I came across a quote this week, thanks to a Facebook status update on the Writer's Digest page, that I felt compelled to blog about. The quote is this:
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”
― Frank Herbert
Of the comments that followed, there seemed to be a general approval and consensus (he typed redundantly) that this was true. 494 likes. 121 shares. So yeah, I'd say Frank Herbert nailed that one. Except, with all due respect to Mr. Herbert---an author whose career brought us only one of the best-selling science fiction novels of all time (I'm talking about DUNE) and its sequels---there is a real ending when telling a story. It's not "just the place where you stop," I say, emphasizing the respectfully.
Perhaps, Mr. Herbert and I consider endings in the same light and it's our lexicon that is different. He's no longer alive to expand on this comment and before I'm eviscerated for taking a science-fiction legend to task on the semantics of narrative structure, I'll concede that he could simply mean that in any story there lies a point where you stop telling it, but it's not an "ending" for those characters. It's literally where the story "stops" and you, the reader, are no longer privy to that world. Okay... yes, sure. However, I think this brings up an interesting question. What's the difference between ending a story and stopping one? And, to that point, why is it important to make the distinction?
Taken literally, the quote jumped out at me as saying that you can just end a story any old place---as it's "just the place where you stop" and that's what stuck in my craw a bit. I'm from the school of thought that a story, properly told, has a "real ending" in that it has a predetermined end point based upon the structure of the story leading up to it. Between "Once Upon a Time" and "The End" there lies a structure that takes us through the story. Where it stops is contingent upon where it begins, and conversely so.
If a story is going along, happy as Larry, and it stops---because that's where you decided to stop it---and if it does so at just any old point, that's what it will feel like. A stop. Not an end. The difference? One is dying in your bed at a ripe old age surrounded by loved ones, and the other is falling off a cliff on your honeymoon. Now if life, yeah, unfortunately, sometimes, it just stops. Not everyone gets a real ending in life---but in stories? They should. An "end" done properly brings about closure; it is a natural conclusion to a series of events that when put together, tell a story. Usually, we're waiting for something to happen. At some point, a question is raised. Will the farm boy win the dog-sled race and save the family farm? Will a band of misfit coworkers stop a media conglomerate from buying out their record store? Will Batman stop the Joker from destroying Gotham? All of these are movie examples and bonus points if you knew all three; but the point is that these stories, once that question is posed to the audience, had a "real ending" determined. We knew that once the question was answered, we had reached the "real ending"---we had found closure. If the story stopped before that moment, it would feel incomplete. If the story stopped long after the question was answered, it would feel long and tired.
I always had devastating trouble with endings in my early writing (heck, I still do if I haven't figured out the real ending to my story). It always seemed simple to begin a story. Present the setting, present character, and make something happen. After that, I would write and write and ultimately come to a point where I hit a wall. Or I fell off a cliff. The storytelling stopped, but there wasn't an ending. Just a stopping point. And this troubled me. And I couldn't figure out why I had such trouble with "the end" until I realized that I was only writing "the stop" or, more precisely, "a stop." No closure. No sense of a completed story arc. Just an empty cliff face. If the story doesn't stop at the end, then Mr. Herbert's right: there is no real ending, it's just "a" place where you stop. Not "the" place.
Are there exception to this rule? Sure---sometimes it's not about asking a question. Sometimes, it's about jumping in and then jumping out of a longer story, showing us a "slice of life." In these instances, I can see where Mr. Herbert's quote works well. We accept that we're along for a ride and when it's over, it's over. We don't know when that stop is coming, until we're there; but in those cases, we're prepared for it. In those structures, we aren't promised (whether implicitly or explicitly) a real ending. Though even in real world examples, like a documentary, I can see where this approach, this pop-in and pop-out with narrative abandon (which seems ripe for documentary---actual slices of life) is altered to craft a more structured narrative. We apply storytelling conceits to even the things we call "reality" programming (let's be honest, most of that is completely scripted). Documentaries do it. Magazines do it. It's slice of life, but the story tellers craft it with narrative; giving us a starting point, a map, and a real ending at which to aim. Why? To keep us engaged. We're often presented with a person to follow, with whom we can identify, and a question is asked about that person as to what they might accomplish over the course of the documentary/article/story. When the outcome of that goal is revealed, through accomplishment or failure, you understand there isn't anything more to say. That feeling you get, at the end of a book or film or story, that feeling that the story teller is about to stop---that feeling happens for a reason---that's your real ending.
Any time you make an effort to craft a story through plot---those choices and actions your characters undertake and the complications that ultimately ensue---you are jumping onto the bandwagon and proclaiming with those words that there is a "real ending" to be had. Something is supposed to happen, something that signals back to the beginning. There is a reason stories begin where they do---it's why we have inciting incidents and intrusions. Those first moments are the set-up and clues that create the road map for the story we're about to travel. We take our audiences on a journey when we tell a story. Our goal is to get our audience home, safe in their beds, feeling all sorts of closure when they say goodbye to the world in which we've placed them. Not push them off a cliff. Or worse---no bed, no cliff; just letting them watch the ending go by and then leaving them stranded, wondering why they're stuck on a journey, listening to a story that they know should have already stopped.
That's why it's important to know your real ending. To know when exactly the journey is over. That's why we don't call it the stop---we give it a more deserved moniker: the end. It's not just a place to stop. It's THE place. Mr. Herbert said it himself. He doesn't consider this the "real ending," but, respectfully, that's exactly what this is.
Thoughts. From my brain. Anything to do with how we tell stories and the stories we tell each other. Literally and figuratively.
Writer. Husband. Father. Effulgent dreamer. A Fightin' Irishman (@NDdotEDU '01). A playwriting Bobcat (MFA in Playwriting, @OhioU '13). I write plays. I'm a geek. I wanted to be an astronaut. I go places in my head.