Types of Story Closure

‘Closure’ is a word borrowed from the field of psychology and describes describe an individual’s desire for a firm answer to a question, and an aversion toward ambiguity. We are very uncomfortable with ambiguity, and sometimes make bad decisions simply to avoid that horrible feeling of hanging in limbo.

Story endings can be classified in various ways — happy versus sad, satisfying vs unsatisfying. Another useful way to think of endings involves the extent of ‘closure’. Importantly, there are two types of closure.

Structural versus Psychological Closure

1. STRUCTURAL CLOSURE is a satisfactory round-up of plot.

2. PSYCHOLOGICAL CLOSURE brings the main character’s personal conflicts into balance. Because it involves characterisation, this type of ending is normally more interesting.

In children’s stories, these two types of ending normally coincide.

Sometimes, in an especially masterful story, children and adults get a different ending. Toy Story 3 is the standout example. If you watch a live audience of Toy Story 3, adults bawl their eyes out but children do not. That’s because the children have had a happy ending so far as they are concerned: The toys are all together. That’s what children can relate to. Adults, on the other hand, can relate to the ending of childhood. Adults know that we’ll never get our childhood back, so when Andy plays with Woody for the last time, before handing Woody over to someone else, adults know that this moment marks the end of Andy’s childhood and he’s never getting it back. None of us are ever getting our childhood back.

For Toy Story 3, children get their structural ending, but adults also get psychological ending. It is not easy to write so successfully for a dual audience, creating a sad story for adults but a happy story for children, but the screenwriters of Toy Story 3 managed it.

SHORT STORY CLOSURE

When it comes to literary short stories, readers have a higher tolerance for a one-sided ending.

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 century rather than 19th century) 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. (On this blog I often call it ‘resonance’.)
  • We might call the closure of plot a ‘narrative closure‘.
  • We might call the other kind of closure ‘hermeneutic closure‘. (Hermeneutic basically = interpretive.)
SHORT STORY EXAMPLES
  • A View Of Mount Warning by Robert Drewe features structural closure but not psychological closure, because the view point character never learns whether his best friend saw him kiss his wife. Plot closure comes, sort of, because the two men resume the surface mechanics of friendship.
  • “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield is another example of structural closure (because the party ends, the goods are delivered to the bereft wife) but without emotional closure, this time because the main character is young and can’t yet process her feelings about the inequality she has just witnessed.
  • “The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro is an excellent example of a short story with emotional closure but not structural closure. When you first read it, this story feels like a classic murder mystery, but — spoiler alert — the mystery is never solved for the reader.
  • “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is an example of psychological closure, because the family have learned to live with the fallen angel creeping around in the shadows. But the reader is left wondering what events will happen next. This doesn’t feel like the end of the story, plotwise.
  • Stories written for the popular market tend to have both psychological and plot closure. “Tobermory” by Saki would be an example of this.

SUSAN LOHAFER’S TERMINOLOGY

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 or delayed.

FURTHER READING

Short Story Endings

Two Types Of Short Stories

The No Ending Trope — But how many of the TV Tropes examples have one type and not the other?

Header image: From The Blue Bird (1945) by Maurice Maeterlinck Andre E. Marty (1882-1974)

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