Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Loose Endings

On Saturday evening, Mighty Reader and I saw a play: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare. It was a comedy, which means that it had not only the main dramatic arc but a half dozen other arcs going on. This is certainly an entertaining way to structure a play and it's also how Shakespeare managed to keep the beginnings and ends of his plays away from each other for three or four hours. The plots leapfrog past each other, faster and faster and more ridiculous and violent until the final scene where everything is resolved and all the mysteries and mistaken identities and misunderstandings are resolved.

And about that last scene.

What Shakespeare tends to do is gather together onstage every surviving character in the play and have these characters point at each other before witnesses and make accusations which are refuted; explanations flow nonstop for fifteen minutes or so while every character has one of those "But...I thought you...oh, I get it. Well done indeed. Kiss me, Kate and buy me a drink, Ernesto! All is forgiven!" moments.

About ten minutes from the end of one of these comedies (it doesn't really matter which*) I am always struck by the same realization: these last scenes really aren't necessary. Likely back in the 16th century, when people treated going to the theater as a more social event and drank, ate and chatted their way through the afternoon or evening, a big scene at the end that summarized all the subplots was needed because nobody had really been paying attention to the whole thing. Possibly people only really closely watched the first and fifth acts of these plays; I really don't know and that's not the point.

Here's the point, Mr. Shakespeare: Every character in your story doesn't need to know how everything works out for everybody as long as your reader knows. These final scenes are unnecessary and they slow down the action at the end because, frankly, we've all heard all of this explanation already. Sometimes twice already. So essentially the audience/reader is forced to sit through a summary of the action while all the characters get caught up.

I really hate these denouements, and what's worse is that they are not unique to Mr. Shakespeare's works. I have run across any number of novels that have anywhere from two to two-hundred pages of "wrapping up" and these final sections make me want to blind myself with a sharp object (I'm looking right at you, Mr. Tolkien with your "Scouring of the Shire" and other dull-as-death final chapters). Maybe this is purely a matter of taste, but I'm certain that a well-written ending without all the post-climax exposition would satisfy most readers. In my own books, I work my way to the climax and then I get out of the story as absolutely quickly as I possibly can. My opinion is that you do not have to explain what happens in any sort of detail, nor do you have to show all of the loose ends being tied up. What you need to do--all you need to do--is point the reader at the likely outcomes of the various dramatic arcs. Your readers are bright enough to figure the future histories of your characters out for themselves. Really they are.

*I except of course The Winter's Tale which ends with the stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear."


  1. It takes a pretty special sparkle to get me to sit through one of those protracted denouements.

    Not only are they unnecessary, but typically I get the sense that the writer knows they unnecessary, but feels obliged to do it anyway -- and so the writing is also not up to snuff.

  2. I've never been big on wrapping up my endings, but I do appreciate the writers who do. It rarely bothers me. It makes me sort of feel complete, like having a third dessert.

  3. Domey, a third dessert? Wow. And as for the completeness or lack thereof of an ending, more and more I find myself trying to imitate life in my endings; that is, nothing is ever tied up neatly.

  4. Nevets: Yeah, that's a big part of it, that the writing seems rushed and obligatory rather than inspired and interesting.

    Dee to the Em: It's just lately starting to bother me. And this wasn't really the post I intended to write; it just sort of came out this way. I wanted to talk about open-ended stories and sideshadowing. Maybe next time.

    Judith: Domey can eat a whole pie in one sitting. I have no idea how he stays so thin. I'm also working to have my endings realistic, which is to say inconclusive and messy. Perhaps that explains my irritation with denouements: real life doesn't so much contain them.

  5. I really am a huge eater. I eat a ton.

  6. Honestly, I never in a million years would have dreamed that any scouring took place in the Shire without Tolkien telling me. I most certainly would not have guessed that the new row built after the muss was tidied would be called New Row. Some details do defy reader imagination.

  7. I was also glad to know that Sam Gamgee married and had a lot of little hobbits. I had managed to read three books worth of Tolkien under the misapprehension that there were no female hobbits (kind of like Ents, or smurfs) until that scene cleared things up.

  8. On the other hand, The Scouring of the Shire wasn't exactly a tidy little wrap up, either... If nothing else, it did show how close to home evil can get. Plus it's got one of my favourite lines from the books! (you won't rescue the Shire by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo (paraphrasing)).

    But yea, you don't want to linger too long on the ending. As soon as that feeling of 'happily ever after' or 'home sweet home' or 'I wonder where they're off to next...' hits, then it's time to get the author out of there!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.