How to write the ‘right’ ending, part two: consequential action.

I don’t like endings which are too tidy and ‘pat’. I distrust them. I feel like I’ve been processed – part of a well-oiled machine which has passed me along its predictable, dependable conveyer belt, depositing me unscathed, unchallenged and unsurprised at the end. I feel like the magical mystery tour I signed up to gave me an advance road map, with the route yellow highlighted in. I feel I have been part of a pedestrian equation, where A+B=AB.

It’s essential that there is structure and form to our writing (even – or especially – when the work is ‘experimental’), but here is a line between the well structured and the disappointingly predictable ‘I could see that coming for miles.’

But I’m not a fan of unpredictable, ‘magical’ endings either, where elements not previously existing in the world of the play fly in,  and ‘explain’ or solve everything. It doesn’t have to be as blatant as the god from the machine, deus ex machina. Think the chance meeting and deep conversation with the stranger with the meaningful past/anecdote to tell/piece of ancient wisdom to pass on which has surprising resonance with the protagonist’s dilemma and precipitates a sudden understanding and even swifter conclusion…  Or the surprise lottery win, the unexpected behest, the sudden death or illness, or the offer of a new job/house/country/lover/gender/whatever, which draws everything together in a premature ending leaving the viewer blinking and feeling cheated as the houselights come up.

The kind of endings I like are the ones where we are kept guessing until the last moment and then go ‘yes, of course it would end like that.’ We know that Hamlet will end up on a pyre of bodies, as when we think about it, this is the only possible ending, given his actions and interactions throughout the play. In this kind of writing, character equals plot, and plot equals character. They are indivisible, and there is logic – cause and effect: an action is made which brings a response, retaliation, or reward – consequential action – but not the simple binary of A + B of above, but a logarithm, a complex equation which, in both literary and mathematical senses of the word, is ‘beautiful’.

I’ve always believed that nothing should be extraneous in a play (or a story, or a novel, or a screenplay, or any kind of art or craft). Everything needs to earn its right to be there, and it all should contribute in some way to the ending. I can’t bear loose threads, or the sections included merely as a brain rest, so we can look at the attractive people, or hear a nice song, or be ‘entertained’ by something before returning to the true meat of the evening.

Of course some performances are not presenting a main or single narrative – there may not be a plot. Rather, they can be a montage working towards an overall effect at the close of the piece, rather than the resolution of a conflict, or a quest, or a psychological or emotional journey. Then I feel the power of the ending is cumulative, relying on everything that came before.

I love work which is up-close and personal, so involving and intricate it is as though I’m scrutinising individual stitches and threads, and it is only when it is drawing to a close, or complete, I can step back and see the tapestry, the full woven landscape whose minutiae I know and have followed.

That kind of experience brings great satisfaction and, for me, the most powerful ending, for everything has been created and spun out of what existed at the beginning: a fully realised world, a cast of well-developed characters whose actions and reactions create the stuff of the plot, a narrative full of twists and turns, which is unpredictable, but logical.

copyright Kaite O’Reilly 25 August 2012.

2 responses to “How to write the ‘right’ ending, part two: consequential action.

  1. This is so true, Kaite. There are few things worse in life than being absorbed by a play or novel or even a piece of music, only to feel cheated at its end because it wraps itself up like a parcel or – just as annoying – jumps off a cliff and doesn’t even have the grace to land with a thump. Thump.

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