The Surprise Ending)
I don’t believe I have ever begun a story where I didn’t already know how it would end. And yet…I have had many stories that then turned beneath my hand and became something I wasn’t expecting at all. So perhaps I should say that I have always gone into a story knowing how I thought it would end, but then been surprised to find myself writing a completely different conclusion.
And that’s not all. Sometimes I have written my ending to a story, but still had two or three other endings in my head that I might have just as easily gone with instead.
I’ve even had this sort of experience when reading books and watching films as well. I’ll already know how this story ends, but suddenly I’ll realize other endings that might have occurred as well. Stories are often full of key junctures where the characters must choose one path or another, and for every choice they end up making, there was another story that could have been instead. Indeed, the entire point of some stories is to make you consider not how they did end, but how they could have ended.
This is the case in the classic novel and film How Green Was My Valley. This tale follows the intricate relationships of the Morgans, a Welsh family in a small mining community.
At the beginning of their tale the Morgans are a simple and happy clan. The father and all of the older sons work in the mines, the youngest son goes to school, and the mother and daughter tend to the home. The family all love each other, are well-liked by the community, and have enough resources to get comfortably by.
Trouble begins to brew when the mine cuts wages, though, and the family is divided about whether to join in a strike or not. Father Morgan remains loyal to the mine, which gains the ire of all their neighbors and even his own sons.
Then there is the matter of the daughter, Angharad, who is a lovely young woman that attracts the eyes of all the eligible bachelors. She loves the local pastor, and he loves her, but he refuses to subject her to the impoverished life he leads. This results in her choosing a loveless marriage to the mine owner’s son instead. Later she will return to the town without him, spurring rumors of a looming divorce.
Meanwhile the youngest son, Huw, grows and gains a scholarship to a University, but when his oldest brother dies in the mine, leaving behind a wife and baby, Huw decides to work in the mine instead, helping to provide for his sister-in-law and her child.
And other tragedies and losses continue throughout, culminating in the death of Father Morgan in a mine accident. The story ends on a somber note, briefly reflecting on how happy this place had once been. And as it reflects on how far we have travelled from that sunny beginning, one cannot help but wonder how things might have been different.
What if the mine hadn’t tried to cut wages? What if Father Morgan had stood with the strikers? What if the pastor had followed his heart? What if the youngest son hadn’t sacrificed his education for family? What if accidents hadn’t claimed two members of the family? This story could have gone many different ways. The greatest tragedy isn’t the sad situation that the Morgan family is reduced to, it’s that it could have just as easily been so very, very different.
The Shifting Goal)
I’ve also had to consider different possible endings in my latest story, The Long Walk to Alquoran. The fact is, the ending that I published last week was not the first ending that I thought of, nor was it the second. It was the third.
My initial plan was that Tammath would successfully have his old hamlet restored, but he would know that he would never see his family again. He would now have to find a new cause to occupy the rest of his life, and King Taq’ii would offer Tammath to become his adopted a son, his mortal emissary in the world.
I like this ending, and I think it would have worked perfectly well. As I kept writing, though, I began to wonder if there wasn’t an opportunity for an unexpected twist at the end. The first twist that occurred to me was that Tammath could end up rescinding his request. After traveling all this way just to bring back his old home, he could be convinced by King Taq’ii that it was better to bear the loss of his loved ones himself, rather than to make them all bear the loss of him instead. Letting them rest in peace would be a kindness.
Certainly, that end would have been a surprise, but I didn’t particularly agree with the idea, and I felt like it would be subverting expectations only for subversion’s sake. But then, as I was writing the final bit of Tammath and King Taq’ii’s conversation a third ending suggested itself to me.
What if Tammath’s family had been restored to life all those years ago, but when they discovered his loss, they set out to do the very same thing that he had? What if they traveled all those years to Alquoran also, and arrived just a few hours after him. Then everyone would have sacrificed fifty years, but would have earned the privilege of living together again.
This idea struck a much better chord in me, and it ended up being the version that was published. My hope is that the audience will appreciate that things didn’t have to go this way, though. This particular ending was only possible if Tammath and his family all made a very difficult sacrifice, and if any of them refused to, the ending would have been that much less happy.
In that respect, The Long Walk to Alquoran is both the same and the opposite of How Green Was My Valley. Both of them invite the reader to consider how things could have very easily ended up differently, but in my story all of the alternatives are worse, not better!