Monday, July 18, 2011

The Resolution Conundrum

HOUSEKEEPING: Today starts the DSD Book Group discussion on FUN AND GAMES. Stop by and start your own thread or join an ongoing discussion.



By Steve Weddle

Holy Hell, am I tired of these pat endings in crime fiction -- particularly mysteries.

It's the resolution that bugs me. That little epilogue thrown up at the end where you get some Shakespearean double wedding and every loose end is tied up like a noose.

I should probably explain. I've been laid up with some sort of bubonic curse of a cold for a week (Don't you dare say "summer colds are the worst." I swear, I'm making a list and when I can stand upright for more that thirty seconds, everyone who has said that to me is going to get an elbow to the larynx.) I've had to forgo my normal self-medication routine of pills and Bushmills (Pills and Bushmills gimme the thrills and the chills, hoorah!!) and hand myself entirely over to Dr. Nyquil. So the incoherent rages that my psychiatrists and I have come to, what's the right word?, respect are now learning to fight their way through the five-times-a-day doses of doxylamine succinate. So, you know, bear with me.

As I mentioned on Joelle's post about focus, I've been working for months on a collection of stories. And I've decided that I don't like the way most stories end. See, they resolve. I'm thinking I hate that. You know, like you come to the end of this 5,000 word story and it's all pacing and tension and character development and then at the end you want to see the main character resolve the situation by Making The Bad Guys Pay or Finding The Lost Child. Or you learn who was pulling the strings. Or who was to blame for the banking disaster. Or you finally get the explanation for The Hero's Pain. It's like there's this feeling that everything must come to an end when you get to the last period. The reader must feel closure. The reader must know why things happened as they did.

Well, you know what? Fuck you. You don't get to know everything, asshole.

You don't get to see the hero get the girl. You don't get that closing that doubles back on something in the opening that ties it all together. Hell no. Sometimes the story just ends. You paid 99 cents for a collection and you're upset that a story didn't tie up everything like a shiny box of plastic crap on your tenth birthday? Too bad. Here's a nickel refund, champ.

Recently, when I twatted something about disliking pat endings, TommySalami linked up this great article on Chekhov's endings.

Here's the part I really dig:
Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have.  A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader continues the journey in the character’s stead.  I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.
Now, look. Comparing me as a writer to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov is like comparing, um, someone is who isn't so great at something to someone who fricking created the thing. (See what I mean. Totes QED and all, right?)

But I think that's what really bugs me the most. I mean, heck, I'm sure I've dug stories -- novels or shorts -- that tie everything up in a bow. Maybe it isn't a deal breaker. But where I think we start to fail as writers is when we forget that someone will be reading the story we're writing. I think it borders on a lack of respect for the reader, sort of saying "Here, let me explain this to you in small words." Maybe this works for some stories. Maybe some readers are idiots. Maybe they appreciate having everything handed to them so that they can close the book and think about how nice that was and then move on to mowing the yard or sorting coupons for Hamburger Helper.

But resolution is for sissies. The stories I'm really liking these days are those that are more open-ended, those that don't resolve that last chord.

I've been reading through THE NEW YORKER STORIES from Ann Beattie. She and Raymond Carver are often mentioned together as some sort of kindred souls. The endings of her stories are much like the various endings in Chekhov's. They end -- but they don't always resolve. And that is where the power lies. The reader isn't handed closure. The reader is more involved. More is asked of the reader when the ending is unresolved.

And, at the end of the page, that's what I want. I don't want a contained, compact experience that ends when I move on. I want a story that grabs hold of me for thousands of words, gnaws deeply into whatever is left of my soul, and won't let me move on. Anyone else?

11 comments:

Angie said...

Very well said. But isn't that what they say we are supposed to do in this day and age — tie it all together? I guess it makes sense for certain genres but crime could be less a package. It's too predictable.

Dana King said...

I agree with you up to a point. I've read stories that just end. Might as well have been in the middle of a sentence. Those are unsatisfying. Something needs to be resolved, or there's no point to the story.

