was clear: she wanted to convey the desire of a first-grader who has been ridiculed by his peers to return to the safety of his nursery school classroom, to go backwards in time rather than face the challenges of growing up. We ended up changing the ending image entirely, so that the little boy literally climbs into a pine doll cradle, for which he is (of course) too big. This resonates instantly.

Even when editing pieces with quite a bit of narrative distance (to return to your earlier question), I’ll often push the author to give a little more (even a sentence!) at the end. I never want the ending of a story to be too “neat,” but at the same time I want to finish it feeling satiated.

The Masters Review


 

The Dead James Joyce

A primary characteristic of the modern post-Chekhovian short story is that stories that depend on the metaphoric meaning of events and objects can only achieve closure aesthetically rather than phenomenologically. James Joyce’s stories often end with tacit epiphanies, for example, in which a spinster understands but cannot explain the significance of clay or in which a young boy understands but cannot explain the significance of Araby. His most respected short fiction, “The Dead”, is like a textbook case of a story that transforms hard matter into metaphor and that is resolved only aesthetically. Throughout the story the “stuff” described stubbornly remains mere metonymic details; even the snow that is introduced casually into the story on the shoes of the party-goers’ feet is merely the cold white stuff that covers the ground — that is until the end of the story when Gabriel’s recognition transforms it into a metaphor that closes the work by mystically covering over everything.

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis

May goes on to explain that Bernard Malamud is one of the best-known writers within this tradition of stories that end with aesthetic rather than dramatic resolutions. He seems to construct his stories backwards. The meaning of his stories is left to the reader. Irreconcilable forces are resolved aesthetically.

The short story, standing alone, with no life before it or after it, can receive no … comforting merging of the extraordinary with the ordinary [like the novel can]. For example, we might hypothesise that after Miss Brill  has been so emphatically made aware of her role in the park each Sunday, she will still go on with her life, but Katherine Mansfield’s story titled “Miss Brill” gives us no such comforting afterthought based on our confidence that “life goes on”, for it ends with the revelation.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis

 


 

All short stories use at least one of five signals of closure: solution of the central problem, natural termination, completion of antithesis, manifestation of a moral, and encapsulation.”

— John Gerlach, Toward the End: Closure and Structure in the American Short Story, 1955

Gerlach’s study is about how the anticipation of the ending of a short story structures the whole.

  1. SOLUTION OF THE CENTRAL PROBLEM: This kind of ending is more common to the short story than to novels. Short stories focus on one problem only. The short story is over when the problem is solved.
  2. NATURAL TERMINATION: “is the completion of an action that has a predictable end.” For example, the day ends, the main character dies. A lot of picturebooks have this kind of ending too, with the beginning of the story coinciding with the main character getting out of bed, and ending when the main character is tucked in at night. Other types of natural terminations are, for instance, a visit being over (because there’s an implied return to point of origin), or a mental state like happiness or bliss suggests the end of some process.
  3. COMPLETION OF ANTITHESIS: Antithesis = any opposition, often characterised by irony, that indicates something has polarised into extremes. In short stories, space is often metaphorical. There’s an emphasis on mental life. When a character sets out on an adventure, that character is actually exploring a set of attitudes towards something. When a story returns to any aspect of the beginning, this is one form of ‘antithesis’. The new territory doesn’t have to be explored because boundaries have been established by the story.
  4. MANIFESTATION OF A MORAL: The reader’s sense that a theme has emerged can give a story a sense of closure.
  5. ENCAPSULATION: “a coda that distances the reader from the story be altering the point of view or summarising the passing of time.”

But in The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis, Per Winther is keen to point out that this is not an exhaustive list.

Winther’s alternative taxonomy of short story endings:

  1. SOLUTION OF THE CENTRAL PROBLEM
  2. NATURAL TERMINATION
  3. EMOTIONAL AND/OR COGNITIVE MATERIAL
  4. CIRCULARITY
  5. MANIFESTION OF A MORAL
  6. EVALUATION
  7. PERSPECTIVAL SHIFT

Winther renames Gerlach’s last category EVALUATION. Examples of evaluations as closures:

  • I was glad I was not there.
  • I had never met such a bore in my life.

An evaluation as closural marker is often the first-person narrator’s exasperated final comment.

Evaluations often serve as the manifestation of a moral, also.

  • “I guess he loved the man as much as I did the horse because he knew what I knew.”

Modern short stories tend to have a more gradual shift of narrative focus at the story’s end. In these cases there is no change in point of view — the focalizer stays the same, and time is not an essential factor. Still, a notable change of perspective marks that the narrative may now come to a halt. Hence the addition of the seventh category.

