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08:09 am: Wright’s Writing Corner: On Endings: Here’s Looking At You, Kid!

Having recently finished a novel, I have spent some time talking to people about ending things…novels, short stories, poems, etc.

So, what makes a good ending? And why is it that “An uncomfortable silence ensued” is so exactly the opposite of almost everything we would want in one?

For those who did not see the earlier posting, near the end of my most recent novel, I jokingly asked a friend for help. He replied that he was terrible at ends. If it were his book, the characters would just look at each other and it would end with something like: An uncomfortable silence ensued.

John loved this ending. He immediately applied to many other works: Hamlet, Star Wars. You name it. But really, an uncomfortable silence is exactly what we don’t want at the end of something.

And ending is like a punch line. It is a thing that pulls the story together in such a way as to make the experience satisfying. Usually, an ending is the moment just after the victory when all is concluded. (Unless you’re me, and you write two full chapters of post-victory-missing-father-answers-questions stuff. But I don’t recommend that approach! So, in this case, you might want to do as I say, rather than as I do.) Normally, endings are more like the old romance guidelines which said: end the story the very moment that the couple gets together.

Basically, you write your story. You write your climax. You write what happens next. Then go back and cut everything after whatever the final sum-up moment of the climax was, ending at the very moment when the story is complete.

Again…do as I say, not as I do. Got that? Okay…

Overall, there are three basic endings. Everything turns out the same as the beginning—the sit-com ending used by all non-serial TV shows. Everything turns out worse than it started—a tragedy. Or everything turns out better than when it started—what used to be called a comedy, but now is just called a story.

There is another ending, however, that many of the bestsellers use. It is the unexpected twist ending. In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass describes this kind of ending as: The main character fails to get what he was striving for during the book (sad), but instead he gets something else, which turns out to be good or better (happy or at least kind of happy.)

This kind of ending often has a bittersweet quality, because of the loss of the desired goal brings a note of sadness, even if the unexpected good that comes the character’s way once they see what is left for them after their failure brings some joy with it.

An example of this last ending is Gone With The Wind. Scarlett fails to get Rhett or Ashley, but she does go home to Tara with a hope of starting again. An even better example of this kind of ending is Casablanca. In fact, while whole books could be written on why Casablanca stands out so much among its contemporaries, one of the reasons is the way in which the end so perfectly meets Maass’s criteria.

If you are familiar with the film Casablanca, you can skip the next two paragraphs and go right to the next one. For those who do not know the story: In World War Two Casablanca, Rick’s Cafe is the go to place for entertainment and casual atmosphere. Nazi’s bring fear into the hearts of the Free French, but hard-boiled cafe owner Rick refuses to take sides. Once, he was an idealist who fought on the side of underdogs, but no longer. Now he is callous and jaded. No one is as neutral as Rick–except possibly Louis, the local Police Captain, who makes money off his neutrality.

Enter Victor Laszlo, a great champion for freedom. He is seeking to avoid the Nazis, who formerly held him prisoner, and to escape to the free world. Traveling with him is the beautiful Ilsa, a woman with some mysterious tie to Rick’s past. Turns out, she’s the woman who broke Rick’s heart and turned him hard and cold. Only, turns out again, it wasn’t her fault. Back when she fell in love with Rick, she thought her husband, Laszlo, was dead. Only at the last minute, when she was supposed to meet Rick to flee the Nazis occupation of Paris with him, did she find out the truth.

The story is set up to suggest that Rick getting the girl back is the goal. After all, Rick used to be a decent guy who fought for the underdog. He fell in love. He got his heart broken. Now he is bitter and cold. Surely love is what he needs to bring him back to life.

And yet, we are aware, as we watch the movie, that, even though Rick and Ilsa got into their fix through no fault of their own, to get out of it by hurting Laszlo would be wrong. So, how to end the movie without either leaving Rick hanging or breaking up Ilsa and the worthy Laszlo?

The answer, when it comes, is in Rick’s willingness to do the right thing, to become a better man, despite the pain to him. The thing that really makes the end of the movie so surprisingly good, however, is not Ilsa’s leaving, but the fact that this leaving does not leave Rick broken and hard. Instead, Rick is not the only one who has become a better man. The formerly cynical Louis has also been transformed.

When Rick utters the immortal line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” the viewer cannot help be uplifted by the vision of these two men leaving their former lives of neutrality and devote themselves to the cause of freedom. This unexpected partnership for a dangerous but undeniably worthy cause changes the movie from a tale of romance and heartbreak into a story of redemption—the very best kind of story.

