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Picturebook Study: Duck Cakes For Sale by Janet Lunn and Kim LaFave

Duck Cakes For Sale cover

STORY STRUCTURE

This picturebook from 1989 is an example of the circular story, in which the picturebook ends, but we suspect exactly the same thing is going to happen again, because the main character hasn’t had a self-revelation. Like a Chekhovian short story, picturebooks often elicit the revelation from the young reader; the character remains unchanged, much like a sit-come character. Continue reading

Children’s Literature: Dream Endings Bad, Open Endings Good

I know several people who have told me as adults that when they discovered they could end a creative writing assignment by waking up from a dream they genuinely believed they had come up with the Best Thing Ever. English teachers and the judges of short story competitions would say otherwise.

Maria Nikolajeva writes about the dream ending and similar tidy conclusions in her book Children’s Literature Comes Of Age:

Children’s books with ready solutions bind the child’s imagination and free thought. It is treachery towards the modern sophisticated child reader to offer a “rational” explanation at the end. “And then he woke up and it has only been a dream.” We should not think that this ending is a thing of the past, for we remember it from Alice In Wonderland. It is repeated in much later texts, and one discovers it somewhat reluctantly in Mordecai Richler’s prize-winning book Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang (1975) and in a many even more recent texts. Critical and creative authors find such resolutions very unsatisfactory, and regard the open ending as the only possible way of appealing to modern young readers.

Jacob-two-two-hooded-fang-busey-ice-t

Things To Know About Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

1. CHEKHOV DID NOT OVERWRITE

You’ll hear Chekhovian advice in every writing group ever.

In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,–because–I don’t know why.

One would like […] descriptions to be more compact and concise, just two or three lines or so.

Take out adjectives and adverbs whenever you can.

— Chekhov

 

2. OFTEN THE HERO DOES NOT CHANGE

There’s this basic rule of storytelling that the main character has to undergo a character arc, but that does not apply to short stories.

The connection between hero and world extends from the hero’s slavery throughout his character arc. In most stories, because the hero and the world are expressions of each other, the world and the hero develop together. Or if the hero doesn’t change, as in much of Chekhov, the world doesn’t change either.”

Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change. This is more true to life than other forms of storytelling, for example any movie coming out of Hollywood today — audiences are there to see a character change.

Even when the characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.

3. CHEKHOV WAS HUGELY INFLUENTIAL

Chekhovian is now a word. Examples of Chekhovian writers:

  • Henry Green (English) — who likes to ‘gag commentary’ (give even fewer reasons) than Chekhov even did.
  • Katherine Mansfield (New Zealander) — early in her life she admired Ivan Turgenev but after discovering Anton Chekhov she cast Turgenev aside. Sure enough, her best work was written after her discovery of Chekhov. The Garden Party, for instance, has a distinctively Chekhovian ending.
  • Raymond Carver (American) — influenced by Chekhov and Hemingway, who was himself influenced by Chekhov
  • Beth Henley — modern American playwright
  • James Joyce (Irish)
  • George Orwell (American)
  • Strunk & White — who wrote the grammar guide emphasising simplicity
  • Matthew Weiner — because his characters in Mad Men fail to change and that’s the whole point, unlike most other novelistic TV series. “1960 Sterling Cooper is the manor house in “The Cherry Orchard,” a besieged institution about to be swept away by the new order.” — John K.

 

4. CHEKHOV CHANGED THE NATURE OF ENDINGS

And knew exactly what he was doing when he said, “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself […] Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”

Chekhovian endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.

When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.

One story even states: “And after that life went on as before.” While this feels like a ‘non-ending’, what it is, is a truncated ‘New Equilibrium’ stage.

They are subversive endings, designed to undercut our expectations.

These endings force readers to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

The novel, and perhaps even more so, the short story does not provide philosophical answers, and Chekhov was fine with this state of affairs, saying that stories only need to ask the right questions.

Chekhov, and his descendants, may have together influenced children’s literature, including picture books:

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.

5. CHEKHOV’S GUN

This storytelling term came from a piece of writing advice he issued once:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

6. CHEKHOV’S SIX PRINCIPLES OF A GOOD STORY

According to Chekhov:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

 

7. CHEKHOV DID NOT REQUIRE A CLIMAX

As well as truncating the ‘New Equilibrium’ part of a traditional narrative, Chekhov often omits a Self-revelation phase.

If he does this, he does so in order to make the reader have the epiphany his protagonist fails to have.

He did this more in his later work.

