For anyone in the area and able to come, on Saturday I’ll be at the Children’s Festival of Reading in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here’s a link to the event: http://knoxrooms.sirsi.net/rooms/html/KCPL/calendar.html#/?i=2. I’m speaking at 10:45 am and 12:45 pm and signing books after each presentation. If you come, please let me know you heard about it here.
On to the post topic, on November 27, 2011, Jenna Royal wrote, Does anyone have any thoughts on open or unresolved endings? I’ve been fascinated with endings lately that don’t end up where you think they do, or that don’t really end at all. How do you make one that’s still satisfying, even though it’s unexpected?
I’ve written one unresolved ending. It was in my short story “Little Time” that was published in an anthology called Unexpected, which is probably long out of print, but you may be able to find a copy somewhere. It’s one of my favorite of my few short stories. Here’s the gist: Erica, a middle schooler, recently moved to a new school where she has no friends. Her parents are super busy with their careers and not interested in her. In fact, in the first scene she overhears them saying she bores them.
On her spring break she walks on open land not far from her house and follows a sign that reads Hidden Village. In a barn she discovers an enormous town of doll houses complete with dolls and animals, dogs, a zoo. Turns out that the dolls and animals are alive, shrunken, and that the village is a benign utopian experiment. (Among other things, these tiny people and animals age very slowly.) Erica is invited to join by being shrunk too.
At the end I don’t reveal Erica’s decision, although it’s clear to me, but I didn’t want to tie the story up with a bow.
The key to a satisfying ending lies long before the end is reached. In “Little Time” the seeds are sewn in that first scene; Erica is unmoored to her life. Most of us would be sorely missed if we vanished; we’d be irresponsible and cruel to just go. Not Erica. But I didn’t stack the deck so the reader thinks, You have to join. I wish I could. It’s a real choice.
In a mystery series, the mystery itself is usually tied up with that bow by the end of the book, but the larger, ongoing story of the detective is left open. This is a neat way to end. The reader gets the satisfaction of a solution and the sizzle of no solution. We remain attached to the heroine and her troubles. She may be lonely, afraid of the dark, uncontrollably honest, whatever. She may not even have troubles, but the future course of her life isn’t established. Elodie at the end of A Tale of Two Castles is happy, but we know she’s going to have more adventures, and we don’t know whom she’s going to marry (if she’s going to marry), where she’s going to live, whether she’ll stay a dragon’s assistant. And we haven’t found out if the dragon Meenore is male or female or if the ogre Count Jonty Um can find a place among humans where he’s accepted and not feared.
In my opinion, this kind of series (not just mysteries) doesn’t ever have to be resolved for the main characters. I’m thinking of comic book characters, and I’m sure there are legions of other examples. We don’t want Superman or Spiderman to achieve permanent happiness. If they get a break from their troubles, we enjoy it with a little lump in our throats. It’s all the more beautiful because their moment of relief is fragile and certain to end.
A mystery series is kind of an ending cop-out, I guess. The author has the (somewhat) easier task of solving the mystery and never has to face the more difficult work of finding an ultimate ending. Nancy Drew sleuths on with new authors.
In the classics, there are no absolute final endings either. Writers keep going back and resuscitating established stories. I assume James M. Barrie thought he’d finished Peter Pan, but writers, including me, are forever spinning new takes on the original. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and many more get the same treatment. Even the Greek myths, which generally end in death, are revivified.
If you haven’t read the young adult novel The Giver by Lois Lowry, spoiler alert! Skip this paragraph. The book ends in uncertainty. We don’t know if Jonas makes it to safety, but I wouldn’t call the story unresolved. Jonas leaves the security of his home and acts morally. The problem that the book raises is answered whether or not Jonas survives.
This was a prompt from my post of January 26, 2011, which was also about endings: You may know the story, “The Lady and the Tiger.” If you don’t, it’s basically this: A princess, whose nature is jealous, falls in love with a man below her station. The king finds out and arranges a punishment for him. The man is thrown into an arena with two doors. Behind one is a beautiful maiden and behind the other a tiger. If he picks the maiden door, he lives, but he has to marry her. If he chooses the tiger door, he gets eaten. In the arena he looks to the princess, who knows what’s behind each door, for a signal. She has to decide whether to endure his marriage to someone else or condemn him to death. The story has no ending; the reader is asked to decide what the princess will do. So the prompt is to write the ending. If you didn’t do it then, you can now.
“The Lady and the Tiger” is certainly unresolved, and it does this curious and marvelous thing: it turns the problem around to point at the reader. Until we get to the final question mark it’s about the princess and her forbidden love. When it finishes without an answer, the problem, jealousy, becomes us. What do we think of human nature? How would I behave in this situation? How do I believe others would act?
The strangest non-ending I’ve ever read was Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (adult), which the author, Thomas Mann, never finished – he died the next year. If I remember correctly (which I may not – I read it many decades ago), it ended mid-sentence. I had loved the book up until then, and I knew this would happen, but it was still a teeth-gnashing experience.
The only real ending sin is failing to respond to the problem a story sets out. I don’t know how that failure could be made to work and satisfy; maybe if you’re writing humor it could be done. The conclusion of Ella Enchanted, for example, had to be about the curse. The end of all Jane Austen’s books had to be about a young lady unraveling her own character flaw that stood between her and a suitable match. The finale of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca had to be about innocence, although that problem is wonderfully disguised in the novel.
Here are a couple of prompts:
• The Giver succeeds, I think, because, while the surface ending is uncertain, the deeper problem is resolved. You do the same thing. Simone is preparing for a competition, whatever kind you like, real world or fantasy. Write the story and end it without the reader finding out how she fares. However, decide on the real issue underlying her struggle and solve that. The real issue could be gaining self-confidence, winning someone’s approval, or something else.
• I’m not a fan of Alice in Wonderland because I think the story lacks a problem. One fantastical thing happens after another without any reason. Rewrite the beginning, giving Alice a problem or something she desperately wants. Then write your own ending and anything in the middle that you need.
Have fun, and save what you write!
And a reminder: please share any writing success you’ve been having on the blog.