So, to sum up, some of the very best endings do not include the success of the hero at his main quest but allow the failure of the hero to transform him such that he reaches a greater victory than his former goals would have allowed.

Remember…as I say…not as I do….

An uncomfortable silence ensued.



Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Comments

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From:juliet_winters
Date:September 28th, 2011 01:06 pm (UTC)
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I watch probably too much of the TCM channel and caught a documentary that included a bit on Casablanca. When the script first hit the studio, it was just before Pearl Harbor and was entitled, "Everybody Comes to Rick's" from a play of the same name.
No big deal. We weren't involved in the war after all. It was just supposed to be another throw away movie.
Then the Day that Will Live in Infamy hit.
Suddenly, this little film became much more important. A symbol of American involvement.

The perfect ending on Casablanca ("the beginning of a beautiful friendship") was also a last minute addition. Sometimes change is good.

Even when I was a kid, I thought Victor Laslo was much more compelling than Rick as a romantic interest. Funny I should marry the grandson of a Czech freedom fighter whose looks were quite akin to Laslo's.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 28th, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
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That is kind of funny! ;-)

I had not remembered the character of Victor Laszlo...but I was really impressed with him this time around. I think he is a really important part of that film!

[User Picture]
From:juliet_winters
Date:September 28th, 2011 04:43 pm (UTC)
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If you check my Facebook family photos, Dr. Otakar Machotka is in the second row.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 9th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)

Otakar machotka??????????

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I never expected Professor Machotka's name to pop up on internet! I was in one of his classes at Harpur College back in -- hmm-- 1949 or thereabouts. We students were such young ninnies and had no idea what he was all about. He spoke with an accent and was a stickler on exams in that we had to hand back to him in our "blue books" what he had lectured in class. Of course, we were into paraphrasing the gist of his lectures, but that didn't get us very far. I remember one lecture he gave about leisure wherein he was discussing recreation in the park -- except that it came out as re-creation in the park. Today the kids would smile and say "cool, this cat is cool." But he wasn't cool: he was very formal in the way he dressed, the way he lectured (always sitting at the desk) and the way he interacted with the students. I don't think any students got to know him very well at all. And I don't think he cared. He was chairman of the sociology dept so he sure wasn't worried about popularity or getting tenure.
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From:juliet_winters
Date:August 9th, 2012 11:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Otakar machotka??????????

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More about him here:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/czechs/a-personal-look-at-otakar-machotka-a-leader-of-the-1945-prague-uprising

Given his background, it's not surprising he was a little impatient with undergraduates. He was a lot more than the chair of the sociology department.
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From:fpb
Date:September 29th, 2011 08:42 am (UTC)
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It's funny that I never agreed even before I read this. I have always felt that Paul Henreid as Laszlo was the movie's one single weak point. They should have cast someone like Spencer Tracy. A decent fellow? sure. Possibly good enough to win Ingrid Bergman's love? Quite possibly. Powerful enough to rouse people to revolt AND to be a credible love rival to Humphrey Bogart? No way, sorry. I repeat, you would have needed a Spencer Tracy - someone with a strong, lived-in face and figure and with a presence that fills the screen. Henreid just wasn't forceful enough.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 29th, 2011 10:47 am (UTC)
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That may be why I missed it the first time. I think I was more impressed this recent time because I listened carefully to what was said about him and what he said and tried to imagine that guy. If you thought of Victor Laszlo as a character who could, theoretically be portrayed by different people, the character is still compelling.

That being said, I did enjoy the actor's performance much more this time...possibly because I was now impressed with his character.
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From:kokorognosis
Date:September 28th, 2011 01:36 pm (UTC)
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I think I'm in John's camp. I like "An uncomfortable silence ensued," and I have been busily adding it to a ton of stories in the back of my head.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 28th, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
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LOL

He did a rather good job of coming up with lots of endings to which he could affix it. Almost as funny as "How It Should Have Ended."
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From:jeff2001
Date:September 28th, 2011 04:08 pm (UTC)
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Heh, I love that too. That's the ending of The Graduate: An uncomfortable silence ensued.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 28th, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC)
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LOL

You are right. Sometimes, it does work. ;-)
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From:wenchpower
Date:September 28th, 2011 05:05 pm (UTC)
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I. Hate. Endings.

My biggest problem with endings is that I have a terrible time writing happy or even bittersweet endings that don't feel sentimental and cloying. The happiest ending I ever wrote* involved people dying of radiation poisoning. It involved any thread of hope at all, though, which elevated it head and shoulders over most of my stories. I think it ties into C.S. Lewis' comments about why he couldn't write an angelic counterpart to Screwtape: it's so much easier to go down than up. It's something I'm trying very, very hard to work on as a writer.