 

 

Why is the short story’s resolution often metaphoric? Since the short story cannot reconcile “the tension between the necessity of the everydaymetonymic world and the sacred metaphic world,” [Charles] May finds that “the only resolution possible is an aesthetic one.”…the short story’s brevity “force[s] it to focus not on the whole of experience … but rather on a single experience lifted out of the everyday flow of human actuality.”

Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity: Excursions in short story theory and analysis

 

In a short story, an end does more than complete a pattern and effect closure. The amazing thing about the short story is that beginning and end make a strange loop: beginning is end, and end is also beginning. Epiphany expressed through analogy fuses past, present, and future in a moment of continuous flux. Epiphany encompasses answers to the questions posited by structure, reconciling the contrasries inherent in the differences between appearance and reality, on the one hand, and form and content on the other.

— Mary Rohrberger, The Art Of Brevity

In his review of Ghost World, Roger Ebert points to a trope more reminiscent of short stories than of film:

The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater. Clowes and Zwigoff find an ending that is more poetic, more true to the tradition of the classic short story, in which a minor character finds closure that symbolizes the next step for everyone. “Ghost World” is smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can’t solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible. Who says that isn’t a happy ending?

Roger Ebert

Related Links

  1. The Three Endings Of Alice Munro’s Story “Corrie” from Reading The Short Story Blog
  2. Ending A Short Story: Some Thoughts from Literary Lab
  3. Write a satisfying story ending from Writing4Success
  4. from The Writing Show: discussion between Melissa Palladino, Randall Brown, and Paula Berinstein about Short Story Endings

Endings 05: Film Endings

There’s this wrong idea that Hollywood movies have to have happy endings, that audiences need happy film endings and won’t pay to see depressing or open ones. This is not borne out by the statistics:

A film where the story is entirely resolved doesn’t exist.

– BILLY WILDER

Down-ending films are often huge commercial successes….For the vast majority doesn’t care if a film ends up or down. What the audience wants is emotional satisfaction–a Climax that fulfills anticipation….Who determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end of a film? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending,” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony”. Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects.

– ROBERT MCKEE

On the ending to the Sex and the City movie, from John Truby:

Unfortunately this event left me quite ambivalent. I too wanted the fairy tale ending; boys watch Disney movies too. But emotionally it wasn’t right. It wasn’t earned. Here is a guy who has “jilted” Carrie for the entire TV show, then does it again at the altar, and she takes him back one more time. The writer justifies it through the Miranda subplot with Steve (also fake), with the statement that “You’ve got to forgive.” Well, no, you don’t. If the guy keeps blowing you off and humiliating you time and again in the process, at some point it’s the mark of a mature person to say, “Get the hell out of my life.”

Of course, Carrie’s marriage to Big does set up the inevitable sequel to this blockbuster film. Anyone want to place bets on Big being faithful?

On the ending of Pretty Woman:

The original script for that film (then called 3,000 after the amount the prostitute is paid for the week) had a much darker ender — where the couple didn’t get together. Says Gere of that original ending, “It does exist, but I’ve never seen it. It was a dark movie,” he adds. “But I think Jeff Katzenberg saw something in it and didn’t want to make that movie, but he saw this other movie in it.”

Richard Gere

black swan film endings

And on the ending of Black Swan:

The end of the dance and the film shows screenwriting as the height of dramatic art. Nina, as the White Swan, runs up the platform to commit suicide and we think she will do it for real since the real has by now melded so completely with art. She jumps. But wait, there’s the mattress. We feel release, victory; she has defeated her demons. And then we’re flipped again. She’s already done the deed, given herself the fatal wound. It’s the act she had to take to get the performance of her life. We plummet. But she knows; “it was perfect.” She’s the perfectionist taken to her logical extreme, given a self-revelation that is at once brimming with truth and utterly without understanding.

Related Links:

  1. Perfectly Happy, Even Without The Happy Endings from Go Into The Story
  2. Movies struggle to find ‘the end’ from the LA Times
  3. The Worst Movie Endings Of 2012
  4. Script Pages From The Shining Reveal Kubrick Had A Different Ending In Mind, from io9
  5. Realistic/Better Movie Endings, Oh Noa
  6. 12 Movies That Filmed Happy Endings You Never Saw from io9
  7. What happens to Disney princesses after their movies end from 22 Words
  8. The Director of Three Hunger Games Movies on Resisting a ‘Squeaky-Clean’ Ending from Time
  9. Unfinished Business: how Disney and Marvel killed happy ever afters by Nicholas Barber at The Guardian
  10. Was Star Wars Saved In Editing? from The Awesomer. There’s a rumour that Star Wars was a real mess until it got to the editing room,  but this comes largely from the idea that the stories we love tend to arrive fully formed and perfect in the mind of the creator. All movies require a lot of editing, because storytelling is hard work.