He did this because an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

Unreliable narrators are particularly useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader.

 

Picturebook Study: In Which Baddies Get Their Comeuppance

[Characters] are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

If you enjoy spending  your one precious life reading one-star reviews of picturebooks on Goodreads, say, you may have noticed a few similarities in the types of books that get parents all riled up. One of those things:

The baddie does not get punished. He gets away scot free! This is a very bad example to children, who will learn from this story that doing bad things is okay.

Award winning modern picturebooks such as This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen get multiple reviews of this kind. An Australian example is Millie by John Marsden and Sally Rippin.

Parents only have a problem with unpunished heroes, however. If the young reader is asked to identify with a character and that character is basically an asshole, and nothing

So, given that the readers of picturebooks are very young, and that picturebooks are very often read right before bed, children’s authors do not have the extensive fallbacks of:

  • Community service
  • Fines
  • Incarceration
  • Bodily harm
  • Serious injury
  • Death
  • Torture followed by death

at their disposal.

But what if picturebook authors would like to somehow punish their baddies, in this culture where retribution feels increasingly outdated? (Scandinavian prisons are not about retribution; they’re about care and reform, and we all know we should by running the world like the Scandinavians.)

Here are a few case studies from picturebooks which have sold really well.

Spoiler alert, obv.

SOLUTION ONE: FORCE AN EVIL CHARACTER TO EAT SOMETHING DISGUSTING

Thehighwayrat

Julia Donaldson knows just how to punish her baddies, avoiding the criticism of immorality, but without going too far. Donaldson is indeed a master of knowing what will be sell well.

The Highway Rat ends up being lured into a cave where, in a plot similar to that in the classic Chicken Licken. Emerging on the other side of the cave, somehow unable to return to his hunting ground, this baddie is forced to spend the rest of his life sweeping up the floor of a bakery, eating nothing but crumbs off the floor.

If this were a human character, this would perhaps seem over the top, because it’s basically indentured labour, after all. But for a rat, that’s a kind of heaven, isn’t it? The ick factor comes from the fact that the rat is forced to eat leftovers, and the real punishment is that he has dropped in the social hierarchy.

Carolyn Daniels describes a different rat in a different story — Templeton, a character in Charlotte’s Web, in which E.B. White describes the food at the fair in such a way as to sound both appetizing to the rat character but nevertheless disgusting to the child reader:

In human culture…leftover partially eaten food scraps are generally classed as non-food. Charlotte’s Web contains a range of eaters, two of whom eat leftovers. However, because of the way these particular leftovers are classified, the eaters are characterized very differently.

Templeton, the rat, is a self-confessed “glutton” who loves leftovers. He is lured to the fair (where his services in fetching and carrying “words” for Charlotte to weave into her web are required) by the promise of rich pickings. The old sheep temptingly describes the fair as “a rat’s paradise”.

Everybody spills food at a fair…you will find old discarded lunch boxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of doughnuts, and particles of cheese…a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops. Everywhere is loot for a rat…why, a fair has enough disgusting left-over food to satisfy a whole army of rats.

Here there are repeated inferences of impurity, suggestions of dirt and pollution, of excess, and even of abject body fluids. In particular the image of “candied apples abandoned by tired children” suggests something is half-eaten, excessively handled, with the grubby residue of a satiated child adhering to its sticky surface.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniels explains that when characters eat dropped/disgusting/leftover/contaminated food, this means that they themselves embody those things. A character who eats something disgusting becomes disgusting.

In The Highway Rat, you’ve therefore got a character who becomes bad because he does bad things. Bad is as bad does, kinda thing.

You may have noticed that Wilbur the pig also eats disgusting human leftovers, but he’s a good guy. The difference is, Wilbur is eating things that have been coded as ‘slops’. He is supposed to eat those things. Wilbur’s goodness is underscored when he refuses food because he’s too upset to eat. Baddie rats, on the other hand, take food even when they’ve been gorging. Indeed, this is the set-up in The Highway Rat, where we have a baddie who steals even the food he himself cannot digest (e.g. clover).

 

SOLUTION TWO: GIVE THE BADDY A BIG FRIGHT

Room_on_the_Broom

 

Using a clever, setting-specific variation on the totem-pole trench trope, the empathetic characters in this story all gang up work together to defeat the baddie, who is sent running.

