Editors Blog

How to Craft a Happy Ending

Our writing may be beautiful or plain, may want to sing itself along or proceed with the massive engine that is the great Russian truth-telling machine Anna Karenina. Whether aspiring to become art or settling into the more modest demands of the police procedural, our stories sober us with this thought: the rules are basically the same, and – when it comes to endings – these rules are rather inflexible.

The most basic rule of storytelling? We won’t be able to keep our readers reading our writing — gorgeous or no – unless they believe it is moving toward a happy ending.

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vandenburgh-2-1-copyWrong-Dog_catalogue-cover_SMGuest post by Jane Vandenburgh, the acclaimed author of two novels, Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset, the nonfiction book, Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook, and the memoir, The Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century. Her new memoir, The Wrong Dog Dream was just released in April 2013 by Counterpoint Press. She has been featured in top national print and broadcast media and taught writing and literature at U. C. Davis, the George Washington University, and, most recently, at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California. A native of Berkeley, she lives with her family and dog, Wayne Thiebaud, in Point Richmond, California. For more info, visit www.janevandenburgh.com.

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A happy ending?, you ask, when poor Anna dies by throwing herself under the wheels of a train? Let’s return to this in a moment. It is instructive to ask what we mean by “happy ending.” Could all this be better stated by using the language of math and science?

Okay, given that this is the only given — your story is the problem whose one job is to solve itself  — how does it come to its proper conclusion? In reaching a “right” ending, reader and writer both feel the satisfaction and assuredness that this ending is “correct.” But how do we arrive at that place where the story stops but our minds go on thinking about it and how beautifully it all fits together?  We see how the parts all balance, how – however surprising – all the pieces of narrative subtly weave together and match in what really does feel like a complete and mathematically beautiful solution.

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We achieve this ending the easy way, which is also the only way, by going by our story’s own rules. What the ending will contain will be set out in a story’s first sentences. This is because the ending is all mysteriously bound up in that beginning, the two as entangled as the ball of leftover rubber bands we’ve been saving for no good reason.  In writing these stories of ours we are essentially taking that rubberband ball apart to discover exactly out how the story would like put itself together.

These rules regarding beginnings and endings are strict and have come down to us from the ancients. It is Aristotle who instructs:

 The Beginning falls where the Ending starts.

This means a story can be finished only when it’s answered every question asked, elaborated each narrative issue raised, dealt with every mystery, and been giving time to enact itself so every gun displayed has been fired for good reason. A story wants for the columns on its balance sheet to equal one another, for every loss to be restored, each minus to find the plus with which to solve itself.

It’s only at a story’s end we will get why it needed to begin exactly there, viewing the entire narrative with what is called in the craft “The Inevitability of Retrospect.” We look back and powerfully understand that what felt like the characters making choices and exercising free will was an illusion, that they appear now to act under allegiance to the story, serving only to meet the story’s overarching demands.

It’s with the Inevitability of Retrospect that we now realize how each rubber band that makes the ball was necessary to get it to exactly this size and shape and heft, that it needed to be exactly this large in order to be big enough to be round.

A story must, in fact, be round. A great ending written by such a great writer as Tolstoy will exactly demonstrate this to us, how the ending points forward along the horizontal axis of the sphere directly at that exact place where this ending started, which is to say the beginning.

We now notice how the writer was silently, invisibly there all along, laying the light hand of fate upon the storyline and uniting every piece of it.

When we’re introduced to Anna it’s the afternoon in which she first meets the man who’ll become her lover: Vronsky’s at the railroad station as she arrives from Petersburg; they are in the same social circle but here meet by unhappy accident. She’s come to Moscow to aid her brother, whose household is in chaos because of his infidelities. This is the afternoon in which everybody in the background will be murmuring that a woman’s body has just been crushed beneath the wheels of a train but these two, starstruck in meeting, can only see and hear one another.

And we notice how artfully balanced are the themes with all of them so lightly set out, exactly as randomly as everything does seem to happen in real life, that is, coincidentally. But we now know it’s no coincidence that 800 pages later the trap opens and the darkness that has always awaited Anna Karenina now engulfs her. By now we’ve come as readers to realize that in addition to being a tragedy, this the great novel of the triumph of married love in which the life-giving romance of Levin and Kitty, so delicately told, exactly balances that of the doomed lovers.

But how is it that we have all to agree upon these rules, which we seem to almost have been born already knowing? One cold hard fact of fiction is that as we’re busy writing the most sophisticated story,  we can also hear – if we listen carefully– the underlying rhythms of the fairytale.

From mystery to romance, from high art to personal history, we read for the same reasons. We were taught early to expect we’ll get to that happy ending, as it’s one of the main jobs of art to make all our human suffering somehow bearable.

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8 thoughts on “How to Craft a Happy Ending

  1. Jane Vandenburgh

    @atwhatcost Probably what you want to do is to finish the draft of Book One, then move on to those tendrils leading outward indicating the Books Two and Three and so forth. Those of us with the novelistic — inclusive — impulse always have more and more to say, augmentations and elaborations and digressions, that lead to other pieces of what is often the one HUGE story. Those who work in the short story form feel their story EXCLUDING those elements that don’t belong.

    Hope that helps clarify.

    1. atwhatcost

      I’ve been working on it for quite some time. Every time I get back to the ending, I tend to shorten it, not lengthen it. I’ve taken off three chapters so far, which is saying something since it’s a MG novel, so it has to be short to begin with. ;)

  2. shawnlj

    I just discovered this on my very first piece of fictional writing. I wrote a 750 word story from a story prompt and, after a couple of false starts, I reread the beginning line trying to see how it played into the ending. Although I wasn’t sure how it would come out, as I wrote the last few lines, I saw it all coming together, circling back to the opening. I “felt” the happy ending, or the closure, and I was amazed at how natural it felt. I hear my friends say that their stories take on their own life and sometimes go their own direction, and I can see what they mean. It just sort of unfolds with a little prompting from the author. Very fun. Thanks for the great article.

    1. Jane Vandenburgh

      @shawnij The times I’ve written in a shorter form — essay or poem or story — these have felt like the ending and the beginning were linked and the piece seemed, if not effortless, then at least controlled in a manner that felt a little magical. In each case the piece then turned out to have an internal integrity that was directive that was exclusive, that is, wouldn’t admit my usual sidetracks and digressive excursions.

      Writing a novel, on the other hand, is an exercise in trust and willing blindness and the ability to be almost mindlessly inclusive

  3. atwhatcost

    “This means a story can be finished only when it’s answered every question asked, elaborated each narrative issue raised, dealt with every mystery, and been giving time to enact itself so every gun displayed has been fired for good reason. A story wants for the columns on its balance sheet to equal one another, for every loss to be restored, each minus to find the plus with which to solve itself.”

    It sounds reasonable, except…what if it it a series and this is Book One? Harry Potter gained what he lost in the beginning, by the end of A Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone.) He gained family. He hadn’t yet confronted who stole his family from him. It’s rounded, but not that rounded. It stands alone, but it needs more. More questions given, then answered, and yet, when that novel sold, no one yet knew there would be more. (Rowling did, but only if the first sold.)

    How rounded for a “first in a series?” That is my dilemma. I understand “happy ending.” I simply see the whole and the stand alone. Because of that, I fear it’s not rounded enough and it never can be. It stands alone, only if people want more.

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