Picturebook Endings

Picturebook endings are their own beast, due to the fact that picture books more than any other story are written for repeat reads.picturebook endings

Picture books without a twist at the end aren’t as much fun as those with a surprise ending that moves the story beyond the book.

– @taralazar

 

The so-called “open ending” that is gradually gaining more and more acceptance — first in young adult novels and then also in books for younger children — should be viewed as a modification of the linear code (in which a character goes on a journey, changes, then returns home).

– Maria Nikolajeva

For examples of contemporary picture books with open endings, see This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

The great challenge of picturebooks — which is also true of other stories but less so — is the need to create a story which stands up to not only being read twice,  but 100 times. Much of the re-readability of a picturebook comes from its conclusion.

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

— Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

THE IDEOLOGY OF PICTUREBOOK ENDINGS

How a narrative resolves, ‘ties up’ or ‘untangles’ (both metaphors are widespread), the complications of story is a recurrent concern among theorists, but is of special interest with children’s fiction. Here, the desire for closure, both in the specific sense of an achieved satisfying ending and in the more general sense of a final order and coherent significance, is characteristically a desire for fixed meanings, and is apparent in the socializing, didactic purposes of much children’s literature. There is an idea that young children require (that is both ‘demand’ and ‘need’) certainties about life rather than indeterminacies or uncertainties or unfixed boundaries. Even a genre such as fantasy, which might be expected to offer a site for a play of meanings and for resistances to fixed meanings, usually shows a strong impulse towards closure. … As readers we learn to look for some sense of completeness, both aesthetic and thematic, over and above the bringing of a series of events to a close. Aesthetic completeness is achieved in children’s literature through representation of symmetries, or movements from states of lack to states of plenitude.

Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens

PICTURE BOOKS AND THE CONCEPT OF THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

John Truby, in his book Anatomy of Story, writes about endings with a focus on film, but what he says about creating a ‘Never-Ending Story’ is particularly true for picturebooks.

You don’t create a never-ending story just by making it so good it’s unforgettable. The never-ending story happens only if you use special techniques embedded in the story structure.

He explains what he means by a ‘never-ending story’ by giving examples of stories which fail — stories which have limitations:

1. PREMATURE ENDINGS

This happens for three main reasons: early self-revelation, in which hero has a big insight, development stops, everything else is anti-climactic. Or the hero achieves his desire too quickly. Giving him a new desire doesn’t fix the problem, by the way, because then you’ve started a new story. Third, if your hero acts in an unbelievable way this can cause a premature ending because you’ve taken your reader out of the story.

2. ARBITARY ENDINGS

The story just stops. The reader will feel like the writer just got sick of writing, or reached the required 32 pages and had to quit.

3. CLOSED ENDINGS

This is the most common kind of false ending, and I suggest it’s the most common ending of popular picturebooks. ‘The hero accomplishes his goal, gains a simple self-revelation, and exists in a new equilibrium where everything is calm.’ Think of all those going to bed stories, which serve a purpose for young children. Or, if not bed, the child returns to the home after an adventure.

The thing is, ‘desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee he hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is always a living thing, its ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story.’

See also Natascha Biebow’s post on picture book endings, with a list of specific things you can do to create a sense of closure. Good if you’re currently stuck!

John Truby then offers tips on:

How to Create a Never-ending Story

You can ‘create an apparent equilibrium and then immediately shatter it with one more surprise. This reversal causes the audience to rethink all the characters and actions that have led them to this point…The audience mentally races back to the beginning of the story and reshuffles the same cards in a new combination.’ The movie example is Sixth Sense. We won’t be watching that the same the second time.

In other words, there’s a surprise ending. I make use of this technique in Hilda Bewildered. The limitation of this kind of plotting is that it is the most limited way of creating the never-ending story. ‘It gives you only one more cycle with the audience. The plot was not what they first thought. But now they know. There will be no more surprises.’ This is more a ‘twice-told tale’ than a never-ending story.

Truby recommends weaving a complex story tapestry using character, plot, theme, symbol, scene and dialogue. The permutations can seem infinite.

Tips to create an infinite story tapestry:

1. Hero fails to achieve her desire. Other characters come up with a new desire at the end of the story. This prevents the story from closing down and shows the audience that desire, even when it’s foolish or hopeless, never dies. I make use of this technique in Midnight Feast.

