Showing posts with label Scott Fitzgerald. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scott Fitzgerald. Show all posts

09 March 2022

Grace Notes


  

Previously in this space, I spoke about beginnings, the hook or hinge of a story, how it presented itself in the mind’s eye.  What, in other words, made it seem like a story at all, why did it catch our attention?  Which got me thinking about endings, and wrapping things up.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  That’s a last line that sticks to your ribs.

Bill Goldman once remarked that the first five pages of a script sell the picture.  Paul Newman said, OK, but it’s the last five minutes of the movie people walk out talking about.  There’s that first rush of adrenaline, when you recognize you’ve opened the door, and you’re about to step through into a place of wonder or certainly surprise, and then there’s the enormous satisfaction of closing it behind you.

Another example: Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat.  It begins with the line, “None of them knew the colour of the sky.”  (John Berryman argues that, no, in fact it begins with the title, and I have to agree.)  And there’s the ending, like a long, indrawn breath, “When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”  Extraordinary.

In between, of course, there’s incident, and dialogue, fated meetings, and sudden partings, missed opportunities, and the like, but I wasn’t considering process, as such.  It’s that when we first look through the keyhole, which is I think Virginia Woolf’s metaphor, possibility clamors.  Then, necessity steps in.  Each narrative choice we make closes off other variables.  At the end, though, when we’re putting the tale to rest, we can tuck in the covers.

Now, in my case, I have a hard time starting a story if I don’t have a title, because the title captures, or projects, a sense of the story as a whole.  By the same token, I want the ending to reflect back – not necessarily a twist, but a comment or a glancing blow.  For instance, with Aesop, each story points a moral, the Tortoise and the Hare, the Fox and the Grapes.  I don’t mean that I want to be cautionary, or prescriptive, or teach a lesson, but I want to draw a line under the story.  Think of it as a sort of curtain call.

There’s a Benny Salvador story called “Old Man Gloom,” which takes place not long after the war (WWII, for you young’uns) and goes back to the Japanese internment camps.  At the end, Benny takes his daughters upriver to Embudo, to gather fruit.

     As he expected, it was hard work, but satisfying.  The girls, of course, complained to him about it.

     Benny had little sympathy.

     Peaches, he explained patiently, are easily bruised.

This is very much on the oblique, but as a last line, I thought it was terrifically effective, the story turning on honor, and obligation, and bitterly damaged feelings.

Here’s another.  At the wind-up of Black Traffic, a spy story, there were half a dozen closing scenes, each of the major players getting a last bow, and the final scene was somebody I figured the reader might have left off their mental list.  Oh, yeah, that guy, the Serbian gangster with the blood feud.  And the box of chocolates.

To the fallen, in forgotten wars.

The last line of the book, and it said it all, so far I was concerned.  It was about grievance. 

I’m using examples from my own stuff, but obviously the Fitzgerald or the Crane are more widely known.  I know why I used what I did, and how.  I don’t have any particular insight into the other guys.  It’s said that Fitzgerald put this passage into the book earlier, in a first draft.  I also heard Franklin Schaffner told George C. Scott he wouldn’t lead Patton off with the “No dumb bastard ever won a war by dying for his country” address.  Which happens to be a good example of how to round out your picture, without easy irony.  “All glory is fleeting.”

The first five pages; the last five minutes.