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.

Continue reading “Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever”

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

 

Short Story Endings and Extrapolation

two doors side by side with the words get in, get out

I have encapsulated everything I know about story endings elsewhere. Almost all narrative ends with a Self Revelation followed by a hint at the main character’s New Equilibrium, though sometimes writers leave off the New Equilibrium for the audience to extrapolate. The Wrestler is an excellent film example of Extrapolation.

In this regard, The Wrestler feels like a short story in tone. If you like to read short stories, you probably fall into the category of audience who enjoys piecing things together, imagining the outcome for yourself.

Another film which does this is Ghost World. 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

Yep, there is such a thing as a ‘short story ending’ even if the story is not a short story. Even if it’s a film.

“Get in, get out” is a maxim you’ll have heard before when it comes to writing short stories. In this post, I collect various interpretations on the “Get Out” part of that old chestnut. What does it mean, exactly, to Get Out?

Continue reading “Short Story Endings and Extrapolation”

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.

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

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

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

 

How Do Writers Deal With Phones In Fiction?

hands holding a mobile phone

Phones have not been good for fiction. Phones counteract every storytelling guideline.

  • Throw your character into peril, we’re told.
  • Endanger their very lives, we’re told.

But if this character has a phone, or should have a phone, the audience asks, “Why don’t they just…?” and that is about the last thing you want your audience to ask.

As others have said, the phone shouldn’t solve the problem. In this way phones are like magic. Even before mobile phones existed writers knew that magic shouldn’t solve the problem.

The same few tricks get old pretty fast:

  • The character’s phone is out of range (legit if it’s the wilderness, maybe not so legit if it’s at our neighbours’ house even though they don’t get mobile reception for real — and we do.) The nice thing about horror movies is, ghosts can mess with mobile reception.
  • The phone is out of battery. This feels like an out and out hack.
  • The character is a hipster type who doesn’t carry a phone. An example is Juno McGuff in the film Juno, who uses an iconic burger phone.
  • The phone has just been stolen
  • Or broken

More believable:

  • The entire story is set in the past, before people had mobile phones
  • The main character is pre-adolescent, which means they wouldn’t necessarily be carrying a phone

PHONES IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

MIDDLE GRADE AND OLDER

Even in stories for children, phones can make everything harder, as articulated by Robert Lanham:

I find it impossible to write fiction that’s set after 2002. Not because I’m a Gen-Xer waxing nostalgic about relaxing to Morcheeba on a distastefully stained sofa I found partially torn apart by a dog in an alley. (Oh, the glamour.) It’s just that it’s inconceivable to depict contemporary times authentically without including interludes where characters stare at their cell phones instead of advancing their plot lines – their lives – towards some conclusion. Which is, as a thing to read, mind-numbingly dull. Unless I write “and then his Galaxy 4’s battery died” no one can ever get lost, forget an important fact, meet a partner outside of a dating site, or do anything that doesn’t eventually have them picking up a phone. So I’m stuck writing about an era where Ethan Hawke was considered the pinnacle of manliness.

– from Your Phone Is Ruining You For Us at The Awl

A recently published middle grade novel struck me immediately for its heavy use of phones. The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams (2019) by Jenny Lundquist is about girl relationships. They pass notes in class, and the note feature is necessary because the entire point is that it is an anonymous note. But they also ‘pass notes’ via phone. This mixture of notes (‘pumpkin-grams’) combined with texting creates a storyworld which is partly grounded in reality, part magical.

You can check out the first few pages of The Carnival of Wishes and Dreams with the Look Inside feature on Amazon or similar.

PICTURE BOOKS

One privilege of creating picture books is that very young characters are not expected to carry phones or other connected devices. In contemporary fiction for adults, authors must now completely reimagine traditional plot lines.

In fact, reality looks slightly different for a lot of preschoolers, many of whom are using touch screens daily. Parents are also using phones a lot more than is depicted in the more utopian picture book storyworld.

PHONES IN MOVIES AND TV

Movies are a descendent of stage, and there’s absolutely an imperative for writers to put characters together in a single space.

A technique we see quite often now is a character who texts, and the content of the text appears across the screen similar to a subtitle. A film which does this is Lady-Like. Even in the trailer, you can see how much phones are a part of this story — an inevitability, given the age of the characters.

In the trailer alone you see:

  • Characters holding their phones while talking to others in the same space
  • A variety of screens, not just phones but use of laptops, even as part of a conversation in person
  • A character talks on the phone while another jumps around beside her in the background (on the bed) which means the phone scene is less boring for the audience. (A character talking on the phone is basically a Tea Drinking scene, and must be accompanied by something else.)
  • Little screenshots of the character’s phone superimposed on the main picture, hovering in 3D near the character

Jane The Virgin is a romantic comedy which satirizes the telenovela. Jane The Virgin was one of the first big hits to really play with the text messaging on the screen thing which has been much emulated since. I’ve heard some people saying they love this aspect of Jane The Virgin, whereas others have said it is used with ‘mixed results’. Satires can get away with more over-the-top elements than other genres, so I think it works well. In the scene below it is especially spoofy since the characters are sitting in the same room together.

ADVANTAGES OF PHONES

But am I being a negative Nelly?

Phones have huge advantages in real life, so they must have advantages in fictional lives, too.

  • Characters don’t get lost if they have GPS, but honestly if my GPS drops out I am in deep because I no longer have a map in my car. (Do they still print paper maps?) This can legitimately create some dicey situations.
  • Cyber bullying. Unfortunately the psychological aspects of bullying have been amplified by phones and the Internet generally. Unfortunately this needs covering in fiction as well. From a storytelling perspective, a character cannot get away from the villain. The Netflix series You wouldn’t exist as it does without phones (and social media). Often in these stories, the empathetic character knows something’s going down, but not exactly what. It’s the note-passing in class but amplified, 24/7.

RELATED LINKS

Things We No Longer Need Because We Have Smartphones from Laughing Squid

Oh, and what have Kindles killed?