Lawn chairs at Ox-Bow
Sometimes characters speak to me out of the blue. They might introduce themselves in a line of dialogue, with a simple observation, a long internal monologue, a rant couched in outrage or delight or bewilderment or worry. I listen, record, let them have their say, and try not to force their hand, er, tongue. I’ll follow them long enough to figure out whether they’re taking me into their world or leading me down a dead end road. I’ve learned it’s better they remain mysterious to me for a while early on. If they have a story (and not just a lovely rant), their convoluted actions and thoughts will eventually challenge me, pushing me toward a level of discomfort that I must write my way out of. Maybe I have to release or reveal something I prefer to hold onto. It’s challenge that allows me to stick with characters for the length of time it takes to make a story, much less a novel. They move into my head, complete with furniture and problematic relatives and entire wardrobes, as if laying claim to a room in my brain. No matter how unpleasant they might have been at times over the months or years we spend together, I’m always a bit melancholy when they pack up and move out.
Perhaps because I tend to fall in love with characters, they come to me somewhat easily. It’s plot that gives me fits. Those characters whose foibles and mysteries I’ve indulged must, at a certain point, cough up their rent. I prefer bartering: in exchange for my brain space, they help me with plotting. Plot evolves when characters generate an action, or are acted upon, and are drawn into a troubling of the waters in their particular, idiosyncratic lives.
You know how athletes talk about ‘getting into the zone,’ where no pain is felt and the athlete is one with his sport and his body? I was always jealous of that, until it occurred to me that the same thing can happen in writing. If I’ve hung in there through the grind and the muck, kept butt-in-chair even when the story seemed to be going nowhere and taking its sweet time getting there, a moment comes in which the characters and I are mutually implicated in the rise and fall of the trouble. I’ve become entangled as I write them toward their eventual untangling. If I do my part well, it’s possible a reader somewhere in the future will also become entangled, invested in the character’s release.
I’ve heard this described as the story fulfilling its compact with the reader, giving them a return on their investment, through a resolution that satisfies the human need for release.
Resolution can arrive in a number of ways. Knowing this does not, I’m sorry to say, make arriving at one any easier for this writer. Landing an ending (without the wheels coming off or, to stay with the athlete metaphor, without a sprained ankle) is perhaps even more of a struggle for me than plotting. Sometimes the best way through what easily mushrooms into paralyzing anxiety is to dive into a methodical study of works I admire.
Close readings of satisfying stories shows me that various kinds of resolution can blur and overlap, even in a single story. The most successful endings, the ones resolved in a way that feels ‘earned’, come about when seeds are planted early and subtly, evolving organically, as their tendrils weave through plot. The polar opposite of satisfying is the resolution that feels appended, like a requisite afterthought or a tidying up. On the other hand, a surprise ending that at first seems to come out of nowhere—can compel a reader to continue thinking and drawing connections after he’s left the story, brewing a unique satisfaction of its own.
Below are some of the notes I made while rereading, with an eye toward resolution, several very different writers and various lengths of work. (In italics is the type of resolution I think the story employs, followed by the title and author.) Maybe some of you will find a useful bit here or there your own work. Maybe you’ll disagree vehemently with my reading of these stories. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What endings have stuck with you?
1. A change occurs in the protagonist: E.g. “Soldier of Fortune” by Bret Anthony Johnston. Whether subtle interior psychic change or dramatic shift in beliefs, whether brought on by others’ actions or by the character’s own folly, through maturation or aging, this sort of resolution features a change after which nothing will be the same again. Johnston’s story, narrated from a distance of some years, looks back at the change effected upon the narrator during adolescence through his interactions with a neighbor.
2. Dramatic changes occur for other characters, beyond the apparent protagonist: E.g. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. In the wake of the actions of the central character, four other characters adjust their lives, having spent a year observing him, thinking about him, talking to him, and using him as canvas for their longing. A sense of development across a community can arise organically through this sort of development.
An insight is received by a character: E.g. “The Dead” by James Joyce. Joyce liked the term epiphany, a now somewhat fraught word, perhaps from overuse, perhaps from being co-opted and commodified in the vast spiritual marketplace of self-help. Sometimes it isn’t the protagonist who submits to an insight, but an ancillary character. Sometimes it isn’t anyone in the story at all, but rather the reader whose perceptions shift. This takes many forms: from small revelations about one’s own character to acceptance of a hard truth about family, society, life itself.
A decision is taken after an event or insight, resulting in action: E.g. Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. A novel has the luxury of time and space, allowing the accumulation of inciting incidents that ultimately shape a resolution. Societal injustice and cruelty, compounded by tragic choices—if choice is a power Donoghue’s protagonist can be said to have—cannot lead to any other action than the one taken. In Donoghue’s capable hands, empathy for this bedeviled young woman is so strongly forged that, even as we steel ourselves for the inevitable ending, our breath is taken away through the last pages.
A decision or insight is considered, then not taken: E.g. “Silence” by Alice Munro. Munro has been called a master of the unresolved story. But doing nothing about the trouble, walking away from it, is in itself a decision, so I would argue that there is in fact resolution here. Munro’s hyper-competent protagonist, Juliet, handles the trouble in her life—her daughter’s estrangement—with an attitude worthy of Pangloss: I’ve got this; don’t worry about me; everything works out for the best. Sure, sadness will show up now and then, Juliet seems to be protesting; she will manage. Some readers see little difference between “a decision considered but not taken” and “absence of resolution” (discussed below). But the ground from which Dan Chaon’s story emerges is vastly darker than Munro’s. The resolution of each story is intricately woven from the beginning: for “Silence,” it is attached to character; for “Prosthesis” it is attached to atmosphere.
Lastly, the absence of resolution: E.g. “Prosthesis” by Dan Chaon. Sometimes verisimilitude nails a story arc to an absolute. In this case: life’s troubles are irresolvable. Even an untidy resolution is doomed to ring false. Chaon’s protagonist reflects on the random meetings and “small, offhand choices” that make a life; she’s disturbed, even as she accepts the lack of resolution. We can call it an insight, even if it’s just a “meh” insight, and Chaon is no more satisfied with this newsflash than we are. We could push a little harder, looking for resolution, and say that in turning away from her possible pasts and reminding herself that her husband is a good man, the protagonist takes a decision when she steps into his arms—until Chaon waylays her (and us) with “her possible pasts crackling behind her like a terrible lightning, branches and branches . . . ” Fear grips her (and us) even as she leans into the warmth of her husband’s neck. We have no choice but to feel “the pulse of other choices, other lives, opening up beneath her.” The contentment and safety we wish for is ruptured by the inescapable randomness of life, threatening to strike from behind and ready to swallow us in its open maw below. The story’s final chilling words make clear that there will be no summing up, no denouement: “. . . endless, and then nothing.” What troubles Chaon’s protagonist is anything but resolved.
Now, how to resolve this post?
Wait . . . What?
Sorry, you have to excuse me . . . Someone’s knocking.
I’ll listen a while, figure out whether they’re headed someplace interesting.
Maybe they’re packing a resolution or two. Maybe I’ll be lucky this time.