How To Write an Ending

April 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is what I was taught about dramatic structure in school:

Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement

Freytag’s Pyramid

I submit that the structure of a work of art is really fractal:

A fractal that kind of looks like tree branches

A fractal
License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

A real work of art obeys only its own structure, working its patterns on a large and small scale at once. It does what it pleases and goes where it wants, can take any shape or hit any highs or lows, but is in fact more likely to twist around itself sideways and in and out of various ad hoc dimensions it creates for its purposes. So much for rising action.

So appreciating — I mean really appreciating — a good story entails understanding the particulars of its structure from beginning to end, inside and out. There is no blueprint.

In that vein, I want to talk about endings. That thin triangle above, Freytag’s pyramid, suggests reading is a matter of focusing your narrow attention on the story’s action at a particular point, and so on one page at a time until you’ve reached the ending. In other words, it describes reading “to see what happens next”. If you read that way, maybe you see an ending as a way of tying up the loose ends of a story into a ribbon, dismissing its characters into a duly happy or sad nothingness.

It’s much more fitting to your curiosity to view an ending like the circumference of a circle: a boundary, merely a particular aspect of the structure.

Here’s a wonderful ending from a four-acter of Chekhov’s called The Seagull. The brooding protagonist, Constantine Treplieff, has just said goodbye to the girl he loves and gone off to kill himself. Meanwhile in the living room his family and the estate’s visitors gather for a card game (I’ve abridged, to just give you the idea):

ARKADINA: Put the claret and the beer here, on the table, so that we can drink while we are playing.
PAULINA: And bring the tea at once.
SHAMRAEFF: Here’s the stuffed seagull I was telling you about.
TRIGORIN: I don’t remember a thing about it.
[A shot is heard; everyone jumps.]
ARKADINA: What was that?
DORN: Nothing at all, probably one of my medicine bottles has blown up. Don’t worry.
[He leaves, and a few moments later, re-enters.]
DORN: It is as I thought, a flask of ether has exploded.
ARKADINA: Heavens! I was really frightened. That noise reminded me of — [She covers her face with her hands.] Everything is black before my eyes.
[DORN picks up a magazine, leads TRIGORIN to the front of the stage.]
DORN: There was an article from America in this magazine about two months ago that I wanted to ask you about, among other things.
[DORN begins to whisper.]
DORN: You must take Madame Arkadina away from here; what I wanted to say was, that Constantine has shot himself.

What a denouement! The last words, revealing the final event, are the ending! Imagine if Casablanca had ended that way: Louis tells Rick, “Ilsa is safe.” Fade to black.

God bless Chekhov for doing away with the tedious demands of tying up loose ends. In this ending, he focuses on what really matters: a conclusion that successfully completes the structure of the whole play.

What do I mean? The Seagull is a play that intersperses in typical Chekhovian genius the serious and the frivolous. The whole thing, really, is about the real-life texture of people’s dreams and longings: like gum on your new shoes, the lowly trivialities of day-to-day are inescapable and essential features of life. Here, an idle pastime, a card game, frames Constantine’s suicide. The character Trigorin doesn’t even remember the titular symbolic seagull which Shamraeff shows him. Dorn masks the gunshot with a triviality — a bottle of ether exploding — and masks the play’s final revelation (and Arkadina’s overwhelming premonition of grief) with small talk over a magazine article.

Nothing is “tied up” here — neither Constantine’s sadness nor any of the characters’ quibbles have been solved — but the play is concluded with just the perfect final note of mingled frivolity, the perfect delicate arc completing its circle.

Aside from that real endings are artistic rather than sentimental obligations, I have another point. The Seagull doesn’t “lead up” to its ending or make its point clear in its ending, or use its ending to any justifying end. It doesn’t reveal its moral there, or its twist, or resolve its tensions, or complete its thrills there. In other words, the play isn’t about its ending. It’s about every single page, and the ending is just one more page, a thematic continuation (the last such continuation) rather than a conclusion of the plot, which it is only incidentally. What I mean is, if a book is successfully concluded by leading you through the events of the last page, then what was the point of every preceding page?

Good books end by populating the last stretch of their lands with just the bit of life needed there. Bad books (thank God) just end.

P.S. Another good example: remember the ending of The Godfather? Now tell me honestly: is the point of that ending the murder of the heads of the other mafia families, or is it about the image of the door closing, depicted as a shadowy screen wipe, on Michael’s bottomless sinister expression? (Hint: it’s the latter.)

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