28 August 2016

Ending the Story

by R.T. Lawton

In Rob Lopresti's 08/17/16 blog, "The Whole Truth," he wrote about doing the setup for a story, in this case, a novel. Rob's premise was to drop the protagonist in a hole, and if the author writing the novel so desired, then throw rocks at that particular character. Essentially, it was how to setup the beginning of an author's story and then move on into the action of the plot. I liked the concept.

So today, to go with Rob's blog, here's two possible story endings as taken from the book, Story, by Robert McKee. These two endings are general category endings within which all other specific endings, such as happy endings, sad endings, ironic endings, etc., will fit.

The Closed Ending: The closed ending is mainly used with the traditional or classical designed story, the type of story written throughout the ages since Gilgamesh was first transcribed onto clay tablets. The fictional reality in this type of story is consistent and the conflict is mainly focused on the external causes, even though the protagonist may have an inner conflict to go with all the outside problems. In the story climax for the closed ending, the change is irreversible, there is no going back for the hero. As for the reader,, all questions raised in the story should be answered and all emotions satisfied.
(Some movie examples of closed ending from McKee's book are The Seven Samurai, The Hustler, A Fish Called Wanda and Thelma and Louise.)

The Open Ending: The open ending is generally used in a story focused on internal conflicts which is often prodded by external events. Here, the story climax leaves some questions unresolved for the reader, and thus some emotions may be left unsatisfied. The reader is then allowed (or left) to form his or her own conclusion as to what happened to the characters after the last word printed on the last page of the story. Different readers may come to different conclusions on the ending of the same story. For instance, one reader may believe the protagonist has now become mentally strong enough to overcome his situation and go on to a happy life. Another reader may have perceived an undercurrent of weakness and feels that the protagonist would fall back into old bad habits, thereby failing to succeed in the future. Same story; one reader an optimist, the other reader a pessimist; different conclusions on story ending.
(Some movie examples of open endings from McKee's book are Five Easy Pieces, Tender Mercies and A River Runs Through It.)

McKee's book Story is actually a screenwriting book by a screenwriting teacher, therefore it is written from a movie perspective, but to me, a story is a story regardless of the medium used to tell it. I believe it is wise to learn from other storytelling mediums to see what I can apply to my short story writing.

Most of my short stories use a closed ending. Much of that influence comes from the type of stories I've read over the decades since childhood. And, at this point, I will admit that the first few times I ran across an open ending story, I was prone to wonder where the heck the story ending was.

However, in the last couple of years, I've caught myself writing an open ending for one of the stories in my Shan Army series with the two half-brothers contending to see which one will become the heir to their warlord father's opium empire in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, and in one story of my 1660's Paris Underworld series with the orphan, incompetent pickpocket trying to survive in a community of criminals. The open ending just seemed right for these two stories.

So, how about you as a writer? Which endings do you use? And as a reader, which type of endings do you prefer?

13 comments:

Art Taylor said...

Great post, RT. I haven't read this book, but I've really like open endings myself, and I often includes stories with open endings in the classes I teach at George Mason, because it adds an additional element for students to discuss and to engage with. I appreciate the definitions here and may use them myself in class. Thanks much!

John Floyd said...

I enjoyed this, RT--and I also love McKee's book. As you said, it's written by a screenwriter for screenwriters, but a story's a story. The book has been a great help to me, in my teaching and in my writing.

As for your question, my stories are mostly closed-endings. A few are not, and I've found those fun to write as well. One point that might be worth mentioning here is that closed endings seem most often associated with genre writing, while open endings are associated more with "literary" fiction. I can't help remembering a quote by Elmore Leonard, when an interviewer asked him why none of his short stories had appeared in The New Yorker. Leonard replied, "Because my stories have endings."

Robert Lopresti said...

Great post, and thanks for the plug. I write both kinds but I find it easier to sell closed endings. I wrote a (cough cough) mainstream story I loved which ended with the hero either recovering from his obsession or getting pulled deeper in, depending on your point of view. Couldn't sell it.

Edward Sorel did a cartoon once describing a writer who became famous because a magazine (apparently Playboy, but not named) accidentally left out the last page of his story. When he told them he no longer wrote for "skin magazines" the editor said angrily "If it weren't for us he'd still be writing stories with endings!"

B.K. Stevens said...

