Monday, November 5, 2007

story endings


In finishing three short stories, novellas really, in the "Elephanta Suite," by Paul Theroux, the crafting of convincing, satisfying endings for a story came to mind. Theroux's stories, all set in India, are engrossing and beautifully written, with the endings for the first two stories powerful and seamless, and convincing, but the ending of the final story, "The Elephant God," seemed not to fit the portagonist's character. The story is gripping until that point, but though the protagonist, an American woman, looking for a spiritual life while living in an ashram and simultaneously working as an instructor of American speech patterns for employees of a technological call-center, is a resourceful, strong-willed woman, her dramatic retaliation against one of the employees who assaulted her is not quite believable. Though she's been stalked and abused by this man, her last, cold, calculating action seemed over the top, though satisfying to some degree.

Endings were on my mind when I read an interesting essay in Writer's Chronicle, Nov. 2007, "A Tale of Two Endings: Dicken's Great Expectations," by Douglas Bauer. Dickens' original manuscript ended on what seemed a contrived, chance meeting between Estelle and Pip in the city, and a parting between them that seemed final. Bauer says, "…if you read Great Expectations as a novel that steadily acquires real emotional and psychological traction, then Dickens's original ending—with its almost contemporary, quietly stated irony, bracingly free of his famous sentimentality; and one that's contemporary too in its powerful truncation (all those what-ifs" that get said in all that isn't said)—is the preferable conclusion."

However, an author friend of Dickens who was asked to review the original manuscript convinced him to write a more hopeful ending. Dickens's rewrite hedged a bit, making it seem like a continued relationship between Estelle and Pip was foreseen, though the final line was left somewhat ambiguous—"I saw the shadow of no parting from her." That version got published, and the following year (1862) in a second printing, apparently now more satisfied with the idea, Dickens made the line less ambiguous: "I saw no shadow of another parting from her."

Perhaps Theroux might also have received suggestions to have his ending less extreme, a more subtle irony, but he went with a powerful truncation concept. It's still got me thinking, so perhaps it did its job.

Some of Bauer's other thoughts on endings were also interesting: "... any ending that succeeds both culminates and at the same time continues the story…the mix of these two factors naturally varies according to whether the writer's principal desire is, on one hand, to bring everything together, or, on the other, to leave matters more elliptically open. But both qualities, culmination and continuation, are fundamentally always present." And, "The question, then, facing the writer is how to write an ending that benefits from all the complicated momentum that has been funneled into it; one that sounds its confidence and retains a narrower but still resounding power, even as it sings its final notes alone." Not bad.

1 comment:

Bruce said...

Jack
Bauer's the author of a book on writing called The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft. It's on my shelf, and your comments were enough to spark my interest in it again. Take a look if you get a chance.

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