Monday, April 23, 2012

That Pot of Gold: What to Do About Endings

Whoever came up with that bit about the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow was a writer. I know this for certain because I’ve searched certain craft books only to find that their advice about endings is, and I quote, “Good luck.”

It’s true that nailing the end of a narrative arc feels as tricky as finding the end of a rainbow. It’s one of those parts of writing that’s simultaneously easy to over-think and prone to dismissal. Let’s deal with this last part first. Allow me to get in your face for a moment and say that to excuse yourself from the problem of endings by pointing to stories that seem to have none is nothing more than a cop-out.

Let me offer as Exhibit A two hundred (give or take) students at Sand Lake Elementary. As part of a recent program there, I offered a sneak preview of my forthcoming Black Wolf of the Glacier (2013). I decided to read only as far as the artist had illustrated, which happened to be this: The girl in the red coat searched the woods.  Her dog sniffed the trails.  He whined and barked for his friend.  But there was no answer.

Whining? Try howling outrage. They all demanded to know how it ended. No, this isn’t just because they are children. Any story worth reading has a well-crafted ending. It may not be the perfect ending. You may not like it. But a good story doesn’t just stop.

In a talk given at the 2011 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, National Book Award nominee Diane Johnson notes the dread that develops as you read a good book, the fear that the writer’s going to somehow muck up the ending. All we want, Johnson says, are endings that are clever and surprising but also in line with what came before, endings that are neither gratuitously happy nor gratuitously unhappy, endings that offer both climax and resolution. Is that so much to ask?

In a word, yes. Endings are hard. Between us and our endings, Johnson says, come haste, fatigue, literary fashion, personal blocks, and denials. Even in a fresh book, she says, endings will fit into patterns we recognize:

  • Closure: This includes marriage, death, going home, or facing future more wisely.  Johnson warns not to sell out to cheap tears or easy laughs. Death can be poetic justice or indifferent; marriage a symbol of felicity. The traditional resolution of comedy, she notes, is the “triumph of hope over reason.”  Sometimes the hero is sadder but wiser.
  • The “serves them right” ending: These are characteristic of our time, Johnson says, and include ironic inversions operating in the realm of poetic justice.
  • Order is fractured or restored: This may of course include aspects of justice and/or closure. A force of nature may be at work here, engulfing or saving, but Johnson warns it can’t just take everyone out, no matter how much the weary writer may wish it were so.
Of course, conventions are meant to be ignored, and an unexpected ending is great as long as it works, which usually means there’s a set up. The ending starts at the beginning; in a good story, the tracks are laid, as David Vann says, in the first paragraph, but that doesn’t mean that we must write in such a linear way. My first novel began as an ending. I thought it was a short story until someone pointed out that if I told what led up to it, I’d have a novel. 

Sometimes writers are so concerned about endings that they won’t begin a project unless they can see their way clear to the end, in a formal outline or at least a fuzzy vision. Katherine Anne Porter, for one, said she wouldn’t begin a story until she knew the ending, and she always wrote the last page first. This sounds beautifully efficient, but it’s also possible that by committing to an ending before you begin, you pigeonhole the most interesting stuff that would otherwise rise up out of the subconscious. Other writers are more or less content to flail around until an ending rises up out of the narrative. This is not at all efficient, but sometimes the best route to truth is roundabout.

Every story or essay or poem has a great ending. The problem is finding it. Sometimes we’re just trying too hard. I was blown away in a recent workshop by how easily people who don’t write every day could in response to a prompt craft a full narrative arc, complete with ending, in fifteen minutes, while I was still loading my narrative guns. This has a lot to do with the pressing and urgent need to write, to spill ourselves on the page, a desire that people who write every day may have to fight to reclaim. Plus a little success yields lots of second-guessing. The uninitiated sometimes enjoy better access to their intuition, a direct connection to that elusive pot of gold.