I enjoyed the post, R.T. As both a reader and a writer, I'm pretty old-fashioned and usually prefer closed endings, but an open ending is clearly right for some stories (e.g., James' PORTRAIT OF A LADY). I just have to feel that the writer left the ending open for a reason, not because he or she was lazy or didn't know how to tie things up. By the way, the only really negative Amazon reviews I've gotten were in response to a story that some readers interpreted as having an open ending, though I'd never seen the ending that way. The story was first published in AHMM, and no one complained about it then--I don't think anyone saw it as open-ended. As far as I'm concerned, the story focuses on a choice the protagonist has to make, and by the end of the story, she's made her choice. The end. There's a murder trial going on, and the outcome isn't spelled out, but I think any reasonably intelligent reader will know who the murderer is and how the trial will end. Then I wrote a novel about the protagonist (completely different plot, set six months after the trial) and decided to self-publish the story on Amazon, under the title "Silent Witness," to promote the novel. That's when I got the angry reviews, complaining that they'd been "left hanging" by the story, that it was "actually a sample . . . not a complete story at all." I guess these readers assumed the novel would also focus on the trial (it doesn't)and I was trying to lure them into buying the novel by withholding information about the murder. (I wasn't--the novel reveals nothing further about that murder; the story tells readers everything they need to know.)It's interesting to see how expectations can affect readers' reactions to an ending.

R.T. Lawton said...

Art, this is a great group to learn from and/or to remind us about writing tips we may have learned in earlier years and forgot we knew. I know I keep learning from the group's pooled knowledge, and everybody contributes something different.

R.T. Lawton said...

John, in Chapter 9 of THE CREATIVE WRITER'S Handbook by Isabelle Ziegler (@1968), the author graphs three types of stories. The first is a rising storyline with Crisis One, Crisis Two and a Climax. The second with slight plot action is a rising storyline to A Climax. The third is a straight horizontal line of Details, Details, Details to the Ending, and is called a NEW YORKER story. Dutch had it right.

See you in New Orleans.

R.T. Lawton said...

Rob, you're right, closed endings seem to be easier to sell, but then most of what I write falls into the genre category. Don't think I've ever been accused of writing literary.

Leigh Lundin said...

Somehow the open ending fits the Shan stories. (I can’t recall which of the Parisian waif stories was open-ended.)

I mostly write closed-end stories, but I very much like closed endings the audience has to figure out. In other words, the author has provided all the clues and maybe pointed the reader in the right direction, but s/he doesn’t spell out the ending.

I crafted Quality of Mercy with an open ending thinking the reader my be torn between one of two very different endings based on how the reader interpreted what was going on in the story. My editor hit upon a third ending, which delighted me. That story was about Alzheimer’s Disease and my other hope was the ambiguous ending might leave the audience with a hint of how an Alzheimer’s victim might feel.

R.T. Lawton said...

Bonnie, communication can be a tricky thing. At least in an ongoing conversation, you may get the chance to explain or straighten out what you meant, whereas the written word is generally on its own. I personally believe it is a good idea to use a short story to showcase a new novel coming out. It shows the author's ability to tell a story and gives the reader something about the character they can expect in the novel.
At the same time, there have been numerous excerpts of upcoming novels published in various mediums that only give part of the story. I think you nailed it when you mentioned reader expectations. They should have read a little closer to see the difference. As writers, we can only try, and next time maybe do it different. Best wishes in the future.

Robert Lopresti said...

I forgot to say, the first story I got published had, I thought, a nicely closed ending. In the last paragraph we learn that the protagonist is planning to betray his employer at a future date. A neat twist, I thought.

My wife had a co-worker who, every time after that I saw her would glare at me and ask: "THEN what happened?" I assured her I had no idea.

R.T. Lawton said...

Leigh, the 1660's Paris Underworld story is "The Left Hand of Leonard," which is purchased by AHMM, but not yet scheduled for publication.

Interesting about the third ending the editor came up with.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid some in the self-publishing trade mistake a sloppy plot with huge holes for an open ending. Then others spell out every tiny detail in multiple paragraphs and pages. Yes, we get who the bad guy is. We've also seen Dial M for Murder. We get it.

R.T. Lawton said...

Anon, good point. The difference between knowing the trade craft and failing to learn all the elements that go into a good story.