 

SOLUTION THREE: A NON-INJURIOUS CALAMITY

pig-the-pug

It’s not enough to just give the baddie a minor injury and call it a day. The masterful thing about the plot in Pig the Pug is that the mountain of toys Pig piles up to avoid sharing with Trevor is a metaphor for his greed. When the pile of toys collapses, so does his status as top dog of the household. On the final page we see Pig so fully covered in bandages that it’s comical rather than tragic (much like a certain scene in Office Space).

officespace

In other words, you can injure your picture book baddie, as long as it’s comical, and as long as the injury is not caused by the empathetic character.

 

SOLUTION FOUR: KILL THE BADDY

Guess Who's Coming For Dinner Picturebook

Think you can’t murder your picturebook baddie and still win a big award? Think again!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a prime example of a baddie who ends up dead. Not only dead, but eaten by his friends. How does one get away with this, as a picturebook creator? The following tricks help:

  1. Make the baddie an easily recognised trope of evil. In this case we have a posh wolf whose only mission in life is to eat our empathetic characters.
  2. The calamity is of the baddie’s own doing. His own evil leads to his own downfall.
  3. The horrible death happens off the page.
  4. In this book, we are very cleverly left to surmise what happened. Don’t spell it out for the reader. In this way, readers who aren’t up to the task of surmising won’t have to deal with a conclusion they may not be ready for.
  5. Works best in a generally hilarious story, full of hyperbole, good-natured fun and illustrations which invite play, such as ‘Where’s Wally’ type details.

A much different story in which the baddy ‘dies’ is The Cheeky Crow by Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson. The children enjoy setting this crow up as the villain, but when they think it’s dead they are forced to confront their unexpected bad feelings. But as it turns out, the crow is simply stunned, and eventually flies off. The baddy is no longer a baddy, but a real, live creature and the young characters (and the young readers) have developed empathy for it, which I suppose is the aim of the story.

The Cheeky Crow

SOLUTION FIVE: TURN THE TABLES WITH WITS

Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo cover

Readers really warm to a character who can outsmart the baddie. For an example of this, see Joy Cowley’s Nickety-Nackety-Noo-Noo-Noo. In this case we have a rather feminist tale in which a patriarchal husband-type troll wants to steal a wee woman to keep as prisoner (wife). The wee woman escapes by making stew made of glue. When the baddie gets caught up in the gluey stew she is able to make her escape.

In this modern fairytale, she has outwitted the baddie. This is a repeat of what’s already been done in many classic tales such as Hansel and Gretel, in which brother and sister work together to 1. convince the witch that Hansel is not yet fat enough to be eaten and 2. to coax her close enough to the oven so as to push her inside.

Are modern picturebook writers able to get away with pushing baddies into fires to scream and burn in agony? I don’t think so, but look at how many illustrators have decided to re-do Hansel and Gretel. It seems if we want to keep this kind of Grimm violence alive (and published), remaking a classic fairytale is the way to go.

A variation on this sort of comeuppance can be found in Rosie’s Walk (and all the copycat plotlines that came afterwards) in which the naive empathetic character has no wits whatsoever — rather, gets out of trouble due to dumb luck.

That Is Not A Good Idea by Mo Willems is another example of this kind of plot. The wonderful thing about this book is that it’s a spoof of a B-grade horror flick — you know the kind — the beautiful female is sent into all sorts of ridiculous situations and you want to yell, ‘Don’t go in there!’ It’s pretty insulting actually, that women are used in that way, so to have the female duck turn the tables on the fox is a satisfying experience.

That Is Not A Good Idea

SOLUTION SIX: EXPOSE THE BADDY’S GREAT WEAKNESS

scarface claw book cover

Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd

Scarface Claw is the wonderful villain of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary series but the reader soon learns that, despite his formiddable appearance, Scarface is actually a scaredy-cat. That may explain why my own daughter called him ‘Scarfy Claw’ when she was a toddler — she saw right through his tough exterior.

With this type of ‘baddie’, simply exposing the baddie for what he is is often sufficient as a conclusion. Scarface Claw finds himself stuck up a tree in need of rescue in Caterwaul Caper. In Scarface Claw (the book named after him), he ends up frightened by his own reflection in a mirror. This is a wonderful comment on how Scarface’s appearance is the source of (indeed, the beginning and end of), his scariness.

Of course, in order to expose a baddy’s weakness you must first establish one. Don’t forget to do that at the beginning of the story! (Or as a characteristic running right through the series.)

