What If It Were Me? Finding the Right Ending

hamlet everyone dead

Recently a fan posted this statement on my Facebook page:

My wife and I have now both finished Gather Her ‘Round and find ourselves wondering if the Tufa ever get a HAPPY ending?

I replied,

I can’t speak to that (we all have our definitions of “happy”) but I hope they all have the right endings for those particular stories.

I wanted to expand a little on what makes the “right” ending.

Consider the Shakespearean definition of a tragedy: the story of a seemingly heroic figure whose major character flaw causes the story to end with his tragic downfall. What this means, in practice, is that in a Shakespeare play, the story ends the only way it can. Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello, are all dead by the end of their plays, along with most of the rest of the cast, but it’s not depressing because it feels like the right ending. Hamlet’s indecision, Lear’s pettiness, Othello’s jealousy all set the characters, and their stories, on a path that, when it concludes, feels inevitable. They called it catharsis in my high school English class; a more prosaic term might be that the ending makes us inevitably wonder, what if it were me?

Imagine if Hamlet had avoided the poisoned blade, exposed Claudius, and taken over as king; or if Othello realized he’d been duped by Iago before he killed Desdemona. Would we still be talking about these characters five hundred years later? Would we see ourselves in their bad decisions, the way we do now? Because that’s what the right ending does: it makes you realize that the story could have been about you. What if it were me?

As an example of a notoriously wrong ending, consider the original final scene of Blade Runner. After finding the origami unicorn (you’ll have to see the film to understand the meaning), Deckard and Rachel go into the elevator. The doors close, and the screen goes black.

Blade Runner Happy Ending

And then, after we’ve spent two hours learning that the earth of 2019 is so ravaged that people are leaving in droves, after seeing that there are virtually no real animals left, just artificial copies, after the heartbreaking scene in which Roy Batty, an artificial human, shows more humanity than any of the human characters…suddenly Deckard and Rachel are driving somewhere with sunlight dappling through green trees. Deckard informs us that, unlike every other Nexus 6 with a four-year life span, Rachel is “special” and has no preset termination date. Not only does this ending wreck the story thematically, it makes absolutely no narrative sense. It contradicts everything the rest of the movie has gone to great lengths to establish.

The right Blade Runner ending is the one found on the director’s cut, ambiguous in its meaning and asking more questions than it answers. And like every good ending, it’s encoded in the story’s narrative DNA from the first scene. When the last revelation hits, we wonder, what if it were me?

So I didn’t set out to write a “happy” ending, or a sad one, or a funny one for Gather Her Round. I set out to write the right ending. Every story has one, and the writer’s job is to figure it out. If s/he does, then the reader will (hopefully) see him/herself in the characters, and wonder, what if that were me?

One Comment on “What If It Were Me? Finding the Right Ending”

  1. Great post. I’d add that a truly “right” ending shows the downfall of a character because of his longing for something (rather than just a flaw). Othello, for example, has spent his life proving himself as a black man of power in a white world, so he is especially vulnerable to Iago’s lies because of his deep desire to be accepted and respected by that world.

    Have you been listening to the S-Town podcast? I’d be curious on your thoughts about it as narrative and semi-comic tragedy.

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