Now, does the man element of the plot need to be tied up in a bow and presented so even Rain Man can understand it? No. Drives me crazy. The best endings reach a point where it's logical to stop telling this story, but leave us with the impression the characters' lives continue on. We just don't get to eavesdrop anymore.

Dana King said...

I agree with you up to a point. I've read stories that just end. Might as well have been in the middle of a sentence. Those are unsatisfying. Something needs to be resolved, or there's no point to the story.

Now, does the man element of the plot need to be tied up in a bow and presented so even Rain Man can understand it? No. Drives me crazy. The best endings reach a point where it's logical to stop telling this story, but leave us with the impression the characters' lives continue on. We just don't get to eavesdrop anymore.

Ray Adam Latiolais said...

Summer colds are the worst.

Al Tucher said...

Some stories should end like that, but a diet of nothing but would burn me out.

Thomas Pluck said...

It has to be done right. It's become a running joke, best put by Elmore Leonard, that the "literary story" doesn't have an ending. (His answer to why he hasn't been published in The New Yorker? "My stories have endings.")

Do you think the movie "Seven" had an ending? The French Connection? Planet of the Apes?

One of the best recent examples of a novel that doesn't end pat, but ends with satisfaction, is Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING. This kind of ending doesn't have to be a joke. I'll admit, I like some tales to be tied in a neat bow, and some have to be. They are escapist, and there is nothing wrong with that.
However, I dislike when violent justice, that honeysuckle for the reptile brain, comes without a price. It simply does not work that way. Even if you get away with it, it plants a serpent's egg in your soul, and the resolution must acknowledge that, however subtly. It doesn't have to spawn a hundred year blood feud (though some vigilantes have done so) but even evil has a momma, and she gonna come loaded for bear and lusting for blood when you put her bad boy in the ground.

John McFetridge said...

Pat endings for the readers or the characters?

When I get to the end of something I like to have a good idea why someone wanted to tell me this story.

The characters in the story don't have to have any idea how the elements fit together.

Barna W. Donovan said...

Hmm...Interesting issue. And I was just thinking of this after watching last Friday's season premiere of "Haven" and the Stephen King novella, "The Colorado Kid" it was based on. I loved "The Colorado Kid" exactly because it didn't have a pat ending. The mystery is left open and the main characters, chewing over all the unexplainable details of the stranger's death can't come up with any kind of an explanation as to what happened to him.

However, I also think that the no-ending ending of "Kid" worked because it supported the very theme of the book. The purpose of the story was not really about the mystery but human nature and what it is about human nature that always demands a clear explanations to all mysteries.

King also did the same thing with "From a Buick 8," and there it also worked because the unexplained mystery illustrated the theme.

However, where it definitely did not work - for me at least - was when King tried the same thing again in "The Cell." There I was actually angry after finishing the book and not getting any kind of explanation for what caused everything that had unfolded in the story. I felt cheated. You don't destroy the entire world, I thought, and don't give some sort of an explanation. Maybe it proves the point of "The Colorado Kid" or "From a Buick 8," but the no-ending conclusion to a story only works for me if it is some sort of a device to illustrate the overall theme of the story.

John McFetridge said...

Those kinds of resolutions are particularly tricky. I didn't mind the non-explanation of Cell, nor did I mind the - I don't know how to describe it, lazy? Cliche? - ending of Under the Dome. In some ways they're almost interchangeable and why he decided one needed that kind of ending and the other didn't is baffling.

Jay Stringer said...

I guess I like stories where a couple of the more pressing issues have been resolved, but life in general is going to continue on, pretty much like real life.

I like the feeling that the 'camera' merely pulls out of the story at the best moment, but the 'best moment' rarely means closure, in my opinion.

One of my favourite endings to a story is CHINATOWN. And in many ways, it's an ending where the detective has pieced everything together. He has all the answers. But with it comes a sense that he's out of his depth, and that he's a very small part in a very big machine, That's always felt like a good mystery ending to me,

Scott Parker said...

Going to have to agree with Jay, here. I like stories that resolve, I like the wrap-up. There are stories in which ambiguous ending are good (almost every X-Files episode) but the self-contained story is over.