In picturebooks, this seems to work really well when you start with a baddy who looks formidable. In fact, it seems to be a requirement. In the It’s The Bear! series by Jez Albrough, we have a usually cute character as possible baddie (the teddy bear) and because of its enormity we are surprised when we find that it’s basically a teddy-bear version of the empathetic main character, and just as scared.

SOLUTION SEVEN: BANISH TO FOREIGN LANDS FOREVER

You may argue that the main punishment suffered by the Highway Rat is removal from his home. But the visual we’re left with is that of the bakery, so we’re inclined to forget the main part of the punishment. Another classic book in which the baddie is ostricized, ‘taken somewhere/from the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows’ is The Lorax, of course. Like the Highway Rat, the Lorax was basically causing a community great strife, upsetting the order in the same way an uncaptured serial murderer might.

The Lorax

Of course, the difference in The Lorax, is that the guy causing all the upset to the community is a goodie by the modern reader’s estimation. The story is therefore a tragedy rather than a comedy. Dr Seuss conveys his environmental message by inverting the usual way of things — he ostracizes the baddy rather than the goodie, making use of the old Western trope, in which the hero rides into town then leaves, unhappily, to presumably try and save the day somewhere else.

Shane rides away

SOLUTION EIGHT: THE BADDY DOES NOT EXIST

In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting And Nearly Catch A Woozle

woozle

This is a chapter rather than a stand-alone picturebook, but this is the one in which our naive main characters are foiled by their own footsteps.

There is now a thing called The Woozle Effect.

Julia Donaldson uses this trope for the first part of The Gruffalo, in which the mouse manages to persuade all sorts of scary animals that he is off to have lunch with a so-called Gruffalo. But the story turns again when it turns out the Gruffalo is a real thing. I feel this story owes a lot to A.A. Milne.

The Gruffalo

With an imaginary villain, sometimes the main character realises their mistake but at other times only the young reader does, creating dramatic irony and humour and the feeling that one is very smart.

SOLUTION NINE: BADDY TURNS OUT TO BE BENIGN

There are many many go-to-bed picturebooks in which the feared monster turns out to be nothing scary at all. There are so many examples I can’t even be bothered thinking of a single one.

You’ve also got stories in which the feared-thing is not a monster but an everyday thing. For example, I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato by lauren child, in which Charlie tricks his little sister into overcoming her fear of certain healthy foods. The baddy tomato turns out to be good, and doesn’t quite fit into this category because there is no punishment needed in the end.

Tomato lauren child

 RELATED

Picturebook Endings

Getting away with murder: literature’s most annoyingly unpunished characters from Charlotte Seager at The Guardian

Dreams may be temporary flights into madness

 

dreams-joyce-carol-oates_1000x1000

Some interesting points from a lecture given at the 2010 Times Cheltenham Literary Festival.

  • How we make sense of dreams in literature: We are taught during childhood through children’s literature. A classic example is The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, full of talking animals. This sort of thing is only ever encountered in dreams (and in hallucinations, for example the fox’s dream in William Stieg’s Doctor De Soto).
  • In some senses dreams are like the real world and in some senses they are not. Dreams are driven by wish fulfilment and emotion. In dreams we recognise the emotional truth rather than the literal truth. (See: The Science Behind Our Strange, Spooky Dreams from Scientific American.)
  • In very old texts (notably The Bible), dreams were a kind of prophecy. Freud put an end to all that. With Freud, dreams were now inextricably linked to the subconscious.
  • Throughout the history of dreaming in literature, dreams were very often a sort of religious awakening. Dreams were used as a way of getting into a character’s head even before Freud, who influenced not only literature but film, by the way. (e.g. Hitchcock)
  • In modern literature, it’s possible that dreams have been superseded by the supernatural, as an alternative way to get into a character’s head. (I find this a fascinating idea. It explains a lot about modern YA literature in particular.)
  • The subconscious had always existed, even before Freud put a name to it. Likewise, the subconscious has always been written about: Lady Macbeth’s guilt, the displacement of emotion in Jekyll and Hyde, ambivalence in The Wizard of Oz (which only became a dream once adapted for the screen). In Shakespeare we have Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • Dreams in literature are metaphors. They are not like our dreams. They’ve been willed by an author. They are more akin to a daydream or fantasy.
  • Dreaming was very important in gothic literature such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
  • Over the 20th century dreams became more conscious. In Dallas, everything had been a dream. Later, in Six Feet Under, the story included dreams of all kinds (including hallucinations, drug-induced and otherwise). In The Sopranos we saw actual dreams, and in Mad Men there were dreams to explain the backstory of Don Draper’s childhood and early life, standing in for the fact that he is a reticent character, unlikely to let the audience into his life through dialogue alone.
  • The most conscious version of dreaming is The American Dream, found in The Great Gatsby and in Alice In Wonderland.

