When is a piece of fiction completed? How do we ensure that a play doesn’t just stop, but actually ends?
I was giving a workshop last week at Sheffield theatres, and this query about finding the ‘right’ ending came up. It was also an email query from my friend Antonietta in Chile, only in her case the question was more about recognising and then delivering the best ending for a piece of writing.
This is clearly an issue which concerns any writer or maker, regardless of form, and as an audience member there is nothing worse than that sense of wasted time and disappointment from sitting through a performance and feeling the experience was not worth the investment. But it is a complex question, with a variety of answers dependant not only on the form and the intention of the writer, but also the expectations of the viewer/reader/listener. So in order to address this, and in depth, I’ll take elements one at a time, beginning with the phrase so familiar in Hollywood and popular fiction: The Promise.
Many feel there is an unspoken contract between a writer and her audience, an understanding, a deal we make in this strange and wonderful dynamic between the spectator and the spectacle, the reader and the writer. Nancy Kress in Beginnings, Middles and Ends insists that a book makes two promises to a reader, one emotional, one intellectual. The emotional promise says
“Read this and you’ll be entertained, or thrilled, or scared, or titillated, or saddened, or nostalgic, or uplifted – but always absorbed.”
The genre of the novel, or film is also part of this inherent promise. A mystery offers intellectual engagement, a puzzle, confirmation that the mind can understand events and solve the central questions (whodunnit, whydunnit, howdunnit) and, like thrillers, after chaos and misrule, return balance, order, and justice to the world. A romance might deliver the emotional promise of ‘love conquers all’, whereas the literary novel, or the independent art movie, or the experimental performance might challenge and unbalance. As Susan Sontag said: “Real art has the capacity of making us nervous.”
The intellectual promise, according to Nancy Kress, has three varieties:
“(1) Read this and you’ll see the world from a different perspective.
(2) Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about the world.
(3) Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this.”
If working from this perspective, a completed piece of work must deliver on the initial emotional and intellectual promises. Forsaking the implied or expected outcome can lead to massive disappointment – but, again, I believe this is dependant on the form. An unexpected ending in a thriller or experimental piece could be part of the promise and therefore welcome, but a bloodbath at the end of a romance would, I suspect, be breaking the contract. As Lori Handeland says: “Do not promise apples and deliver oranges.”
So in the first instance, be aware of the promise your story, play, or novel makes. It will be introduced in the beginning, developed in the middle, and provide a satisfying ending by delivering on this promise at the close. Even if the ending is a surprise, if you’ve done your work well, it will feel inevitable, as it has grown organically from your set-up at the beginning, it fulfils the promise of the start, which has been developed throughout.