*SHAMELESS PLUG: Featured in While the Morning Stars Sing, available on Amazon!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:September 28th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
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Love the name "While the Morning Stars Sing."

What stories do you particularly like the ends of?
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From:wenchpower
Date:September 29th, 2011 06:26 pm (UTC)
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Hmm, good question. It's odd, because even though I stink at writing happy or bittersweet endings, most endings that I really like are bittersweet:

Something Wicked This Way Comes: Just finished rereading this one for about the 87th time. In any other book, an ending where the antagonist is snuggled to death would be twee, but because Bradbury does such a good job of laying out the rules, it makes perfect sense.

Utena: Hence the lj icon. Best ending in all of anime, hands down. Every single character gets closure, and because Utena makes such a tremendous sacrifice to make it happen, it doesn't feel cheap.

The Dark Tower: The exception to the "I like happy or bittersweet endings" rule. I'm a rare Dark Tower ending defender because the ending makes perfect sense given Roland's choices.

To Kill a Mockingbird: The bit where Scout is standing on Boo's porch imagining her life from his point of view makes me cry every time. On a related note:

The Iron Giant: Hang on. I need a tissue. OK, I'm back.

I guess the trend I'm noticing is that I like endings where good prevails with one heck of a price tag.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 29th, 2011 08:27 pm (UTC)
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In my experience, the best way to learn something you are not good at in writing is to learn from the writers you like. Remember, it doesn't have to be perfect at first...but if you like bittersweet endings...try them! Maybe your first few tries will seem to pat or cloying...but I bet you'll get it if you keep trying!
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From:eleika
Date:September 28th, 2011 05:15 pm (UTC)
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Bahaha. Great post, Jagi. I like how you've classified the types of endings. I think that last example can be really useful. If it happens in the first book of a series, for example, it can be not a cliffhanger so much as the character realizing, "Okay, I'm happy despite things not turning out as I expected, but this story isn't over, and I feel empowered to handle what comes next."

I'm taking a Master Class with Donald Maass in a few weeks: "Impossible to Put Down: Mastering the three levels of story to construct a gripping novel". I'm looking forward to it.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 28th, 2011 06:23 pm (UTC)
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Oh you are so lucky!

I took a three day course with him once and LOVED it!!! Be sure to share anything good you learn!
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From:eleika
Date:September 28th, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC)
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Definitely! I'm going to start posting another series of notes at my Blogspot blog, both before and after this year's SiWC. There were a few gems from last year that deserve noting. :)
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From:marycatelli
Date:September 29th, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
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You can easily end a story by having the hero and heroine run off into the sunset, holding hands, and having a final scene where one scheming villain tells another that they got away.

An uncomfortable silence ensued.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:September 29th, 2011 12:45 am (UTC)
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LOL
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From:fpb
Date:September 29th, 2011 08:38 am (UTC)
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Except that the obvious development from that is the two scheming villains immediately starting to develop new ways to bedevil the heroes....
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 29th, 2011 10:45 am (UTC)
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Thus producing automatic sequels. ;-)
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:September 29th, 2011 05:28 am (UTC)
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I can imagine working backwards from that ending to hundreds of good stories! Happy cheerful ones. Even if it's the hero and heroine being uncomfortably silent.

Someone should start an anthology....
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:September 29th, 2011 10:44 am (UTC)
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The "Uncomfortable Silence Ensued" Anthology...in honor of Mark, who thought of the idea. ;-)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 6th, 2011 07:21 am (UTC)
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Quite some time ago, I realized the usefulness of deleting the introductory para/page in a first draft. Then, the other day, I read the suggestion that the final para/page be similarly cut down. This approach will avoid the awkward silence.

Of course, it's not so bad to say that an awkward silence ensued. As Oscar Wilde would say, it's worse - it's a comfortable mediocrity.

And it leaves the reader wondering what the heck happened then? Does normality return? "After a few minutes of silence, Bill stood up, coughed, and said he would take the dog for a walk".

Or do things collapse? "Susan was still wondering what to say when Bill stood up and coughed. 'Actually, I do love you, but I agree that this is an impossible situation', he said, And he walked out into the night."

Felix
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 6th, 2011 10:59 am (UTC)
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LOL I love it. The Lady and the Tiger version of "an uncomfortable silence ensued."

I should add that I can think of stories to which this ending would fit quite well...but my cheerful vibrant comic-book-like novel was not one of them.
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