What Is Dreaming? from The Conversation

Two (or Three) Types of Short Story Closure

Narrative closure is not necessarily the same as thematic or ideational closure.

— Per Winther, The Art of Brevity, Closure and Preclosure as Narrative Grid in Short Story Analysis

  • This holds true even though for certain stories the two types of closure will seem inseparable.
  • Modern stories (20th C rather than 19th C) tend to bring the story line to a logical end point but point beyond the text itself to further developments, forcing the reader back into the text to ponder the meaning. In other words, modern short stories reward re-reading.
  • We might call the closure of plot a ‘narrative closure’.
  • We might call the other kind of closure ‘hermeneutic closure’. (Hermeneutic basically = interpretive.)
  • Susan Lohafer came up with a similar set of terms: Physical Closure, Immediate Cognitive Closure and Deferred Cognitive Closure. Physical Closure refers to the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a story itself. Immediate Cognitive Closure refers to that feeling you get as reader when you understand the surface meaning of a text. Deferred Cognitive Closure happens some time later when you realise more fully what the story was really about.
  • Hermeneutic closure tends to be deferred/delayed.

 

See also: Short Story Endings

Endings 17: 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

Endings 12: Happy vs Sad Endings

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

– Orson Welles

There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.
– Shel Silverstein

CASE STUDY: THE ENDING OF BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA COVER

At the end of this story, Leslie dies while swinging on the rope to Terabithia and Jess blames himself for it. Luckily Jess’s father helps him accept Leslie’s death and convinces him that it’s not his fault and to hold onto Leslie’s friendship to keep her alive. Jess returns to Terabithia, but builds the titular bridge, and takes his sister with him, offering her the title of princess.

Quite a few critics have objected to the fact that Katherine Paterson’s novels do not offer young readers any hope. Paterson has refuted criticism by saying that “there is no way that we can tack [hope] on to the end of the story like pinning the tail on the donkey.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Do children require happy endings?

[Alan Garner] states that a writer must not offer readers solutions or happy endings, but instead make use of something he calls “the method of the open hand” where readers must discover for themselves what the writer has to show. It was the publishers who requested that The Moon of Gomrath (1963) be given a “happy” ending instead of an open and disturbing one.

– from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva

 

I do not necessarily claim that young readers need happy endings. Rather, they are conditioned to see conventional endings, which in our Western tradition happens to be a happy ending, reestablishing the characters in their power position.

– The Rhetoric of Children’s Character by Maria Nikolajeva

Death by Newbery Medal: A Phenomenon

There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming of age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more “special” than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable.At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favorite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better.All this is generally accompanied by lots of “end of the innocence” angsting from the main character, along the lines of “That was the day my childhood ended…” Really, it’s just the author’s way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy.The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.

– TV Tropes

Fairytales, Weddings & New Relationships

The “happy endings” of Hollywood films link them with the world of fairy tales, which are often about the achievement of perfection. Fairy tales frequently end with a statement of perfection, like “and they lived happily ever after”. Fairy tales bring the shattered family back into balance, back to completion.

Weddings are a popular way to end stories. Marriage is a new beginning, the end of an old life of being single and the beginning of a new life as part of a new unit. New beginnings are perfect and unspoiled in their ideal form.

pride-and-prejudice-1995-wedding-scene-jennifer-ehle-and-colin-firth-x-450

Striking up a new relationship is another way to show a new beginning at the end of a story. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes the difficult Resurrection sacrifice, giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves. His reward, the Elixir he brings away from the experience, is his new alliance with Claude Rains. As he says, in one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the movies, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Endings of Carnivalesque Stories

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. However, the very idea of carnival presupposes a temporal limitation. The child, who has been allowed to leave the security of home and experience breath-taking adventures, is taken back, and the established order is restored. This is what we sometimes call a happy ending. As Pat Pinsent demonstrates, excessive “coincidences” in children’s fiction, which sometimes irritate mimetically minded critics, should not be considered artistic flaws since they are part of this restoration of the initial order.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

(In general, though, coincidences are okay at the beginning of a novel but not as a way of tying up the end.)

