SATISFYING ENDINGS: DELIVERING ON THE PROMISE
YOU'VE WRITTEN THE MIDDLE. Starting with the characters, conflict, and (sometimes) symbols you introduced so carefully in your opening, you went on to deepen our understanding of these through dramatized incidents in the middle. These incidents have shown us that your character is capable of change. The same incidents have made vivid the forces that will collide at your climax.
We can just feel these forces gathering. People are on the verge of being pushed into action, or disasters are on the edge of occurring, or secrets are about to be disclosed, or a deadline is almost here, or a situation has become so intolerable that it's obvious somebody is about to bring it toppling down around everybody else's ears. Whatever the specific events of your story, your middle has made it clear that things can't go on this way much longer. Something has to give.
Then a peaceful compromise is found and the story is over.
Well, why not? Aren't compromises sometimes found in real life? Isn't everyone in favor of peaceful negotiation? And isn't it true that often people just have to live with bad situations indefinitely? Why can't a story end that way?
Because your story showed us forces in opposition to each other. Forces we expected to see collide in some way: quietly in a quiet story, noisily in a more dramatic one. But a collision of some sort we surely must have. You promised.
This is the clearest explanation of why some story endings
work and others do not. At its beginning, a story makes the kind of implicit promise we've discussed throughout this book. In the middle, the development ofboth characters and conflict extends that promise by arranging forces in opposition to each other. We see, through skillfully chosen patterns of events, various problems and tensions come closer and closer to collision. Then comes the ending. It must use those same characters, conflicts, problems and tensions to show us the collision (the climax).
If the ending tries to use different characters (such as the cavalry riding over the hill at the last minute), the story will fail. If the ending tries to switch to some other last-minute conflict, the story will fail. If the ending tries to evade the promised collision (by, for instance, a peaceful compromise in which no one loses anything), the story will fail. You cannot, in other words, promise apples and deliver oranges. The middle of your story— how you've developed the implicit promise—determines your ending.
This isn't to say that there is only one possible ending for any story. There may be more than one. But the ending chosen must complete what has been promised, not violate it.
Let's look again at that favorite-because-so-well-known example, Gone With the Wind. The forces lined up here are Scarlett's obsession with Ashley, Rhett's love for Scarlett, Ashley's inability to either leave Melanie or kiss off Scarlett, the pressures exerted on the aristocratic South by the Civil War, and Scarlett's single-minded pursuit of money and security, even at the expense of "ladylike" behavior. At the ending, of course, these forces result in Scarlett's losing Rhett and the South's losing the war. The outcome of the Civil War was beyond Margaret Mitchell's novelis-tic control, but the ending she chose for her characters was not the only one possible.
The book might, for instance, have ended with Scarlett and Rhett together, if Mitchell had portrayed Scarlett as changing significantly as a result of intense experiences (Alexandra Ripley certainly thought this possible; she did it in the sequel, Scarlett). What Gone With the Wind promises is neither a happy nor an unhappy ending to its central romance, but rather a tumultuous story faithful to the larger history of the aristocratic South as it perceived itself. This, it delivered. Had Mitchell made the ending one with a sudden enlightened acceptance of the perceptions of some other group—abolitionists, or freed slaves, or crackers, or Yankees, or contemporary civil rights groups—she would have ruined her novel. She wouldn't have played fair with the implicit promise of the first three-quarters of the book.
How do you find an ending that delivers? First, think carefully about what your story has promised the reader, both emotionally and intellectually. Vicarious terror? Vicarious love? Justice? The answer to a problem? An insight into contemporary life? The feeling that life isn't so bad after all? A view of a workable alternate society? A warm and cozy feeling?
Second, think carefully about the forces you've set in conflict throughout your middle. What are they? Can you list them? Which ending would bring them into plausible, satisfying collision, leaving some victorious and others vanquished? Which ones have you made promises about from the beginning?
As usual, this complex set of questions is easiest to grasp through an example. Suppose you've used the middle of our ongoing domestic drama (Martha, Sam, Jane) to develop all the following elements: (1) Martha's feelings of worthlessness and her desire to escape her life; (2) Sam's inarticulate love for his daughter; (3) Sam's workaholic nature, which leaves him little time for anything but his job; (4) Sam's ability to change if the pressure is strong enough; (5) Jane's destructive jealousy of Martha; (6) the local police's crackdown on drugs as an election approaches; (7) Martha's best friend's attempts at suicide, due to depression. Now you're ready to write the ending. Which of these forces do you want victorious? Depending on what your beginning and middle promised the reader, here are some possible endings:
• You've made an implicit promise that the reader will gain some painful insights into life on the streets. At your ending, Martha, frightened by police raids and distraught by her friend's suicide, tries to escape her own pain and overdoses on heroin. Despite her parents' frantic concern, she dies. Sometimes, your novel says, love is just not enough to save someone.
• You've made an implicit promise that the reader will find confirmation of traditional values through people she wants to identify with. Sam, driven by fear for his daughter, chooses her welfare over an important business meeting in Tokyo. With the aid of a sympathetic narcotics officer, and over his selfish wife's protests, Sam takes to the mean streets to find Martha. A crucial lead comes from Martha's best friend, hospitalized after her suicide attempt. Sam finds Martha, gets her into a drug program, and slowly Martha reconnects with her father—but not with her mother, who leaves. Sam gets custody. Martha gets clean. Your reader gets an affirmation of the power of love.
• You've promised black comedy: irreverent, hip, darkly hilarious. Martha becomes the mistress of a Colombian drug lord. When he's killed, she takes over the operation, becomes fabulously rich, and hires Sam, an attorney, as her legal advisor. Jane thinks her daughter's wealth comes from producing action-adventure movies in Panama, and wants to act in one of them herself. After all, she played the lead in her high-school play thirty years ago. Martha must acquire a Spanish movie company, keep her operations out of court, and satisfy her mother's narcissistic jealousy or Jane could blow the whistle on them all. Martha succeeds at all this. Your novel says that nothing is sacred: not motherhood, not daughterhood, not law, not art. (Ifyou think stories can't make comic promises about crime and death, read Jimmy Breslin's novel The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Or see the Emily Lloyd movie Cookie.)
Which of these novels would you rather read? Which would you rather write? Whatever your answer, the basic point is the same: The ending dramatizes the triumph of some of the forces developed in the middle, which in turn were set in motion by the characters and conflict introduced in the beginning.
That is what your ending must accomplish. How you accomplish it is by controlling the two parts common to most story endings: the climax and the denouement.
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