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?

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What Is A Motif, Visual Motif and Leitmotif?

A visual motif is a subcategory of the motif. First, what is a motif?

A motif is a recurring pattern. 

When related images repeat to enhance or bring attention to an idea, you know you’ve identified the story’s motif. It’s not a motif unless there is symbolic or thematic significance in the story. Simple repetition does not equal ‘motif’. A motif is like a symbol, but symbols are widely understood by the culture, whereas a motif might be specific/unique to the work at hand. We’re learning what the motif means within the story as the story progresses. That’s why repetition is necessary.

A motif might be:

  • a sound
  • an action
  • an object
  • a character
  • a literary device
  • a word/phrase
  • an image

A visual motif is a repeating pattern in the visual arts.

In film noir, an example of a visual motif would be the use of shadow to obscure part of a character’s face.

shadow motif
Here we have shadow used as a motif for a duplicitous personality, one side good, one side bad.

A visual motif in a film (or a story app) isn’t necessarily a static image. Hitchcock repeatedly made use of mirror shots and divided screens, which became a visual motif. He also made much use of light and shadow. There were reasons for this, which is what makes it a motif. See also: 10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime from io9.

In our storybook app Midnight Feast, lights are used as a visual motif throughout. As lights dance around Roya, she fails to ‘see the light’ — she fails to see what’s right outside her own window.

The following video explains the strong visual motif running through Silence of the Lambs (which is so strong I personally needed it pointing out).

A leitmotif is a repeating pattern in the musical arts.

In music, a leitmotif is a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

In films and plays a leitmotif is a specific melody is associated to character or a given situation or a given setting. For example, a triangle which accompanies repeated actions to cumulative effect.

But how is this any different from ‘repetition’, right? As in choruses or any sort of repeated musical sequence?

First, the answer in relation to music:

When repetition in music becomes identified with a character, it is called a “leitmotif”.

— Howard Suber

Next, the answer in relation to literature:

In literature leitmotifs often present as sound devices such as alliteration, rhyme and onomatopoeia:

Examples of leitmotif from Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce:

“wasching the walters of, the weltering walters off. Whyte.”

“and watch her waters of her sillying waters of”

“And his dithering dathering waltzers of. Stright!”

“arride the winnerful wonders off, the winnerful wonnerful wanders off”

“baffling with the walters of, hoompsydoompsy walters of. High!”

“Amingst the living waters of, the living in giving waters of. Tight!”

Leitmotifs are also said to be present in the works of Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Thomas Mann, Chuck Palahniuk, and Julian Barnes, among several other writers.

The work of Annie Proulx, too, has been described in terms of the leitmotif, notably in relation to an opera adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, in which leitmotif describes actual music:

[In adapting the short story for stage] Wuorinen says that he wanted to do something that the film didn’t: instead of the beautifying effects of the cinematography on the mountainous landscape of the North American West, the opera returns to the sense of threat, of danger, of hard-fought existence that the Wyoming mountains are really about, something that’s there in the story but less apparent in Ang Lee’s film. You can hear that even in the brief excerpts from the opera that underscore this interview: the mountain looms in that ominous orchestral chord, which becomes a kind of leitmotif for the multiple threats to Jack and Ennis’ love as the opera develops.

The Guardian

But below, the word ‘leitmotif’ is used to describe not a musical but the musicality of Proulx’s prose — a voice she uses for her darkly comic stories:

One of the clues that Annie Proulx’s short stories cannot be taken too literally lies in the leitmotif of the Devil, which reappears as a character in several marvelous stories as well as in the character’s quotidian imagery and sociolect. These more comical, satirical stories casting the Devil and his demons as protagonists seem to have been born from fantasies set free by folklore, by postmodern lifestyle, and by the hellish living and natural conditions in Wyoming.

— Bénédicte Meillon

In this case Meillon could probably  have simply used the word ‘motif’, but wanted to emphasise the musicality of the prose.

Then we have the mnemonic leitmotif, though I’m not sure if anyone other than James Wood uses this term. I’m not even sure if the phrase is redundant, since the whole reason for a leitmotif is to impress something upon the audience’s memory.

Tolstoy uses a method of mnemonic leitmotif — a repeated attribute or characteristic — to secure the vitality of his characters.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works