Feb 26, 2015
For the past few days I have had a question, doubtless familiar to many writers, on my mind: How am I going to end this thing?
The thing in question, this time, is my month as Blogger-in-Residence here at the stellar Gulf Coast Literary Journal, but of course when I have endings on my mind I am more usually concerned with a piece of fiction: How am I going to land this baby?
In the context of fiction, that’s actually two questions. There is ‘how will this end?’ referring to plot resolution (or irresolution) and then there is ‘how will this end?’ meaning, literally, ‘what will the final words be?’ Those can be two very different things and arguably it’s a difference that highlights the two streams running through fiction at all times: what happens? and what are we to make of this?
I was first introduced to this notion of a story in essence ending twice by Steven Schwartz, who has described the switch away from story tension, toward a kind of slope into the literal end, as a fulcrum, an image I’ve found incredibly helpful.
He talked about this, at an AWP panel, in the context of Joyce’s “The Dead,” and a brilliant analysis it was. I’ve discovered, on a somewhat more basic level, that hypothetical stories are helpful too in understanding how important a tool the intentional positioning of these two endings can be. Consider a (very, very simple) story in which the tension throughout is over whether a man will or will not reconcile with his wife. He wants to, and isn’t a bit sure it will happen. The reader is also set up to be on his side, and also doesn’t know what will happen. The question – yes or no? – hangs over the piece, setting up the expectation that the story will only end when that question has either been answered. Or it could be shifted into a permanent state of being unanswered in a way that is somehow different from the question that has existed throughout. For example, the man, who has been agitated over whether they will reconcile, reconciles himself to the mystery of what the future holds. That reconciliation – his, not theirs – is enough of a shift to feel like a resolution, even if it isn’t one of the two more obvious options that he has assumed will come all along.
With each of these three alternate endings – yes, no, and maybe - it’s interesting to look at the ways one might manipulate the space between when the story’s central question is played out, and when the story itself ends.
In the case in which the couple reconciles – from the man’s perspective, a happy ending - the actual reconciliation might take place any number of paragraphs before the literal end. Those paragraphs could be used to introduce questions about whether this really was the best outcome for the man; whether he knows how to define himself now that this worry around which he centered his life is resolved. They might reveal that the “chase” was the point after all. Those final lines could be devoted to a description of the setting that is somehow resonant with the story, a metaphoric ending that complicates the impression of the story having simply been about this “yes” or “no” question. A memory might emerge. In other words, now that the storyline is at an end, those ending passages have the chance both to elevate and bolster the meaning of the story. They also have the power to erase from a reader’s consciousness the notion of the story being as singly driven by one question as the one I’m describing is.
That said, it’s also easy to imagine a story where this happy ending is entirely concurrent with the literal end. The tension of “yes” or “no” hangs over the piece, increasing steadily. . . until she smiles a certain way, or she reaches out her hand, or she appears naked in his bed. “He rolled over, asleep, to feel something against him, a mysterious presence, and then, as his consciousness sharpened, the answer to all of life’s mysteries.”
All right, the prose there is god-awful. But the point is that a resolution like that, essentially a new beginning, allows for the possibility of a logical overlap, the stories solution and its final words one and the same. Of course, where the happy reconciliation is the final thing on the page, there’s no challenge to the notion of it being a good outcome, no apparent desire on the author’s part to complicate that issue. That isn’t a criticism – as long as that kind of simplicity is the desired effect.
I think it’s more difficult to make the opposite result overlap fully with the final words. In part, paradoxically, because the man’s failure to reconcile with his wife is itself so final. And story endings are often best, most resonant, when they argue against their literal role, when they open something up, point toward the future, muddy the scheme of the story, introduce an occasion for interpretation that is complex enough to feel out of the author’s control, to feel, perhaps ironically given how much work goes into this, less engineered.
Obviously, it’s not impossible to end a story with a revelation of bad news in the final lines, with the death of what has been the central hope of the piece, but for sure it’s a challenge to do so and not leave the reader with a sense that there’s been something of a thunk at the end of the work. And even a kind of “is that all there is?” intuition that some level of meaning or interpretation has been shortchanged.
I ran into this issue with my novel. It is announced in the first sentence of the book that one of the main characters is dead, and the narrative is set up to retrace the events leading up to that death. And then, some two-hundred and forty pages later, there it is, the promised death, the promised end to the plot. I remember exactly the moment after I wrote the scene thinking, Now what? I then wrote a few more pages in which I tried hard to open the thing back up, to create some uncertainty that might counter the weight and absolute nature of that death. I may or may not have succeeded – for some readers yes; for others, doubtless, no – but as I wrote those pages I was keenly aware that I was writing past “the fulcrum,” that the plot was essentially at an end, and the job of these pages was to do something else, something not just about telling what happened. Something more about creating a context for interpretation of events, while leaving room for the reader to play a creative, imaginative role.
But back to our man so worried about his wife: In the case where the story’s resolution is that he accepts that he can’t yet know whether they will reconcile, it’s quite natural to imagine that outcome coinciding with the final words. Endings, the literal, final word sort, are often left purposely somewhat open, and if the story’s resolution is itself open, then it makes some sense that the realization of that inconclusiveness could be the conclusion.
But of course the point of all this isn’t to come up with any kind of list that describes what sort of resolution should produce what kind of final words. My goal is more to promote the notion that there’s this wonderful space between the two endings of every story for adding complexity and beauty and much, much more.
Or maybe the point is just that endings are on my mind.
It has has been a terrific month for me here. I thank the good people of Gulf Coast for extending an amazing invitation and trusting me with this space for eight posts. And I thank all of you who have visited, commented, and shared.
That is what happened. Now, what are we to make of it?
Easy for me. It has been a true joy.
A Note from Gulf Coast's Digital Editor
Gulf Coast, GC Online, and the GC Blog cannot thank Robin Black enough for her insightful work this month as inaugural blogger-in-residence. We can begin show our gratitude, however, by suggesting you pick up one of her books:
Life Drawing, A Novel (Random House, 2014) which earned her The Guardian's qualification of Robin as "a writer of great wisdom," or If I loved You, I Would Tell You This (Random House, 2010), the book that earned a fnalist spot for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award.
Robin also has an essay collection to be published by Engine Books in 2016. Learn about all three books, and keep up with Robin at Robinblack.net