Whatever happened to good story endings? Have you seen them lately? Sightings seem increasingly rare in the market push for series novels and movies with sequel after sequel.
Last week, I was reading THE OYSTERVILLE SEWING CIRCLE by Susan Wiggs as a potential candidate for my fall class on genre fiction at the University of Oklahoma, and–without giving away the ending–I found myself suddenly reading a classic, properly designed story climax. The transition into it was a bit bumpy, but by golly it was there.
Some modern authors still write this way, I thought to myself. It’s not completely extinct. Yay!
It’s unfortunate that I momentarily dropped from suspension of disbelief to notice the story construction, but I was so surprised that my inner teacher clicked on. It gave me heart. It gave me hope that maybe the pendulum is swinging back to good plotting. Or maybe I’m clinging to this example a bit too tightly, like a drowning swimmer clutching a piece of flotsam.
So what, exactly, am I nattering about?
Story climax, that’s what. Of ending a story instead of merely stopping it. The framework of building story suspense in such a way that readers are provided with an emotional catharsis.
This is all about answering whatever story question was posed at the book’s opening, rather than simply planting a big fat hook in the final sentence and leaving readers dangling–possibly bewildered, certainly unsure, and indubitably annoyed. I hate it when a book stops this way. Don’t you?
Maybe you’re thinking a series installment can’t be concluded with the first book, but while the series needs to go on, the first book has to end. Which means there’s the book’s question to answer while suspending the series’ question.
One is answered definitively and emotionally. The other continues to beckon. If this writing principle is not understood, then all is left hanging with a messy muddle of events and abandoned characters.
My local PBS station recently aired a BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, SANDITON. I love Austen’s stories with their complex, quirky characters, witty banter, and romantic plots. Eagerly I settled in for a light, charming costume drama and wondered how the scriptwriter would tie up Austen’s story line.
Now, in all fairness, this was intended to be a multi-season television series. However, it was canceled, leaving viewers without any satisfying, completed, cathartic finale. We took the time and trouble to tune in for eight weeks, only to be left with a gaping wound in the plot. There’s no poetic justice, no satisfaction, no happy ending. Subplots are left dangling like severed arteries. When I called a friend to ask for her reaction, her reply was simply, “It’ll be on next week.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
“It has to be!” she insisted.
But it wasn’t. And now I find that it set a big hook to draw us onward to Season 2, only there won’t be one.
Such are the uncertain vagaries of the television industry. I liked TV better when weekly shows were episodic, tying up that evening’s story problem in twenty-four or fifty minutes, depending on its time slot. In the 1990s, television began to mirror novel construction with long subplots and story lines that arced over an entire season or multiple seasons. Very risky in a business where ratings can end everything with a chop of the ax.
My training in writing principles is that you never, never, never leave your readers thinking their book is missing a chapter at the end. Austen, ill at the time, could not help an incomplete manuscript. The modern scriptwriter for BBC, could, but chose–or was contracted–to take a huge gamble that failed to pay off.
In that sense, I suppose, he followed Austen more closely than any of us expected. However, it’s still, from the audience’s side of the fence, a cheat.
And while I could wade into theories as to why the drama failed to enchant American viewers sufficiently to save it, that’s not the point of this post, so I’ll refrain.
A story’s conclusion should bring the two primary roles of protagonist and antagonist together, face to face, in what French theater calls the (allow me to provide the translated term) obligatory scene and what American westerns refer to as the showdown. The problem between them has to be settled, unless the story is continuing in a series, in which case the problem between them has to be settled partially.
Consider, if you will, J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series. In each book, Harry grapples with the series problem, stemming from his antagonist Voldemort. He also struggles with a different story question in each separate book, which is resolved as it concludes. Rowling handles this dual responsibility beautifully across the seven-volume plot.
Per the actual catharsis, readers need to be manipulated–or enticed, if you prefer a less blunt term–into believing all is lost for the protagonist. The final cost of achieving the story’s goal is too high. Perhaps it demands the sacrifice of a friend or loved one, or perhaps it asks the protagonist to violate her inner code. Whatever that barrier is, at the end of the story the protagonist either backs away from an unethical solution or stands for what is right, despite threatened personal cost.
Therefore, the key to a compelling story climax lies in making readers believe–or fear–that the story goal is lost and the protagonist is defeated. Once a writer achieves this, then there comes a reversal of expectations, and the protagonist succeeds after all. It is all smoke and mirrors. We writers are wizards within the kingdom of Oz. We create an illusion of defeat in order to make victory that much sweeter and more enjoyable.
If the apparent defeat is skipped over, then the reversal will seem contrived and cheap. If there is only defeat without reversal, then readers are left disappointed and unhappy because poetic justice is not served.
Fiction, unlike some aspects of real life, should provide the protagonist with what is fair and right at the denouement or closing of the story.
Stripped down like this to its pieces and parts, climax catharsis can sound contrived and cheesy. But all story construction is contrived by writers. What’s key is to write in such a compelling and entertaining way that readers forget we are pulling the strings behind a curtain.