2. Give a surprising character change to an opponent or a minor character. This technique can lead the audience to see the story again with that person as the true hero.

3. Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings move to the foreground. Picturebooks lend themselves brilliantly to this technique, because detail and clues can be hidden in the illustrations, revealing themselves only after the story has been read. For an excellent example of this see Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner.

4. Add elements of texture–in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world–that become much more interesting once the audience has seen the plot surprises and the hero’s character change.

5. Create a relationship between the storyteller and the other characters that is fundamentally different once the viewer has seen the plot for the first time. Using an unreliable storyteller is one, but only one, way of doing this.

6. Make the moral argument ambiguous, or don’t show what the hero decides to do when he is confronted with his final moral choice. As soon as you move beyond the simple good versus evil moral argument, you force the audience to reevaluate the hero, the opponents, and all the minor characters to figure out what makes right action. By withholding the final choice, you force the audience to question the hero’s actions again and explore that choice in their own lives. Jon Klassen’s hat books are excellent examples of this type of storytelling.

Endings 03: Scene Endings

The ending of every scene has to be logical; it can’t cheat the readers. They have eagerly read the scene, worrying about a question. So to play fair with them, the conclusion of your scene has to answer the question posed by the goal in the first place.

So if the question was whether the destroyer would sink the sub, the end of the scene has to answer that question. If the question was whether the woman would get the job, the end of the scene has to tell whether she did or didn’t get the job.

– from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham

A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted.

– Jane Fitch, from 10 Rules For Writers

Endings 02: Chapter Endings

Pick up any well-known suspense or thriller writer’s work and look at the chapter endings. You’ll see how most of the time each chapter ends on a suspenseful note and throws the reader forward into the next chapter. The most experienced suspense writers start the next chapter somewhere else or with other characters.

In literary novels, of course, the suspense is often more subtle. All forms of fiction have one thing in common: the chapter endings arouse the reader’s curiosity about what will happen next.

– Sol Stein, from Stein on Writing

Endings 01: Novel Endings

You might consider … whether the ending of your book is a high point of satisfaction for the reader. If not, is there another scene or circumstance that might make a better ending?

– Sol Stein, from Stein on Writing

Mother Jones: You’ve said that you usually write the ending of a book first. How would you write the ending of this interview?

Larry McMurtry: I have never written the end of any of my novels, but I do conceive of the ending before writing. I write to get to that ending. The ending of this interview? Thank you.

Interview with Larry McMurtry

 

John Mullan: The ending is always what people complain about if they complain about a novel. I do a thing every month for the Guardian newspaper in England where we actually get a contemporary novelist in to talk to readers and to me about a novel that everybody’s read, and when the readers ask the novelist questions, if they have some kind of puzzlement or dissatisfaction it’s always the ending they focus on; why did you end it like this? Why didn’t you do this with this character or that with the other? And it’s almost as if…if you enter into an elaborate contract with a novelist as a reader, the ending is where you’re paid or you’re not, the novelist does justice to you and the characters or doesn’t.

from The Book Show: interview with John Mullan

Ramona Koval: And even though you say ‘in life there are no proper endings, we expect proper endings in books.

I hate hate hate when the ends of chapters say things like, “I would look back on this day for years and wonder what ever happened to that cat.” You’ve just sucked me into a wonderful chapter and I’m eager to see what comes next, but with that one line you draw attention to the fact that this is a story I’m being told and it takes me right out of the immediacy of it and kills all the tension. Also, if this is a murder mystery or the character is being chased, you’ve just told me that character survives for years and so they probably live at the end of this story. What’s the point of continuing to read if the reader knows the ending?

– CA Marshall, editor

  1. Writing Fiction: Killer Novel Endings from WD
  2. The Top 10 Best Closing Lines Of Novels from Lit Reactor
  3. The 10 Best Closing Lines Of Books — In Pictures from The Guardian
  4. The Ten Best Book Endings from PW
  5. The Importance Of Endings from Book Riot
  6. 10 Fantastic Novels with Disappointing Endings from The Atlantic
  7. 10 Better Endings For Classic Books from Book Riot
  8. Literary fiction has a problem with happy endings from The Guardian
  9. The Top 10 Best Closing Lines Of Novels from Lit Reactor
  10. The 10 Best Closing Lines Of Books — In Pictures from The Guardian
  11. The Ten Best Book Endings from PW
  12. The Importance Of Endings from Book Riot
  13. 10 Fantastic Novels with Disappointing Endings from The Atlantic
  14. 10 Better Endings For Classic Books from Book Riot

 

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