Writing Neat Endings? Tyrannical epiphanies, self-actualisation
Effective story endings
Some story endings are satisfying because they ring true, the ‘right’ outcome based on the lead character’s personality and actions. Other endings achieve even more. As we read, we deepen our understanding and feelings for the protagonist, and by the end of the story, we are reflecting more deeply on life as well.
These stories that move readers into a greater understanding of life are the high mountains of fiction—inspiring for readers, a challenge for writers. Fiction that gives us bland endings keep us in Flatland, with no challenging peak in the mental landscape to move us. Another poor ending is one that ties up of all the plot’s loose ends but gives us nothing more. That’s fine for comic stories, but unsatisfying in serious ones.
Now there’s even more to ponder regarding endings. Writer Jim Shepard points out a disquieting trend in fictional endings. He says that more fiction is turning into self-help texts. Why? Because readers expect solutions for their lives. He blames the ‘age of the Oprah Book Club’ for the trend of readers assessing a book in terms of how much it ratifies their experience and provides help.
Epiphanies and self-actualisation
To develop such a ‘self-help’ ending, writers must end the story with the lead character changing for the good—becoming better, perhaps reaching self-actualisation., i.e., achieving their full potential.
For Shepard, this trend for creating self-actualised characters is leading to a problem in writing: One he calls ‘the tyranny of epiphany’.
An epiphany refers to a sudden, intuitive insight into something’s essential meaning. In literature, it is a useful term to identify when something in the character’s world suddenly opens the doors of perception for them, giving them a sense of life’s meaning. Shepard defines a story’s epiphanic ending as the point when protagonists experience a ‘defining moment of insight or clarification’ that causes them to see anew ‘the essential emotional or spiritual furniture of their lives’.
What’s wrong with that? For Shepard, the problem is that because a character has now reached this high plane of self-actualisation, it is not possible for a writer to add obstacles ‘on the road to personal fulfillment’. He believes a more realistic scenario is to create protagonists that are just like us in real life: They may become self-aware about some things but not others, and in spite of some self-awareness, but will probably still go ahead doing things that are dumb or self-destructive.
What’s the solution?
Shepard’s views suggest a dilemma for writers. To engage and satisfy readers, writers may want to have their lead character change significantly and positively. But, according to Shepard, writers need to avoid grabbing a ‘neat’ positive ending, where the lead character is now set ‘on the path to a more actualized life’. He agrees that a story’s ending must enlarge readers’ understanding in some way, but warns about pandering to readers who demand stories finish with a totally self-actualised hero/heroine.
Shepard’s views made me reflect on some endings of novels and stories I’ve read recently. It’s true that much contemporary fiction apes the structure of reality shows, where the key is self-discovery and positive change. Many viewers want to watch someone being transformed: people in such shows take risks to design their dream home, have a surgical or weight-loss makeover, stop being a brat, or attempt some other challenge to their status quo.
In literature, such self-discovery is common in quest stories. The main character searches for something external—a lost book, a set of letters, his or her ancestors, etc. But along the way, the character discovers something more personal, which deepens their understanding, changes them in some way, and thus puts them on the path towards self-actualisation.
Messy real life
My life has never so tidily packaged. Even if I gain some insights, they often come late in the piece when they’re pretty useless. Maybe this is why, like Shepard, I’m getting peeved about this flood of insightful characters in fiction and life stories. I do not like endings where a loser is converted into a class act.
An excellent example of a thoughtful, compelling but ‘non-actualised’ ending is Alice Munro’s story, Chance. At the story’s end, Juliet starts a life quite different from the one presented at the beginning. Like Juliet, readers have no idea if that new life will be great or not. The story comes with no self-help message for them. And because it does not have a neatly wrapped up, super-upbeat ending, it kept me thinking about Juliet and her actions long after I read the story. I was interested in her, a human with the usual frailties, whose choices could be flawed. Alice Munro’s ability to craft untidily realistic and absolutely spot-on endings is why she truly is a ‘high mountains’ writer of fiction.
Jim Shepard (2001), ‘I Know Myself Real Well. That’s the Problem,’ Bringing the Devil to his Knees: The craft of fiction and the writing life . Charles Baxter & Peter Turchi, Eds.
Definitions from Dictionary.com.