How the Story Ends

Although this entry discusses the endings of screenplays and short stories, no spoilers are revealed. We’ll be looking at the craft of bringing a story to an end rather than the specifics.

There’s been some disquiet over the ending of the TV version of Game of Thrones, with the consensus that it had been unsatisfying compared to the action that had gripped viewers earlier in the run. It echoes the rumbles that followed the endings of Lost a decade ago and The Prisoner in the 1960s.

Conflict is at the heart of storytelling across all media and all eras, and it’s by convention that the conflict should rise and rise as the story progresses, then end with a final resolution that ties up every plot point. Unless a writer is exceptionally skilled, it’s difficult to break away from this convention and still hold the audience.

An unsatisfying ending is usually because the writer failed to resolve the conflict, or sometimes because said conflict wasn’t strong enough in the first instance.

Let’s look at The Prisoner. The series begins when a former British intelligence agent known as Number Six is abducted and imprisoned in a coastal village, where absurd rules apply and staff attempt to nudge him into explaining why he abruptly resigned from his job.

Despite this strong initial premise, the series begins to fall into a rut. By the halfway point of the run, each episode sees Number Six attempting either to escape or to win over his captors, but failing each time in a near-predictable manner.

The final episode is consistent with the absurd rules that had been well established, but fails to answer the question posed about why Number Six had left the security services. That revelation could have been one of the greatest moments in TV history. But thanks to the erratic production, the episode instead divided its viewership.

It is entirely possible to end a piece in such an open-ended manner, as is common in some short stories, but this must be carefully done. A few years ago, I had a story published in an anthology whose stories didn’t seem to have proper endings, leaving me with the feeling that each writer was concealing a vital plot point.

However, an open ending is common in The New Yorker and similar publications. In other media, the film Teeth (2007) is a particularly good example of showing how the previous sequence of events might be about to repeat without spelling it out too much.

The bottom line is that a good ending must either indicate that the previous conflict will be resolved in some way, or an audience must have enough information to work out how it might be resolved once the narrative ends.

Performances and Housekeeping.

On Monday of last week, I debuted a new poem at Hotchpotch. This is a local open-mike night for writers. While I’m far more of a prose writer than a poet, I thought this particular piece would go down well.

I’ve been to enough live events to know the standard housekeeping message that’s given before the performance. This poem was a version of the announcement that made it sound as though the speaker was having a mental breakdown. It did indeed attract a positive response, while a second poem and a short story were also well-received.

At last month’s Hotchpotch, I had a picture taken of me. I didn’t particularly like it because my neck was too far forward reading the piece. This time I was sure to stand up straighter and look up at the audience from time to time. I’m not saying my pieces came across better because of it, but I certainly felt better by paying attention to these factors.

I’m an advocate of people reading out their work in public, and of course in private while proofreading. If you know of a nearby group, go along and support it. There are actually two such groups around here, but I didn’t take to the other one since the focus there is mainly on folk tales, whereas Hotchpotch has a more literary flavour. Some groups even allow you simply to listen without contributing for the first meeting.

But what if there isn’t a group, or it’s not the right style for you? Have you ever thought about starting your own? There’s no reason why you should wait for someone else to do it, as it probably won’t happen.

The meeting place doesn’t have to be anywhere with a stage. We meet on the upper floor of a café, and we create an informal Poets’ Corner near the top of the stairs. Some pubs and coffee shops are happy to donate their space provided the participants are putting money in the till, so we hold at least one break during each evening. Just bear in mind that the venue could back out or change their terms at any time. A pub we used to use free of charge suddenly wanted £50 a session, even though we probably spent double that in drinks alone.

The other element you need to decide is the ethos. Should the audience offer constructive criticism to the readers, or is it solely for writers to try out new material? At Hotchpotch, the latter approach is taken, although there’s nothing to stop people giving feedback to each other privately afterwards.

But above all, it’s for writers to meet and talk to each other. Every time we meet up, I usually hear about an upcoming event or two that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. The actual writing process is generally a solitary pursuit, but we all still need that connection.