How It’s Supposed to End)
I once had a teacher who illustrated that almost every person has an innate understanding of music, even if they do not know how to write or play it. He went to the piano and played a short, ten-note ditty made up on the spot. We had never heard it before, but when he paused just before playing the final note, the one that would bring the musical statement to a close, we realized we all knew exactly what that note should be. Even if we didn’t know its name, we knew what its sound would be. We didn’t know how, somehow we just knew.
If any but that one correct note were to be played it would have felt like a violation of the very laws of music. And if no note was played it would forever feel uncomfortably incomplete, like a sentence missing its final
Many times, a story feels that way, too. We have subconsciously picked up on themes and trends throughout the narrative, and even though we haven’t reached the last page we just sort of have a sense of where it is going to go.
Except that many times, it doesn’t.
The Unexpected Finish)
An ending that challenges the direction of its own story does not necessarily have to mean that it is a twist ending. In fact, I would argue that most beloved stories do not have a twist ending, but they do have a surprising one. And the reason that so many stories feature a surprise ending, is that a story which comes in for a perfectly smooth makes little impact.
Let’s suppose we have a story where some heroes set out to build a bridge. They go to the waterfront, and they do exactly that. They built a bridge, the end. Well that story gives you nothing. There is no lesson, no emotion, nothing to absorb or talk about, it’s just a sequential list of statements that amount to nothing.
One might think the problem is that the story has no opposition, no conflict. But making that change alone does nothing to fix it. The heroes went to build the bridge, some enemies arose to stop them, the heroes defeated those enemies, and then still built the bridge…and that’s not really any better. It still feels just as flat as ever.
Nor does it make it better to just frustrate the expected happy ending. The heroes went to make the bridge, but enemies burned down the bridge, so the heroes went back defeated. Okay, now the story had a turn, but it was still an ending where each action immediately followed what came before and was entirely dissatisfying.
No, what we need to make this story stand out is apply a little curl to that final note. Something unexpected that gives it substance. So how about this: the heroes go to make the bridge, the enemies arise and burn down the supplies. Dejected, the heroes regroup, but then develop a new plan. They dig under the river and make a tunnel to the other side instead.
Premise and opposition are good, but what brings it all together is a final note that steps outside of the box and brings closure and interest to an otherwise bland tale. The story began one way, but at its end it has evolved.
Just such a surprise is at the end of the Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities. Here we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters who are caught amidst the violence of the French Revolution.
There are all manner of conflicting objectives, but the major strife has to do with the oppressed people of France rising against the ruling class. They throw out the royal family, and will not rest until they have punished every member of the bourgeoise as well. Here is the story’s great conundrum: Charles Darnay is discovered to actually be Charles St Evrémonde, the nephew of the cruel Marquis Evrémonde. That tyrant is dead already, but the revolutionaries will not be content until they can punish his descendants as well, even one like Charles who has already renounced his uncle’s way of oppression and lived instead off his own labor.
Now Charles Dickens could have written a conclusion where Charles Darnay finds a way to escape and runs off with his family. All the themes and messages of the story would have supported it, but that ending would not have felt particularly memorable. And it would have been no more memorable if Darnay was killed and the story became a tragedy instead. There needs to be that distinctive curl at the end, and thankfully Dickens found one.
All throughout the story, we have known of Sydney Carton, a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Charles. Sydney has always wished that his similarities went beyond mere physical appearance, though. He wishes that he had the moral fiber that Charles does, the purpose that Charles does, the family that Charles does. But now, when Charles is taken captive, Sydney finally sees his opportunity. He may not be able to have the life of Darnay, but he can have his death. He visits the man in prison, overpowers him with an ether-soaked rag, and trades places. Darnay goes free, but only by Carton continuing to the guillotine.
That ending is still strongly supported by the themes of the story, but it is surprising in that it requires a character who lives outside of the main contention to enter it through an unexpected choice. Not only does it make the ending a surprise, it makes it unforgettable.
There is a similar surprise at the end of the film Citizen Kane. The movie kicks off with a question: what did Charles Foster Kane, the famous business and political magnate, mean by the word “Rosebud,” which was the last thing he said just before he died? Through the course of the film we are taken by flashback through Kane’s powerful, yet tumultuous life. We see how he has always been grasping, but never content. In our witnessing of his loving and hating and building and breaking we come across many, many things, but never one called Rosebud.
It isn’t until the very final scene that we see his old effects being thrown into the fire, and among them is a sled he played with as a child, emblazoned with the name of Rosebud. It is a surprising conclusion, referencing an early scene that seems a world away from the powerful tycoon we have been watching for the last two hours. But as surprising a revelation as it is, it is also extremely fitting. What the man ever sought, but never found, was the carefree happiness of his youth, taken from him by force.
As with A Tale of Two Cities, this conclusion fits seamlessly with the themes of the story, but is also entirely unexpected. And it too is rendered unforgettable by being such an outside-of-the-box answer to all that came before.
A Bittersweet Love Story)
In my last short story I tried to my hand at putting a surprising curl in its ending. In The Late Letter we followed a young woman who broke up with her lover and then struggled to make sense of her conflicting emotions. Over time she came to an epiphany, and rushed off to send him a letter, asking that the two of them could make amends.
At this point the straightforward conclusion would have been that he accepted her and they lived happily ever after. The opposite would have been that he rejected her. Either of these would have been too obvious, though. Instead I tried to find an outside-of-the-box solution, so I made it that when she mailed her letter she also received a telegram informing her that her lover had already been killed in an accident.
That isn’t really a twist ending, it doesn’t change the truth of any previous scene, but I hope that it was unexpected and spurred contemplation. I did not want to content myself with a final note that was merely fitting, I wanted it to be memorable.