Sunday, June 16, 2013

Three Useful Terms for Discussing Endings

From “All Is Well: The Epilogue in Children’s Fantasy Fiction,” by Mike Cadden, in Narrative, Vol. 20, No. 3 (October 2012):

James Phelan makes a distinction between closure—simply “the way a narrative signals its end,” and what he calls “completion”: “the degree of resolution accompanying the closure. Closure need not be tied to the resolution of instabilities and tensions but completeness always is.” Many children’s fantasy tales provide closure only to move on to what is (or functions as) epilogue in order to satisfy what is perceived to linger in the mind of the reader after plot has been resolved. Closure is about the mechanics of the narrative progression (e.g., a story of a journey will signal closure when the protagonist returns to the starting point), while completion is about “instabilities” that drive the progression and direct the interests of implied readers (if the protagonist in the journey plot sets out to  right a wrong in another location and returns home with the situation in that place unchanged, the narrative would provide closure but not completion). In a similar vein, Maria Nikolajeva contrasts closure with the more specific phenomenon of “aperture,” which she describes as the state of psychological completion of the character at the end of the narrative. Will this character be well despite the rough ending? Can we extrapolate an upward swing in her fortunes or at least her relationship with her world?
I reprint this here because I always like finding official narrative theory terms for ideas or concepts editors have been using in practice for years:
  • Closure:  the story dynamics move it toward a clear end (and does not, say, abruptly quit in the middle of a scene, a la The Sopranos)
  • Completion:  with the conflicts or mysteries or lacks of the Action Plot resolved
  • Aperture:  And the protagonist’s emotional journey/plot likewise resolved in some way.
The presence of all three equals, I think, the most emotionally satisfying ending — though not perhaps the most challenging or innovative, if that’s what you’re going for instead.

A very interesting article if you like thinking about endings, epilogues, or why we write and publish for children the way we do.


  1. Cheryl,

    Enjoyed your post. I like the additional "aperture" to endings. Having recently taken your online class in Structure and Plotting, I'm adding this to your lecture notes. :)

    Take care,

  2. Thanks for the definitions and their subtle yet distinct differences. Great stuff! :)

  3. This is in response to your previous post on The Fire Horse Girl. It's the
    second novel I've seen in the past year with a MC who is Chinese and an author who is non-. In these cases, the author either had adopted a Chinese child or the author's sister had adopted one. Having had my novel query about an Asian-white MC rejected, and being Asian myself, I'm beginning to think that I've been displaced in the market because of better writing by non-Asians about Asian Main Characters. But I'm not sure that this is the complete picture.

    1. I usually have a policy of not responding to anonymous comments, because if I have to own my words here, so should you. But I wanted to say that I agree with your comment that it's hard to know if you have the complete picture, in the sense that many, many, MANY factors go into the decision to publish a book, from the nature of the publisher and what else is scheduled on its list to the nature and quality of the manuscript to where the publisher believes the market will be three years in the future to the projected unit cost on the P&L . . . So don't give up (or think you'll never make it because you're Asian) just because your query was rejected. Keep sending it out, looking for the right publisher, and refining your query as you go. Good luck!

  4. Endings are a bitch. You leave too much open, and you're using gimmicks or it's "unresolved." You wrap it up to tightly, and you're telling to much and underestimating the intelligence of the reader. I don't know that there's any special "terms" or "formulas" for a good ending. Either it works or it doesn't. I think the term should be "wallchuck." You need to avoid the ending where the reader gets to it and just gets so mad he or she chucks it against the wall. Avoid the wallchuck at all costs!

  5. Ha! Funny seeing Mike here. He's actually working about two or three miles SE from where I'm at right now. *random Missouri note*