Related

8 Fairy Tales And Their Not So Happy Endings

The Tyranny Of The Happy Ending from Salon

The Problem With Endings In Subversive Tales

Earn Your Happy Ending from TV Tropes

Bittersweet Endings from TV Tropes

Endings 07: Television Endings

Discovering the Art of Television’s Endings from FlowTV

10 Movies And TV Shows Where The Characters Probably Died 5 Minutes After The End, from io9

And Then What? 5 Maddeningly Unresolved Plots from LitReactor

CONTINUING SERIES

A complete story is made up of 7 stages:

  1. WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM
  2. DESIRE
  3. OPPONENT
  4. PLAN
  5. BATTLE
  6. SELF-REVELATION
  7. NEW EQUILIBRIUM

These are the terms used by John Truby, who is a Hollywood movie guru. TV writers use a different terminology.

TV writers in the United States call the BATTLE the ‘worst case’.

BBC writers call it ‘worst point’.

The essential difference between a complete TV drama and an ongoing series: In an ongoing series such as Coronation Street, Eastenders, Batman, Superman, Flash Gordon and everything else like it, each episode ends at the BATTLE.

COMPLETE STORIES

Be it TV or film, a complete story is a complete story. The main difference may simply be budget allocated, but even that difference is disappearing as high budget TV gains in popularity and in quality.

If it’s a commercial station you’re watching, writers know where the breaks must go. The BATTLE scene will occur right before the final ad break. The final segment will of course give us the SELF-REVELATION and the NEW EQUILIBRIUM.

Case Study: The Sopranos

the-sopranos

Two storytelling gurus on the ending of The Sopranos:

So was I frustrated by the ending? You bet. But I was supposed to be. I realized that was the only way the show could have ended, by not ending. Some have argued that Tony really was whacked. The last scene was told largely from his perspective. If someone shot him in the head from behind, everything would simply go black.

But I think the open ending was all about the fundamental technique of the show. Every character and action in that diner was both everyday normal and full of dread. Tony had become a king trapped in a state of nature, death on all sides, and it could come from the littlest nobody. At any time. That’s the life he has sown.

Farewell Sopranos, the king of drama. You were big drama and small drama; big story and small story. Most of all, you were professional writers at the top of their craft. Thank you.

John Truby

 

When I was talking to HBO recently, I told them about a big learning experience I had thanks to the finale of The Sopranos. A lot of people didn’t like the ending, but I thought it worked. It’s not just that it was anti-climactic. It was anti-conventional. It played against expectations, but it worked in a sense that was satisfying.

There are four classic endings to a story:

  1. purely positive
  2. purely tragic [Breaking Bad]
  3. positive with irony where the character gets what s/he wants but pays a big price [a.k.a. pyrrhic victories]
  4. tragic with irony where s/he loses everything but s/he learns something [Big Love]

Those are the classic tonalities of endings.

Q: But The Sopranos ending isn’t really any of those, and it’s still satisfying.
Right. I thought about the ending with them sitting in this restaurant, and I realized there was a fifth possible ending, which is what I came to call “exhaustion.” That means that the characters have been emptied out completely, and the writer has exhausted their humanity. There’s nothing you don’t know about them. Everything is known, including their dreams. That was it.

All those characters in The Sopranos were exhausted, and it was satisfying. You realize you know everything. You got to know these characters like you never have with somebody in your own life. That’s exhaustion in the strict sense of the word.

The Sopranos taught me the fifth ending, which is only possible in the long form—long novels or a hundred-episode series. Exhausting characters takes a lot of storytelling. If a film exhausts somebody, then the character wasn’t that complex to begin with.

Vice interview with Robert McKee

Case Study: Mad Men

mad-men-ending

I would say Mad Men ended with the fifth kind of ending, too, not because there was nothing more to know about Don, necessarily — a secretive character by nature — but because there was nothing more to learn about that whole world.

 

Case Study: The Wire

Robert McKee on ‘exhausted characters’

What about The Wire, which didn’t try to do that so much with characters, but with Baltimore?
That would be another way of looking at exhaustion, which is that you emptied out the potential of the setting. I think those characters from The Wire still have lives to live after that and have potential for change, but you’ve come to know that world so much that Baltimore is exhausted.

the-wire

Case Study: Dexter

A classic example of writers not knowing that they reached the level of exhaustion is Dexter, because he was emptied out and wasn’t going to change by the end of season four or so. But it was making money, so they made new serial killers and put the emphasis on the antagonists, but Dexter was an exhausted character, and it got stupid.

Vice interview with Robert McKee

dexter

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

 

 

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
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