The Final Act: Stories that Linger

by Annie Farrell | 11/8/17 2:15am

A final scene is often the deciding factor in an audience’s opinion of a work of art. The ending of a book, play or movie is the last bite which, if served right, gives the audience cause for further meditation.

There is probably a specific final scene that has stuck with you over time. For me, John Steinbeck’s closing to “Of Mice and Men” is imprinted in my memory. I read Steinbeck’s novel as a requirement for my eighth-grade English class. Contently swallowed by the worn-leather recliner in my living room, I read the last chapter of “Of Mice and Men,” closed the book, then opened it again moments later to re-read the chapter. The ending shocked me, but the puzzlement I felt over George’s actions compelled me to read again.

After re-reading and years of contemplation, I still cannot decide on concrete answers to the questions this final scene raises. Perhaps this is why it has stuck with me for so long.

English professor Barbara Will recalled the ending of “The Great Gatsby” as especially memorable. Will marveled at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ability to wrap up a mysterious story about a mysterious character into a symbol of the American dream, an ending at odds with the rest of the novel. Daniel Berthe ’18, an English modified with film major, similarly admires the season finale of the TV show “Manhunt: Unabomber” for its accomplishment connecting seemingly disjointed plot lines.

The reasons final scenes stay with us may vary, but it is evident that the best endings are the ones that leave us pondering after the story is finished.

“I think that [storytelling] should be used to make people think, to make people reflect and to make people change their minds about whatever it is the author wants to talk about,” Berthe said.

The best endings do not always aim to satisfy the audience. Will said the way a story ends should reflect the effect the artist wanted to have on the audience, which is not always satisfaction. According to English major Jane Gerstner ’18, the endings that leave an audience dissatisfied are often more effective.

“[Leaving] a reader feeling unsettled or uneasy is almost harder to do and can make that work ... really stick with the person,” Gerstner said. “They want to know more, they want to try to find a way to satisfy that craving for tying up all the loose ends. When [the loose ends] don’t all come together, it leaves this sort of frustration, but [when] done well ... I think it [can] be very masterful.”

Writing a masterful ending is no easy task, Gerstner said.

“There is so much pressure for an ending to be so many different things at once,” she said.

Journalist Katherine Anne Porter once said that she would not begin writing a story until she knew how it was going to end. However, it is uncommon for a lot of writers to start this way. Berthe said that he often starts with an idea for a title, character, situation or line of dialogue and then “pull[s] on that thread” until the end slowly reveals itself. Authors often experiment with alternate endings before deciding on one. Some stories even present alternate endings as a way to conclude the narrative. The film “Clue,” based on the classic board game, provides the audience three different endings to choose from. In fact, series like “Choose Your Own Adventure” and “Mad Libs” books make creating a story into a game in which one constructs their own unique ending. The prevalence of alternate endings allows, to a certain extent, the audience to take from a story what it wants.

Beginning with the ending is another phenomenon in storytelling. Both “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston and TV show “How to Get Away With Murder,” produced by Shonda Rhimes ’91, adopt this structure. Framing a narrative this way effectively makes the audience work a bit more while following the story, in order to explain the ending that has been presented.

“It is always interesting to see a story that starts with the end and shows you how it got there,” Berthe said. “I think those stories are difficult to [write], but when they’re done well, it is something else.”

Contrary to the idea that a story’s significance rests on its ending, the final scene is not always the most important part of a story. Gerstner argues that an ending’s impact stems from the tension that is established through the story.

“I think that ultimately the ending is the kicker, but you need to have a good build-up to it,” Gerstner said.

This build-up, Gerstner said, is the reason she refrains from skipping to the end of a book. Reading with the ending in mind takes away from the full experience of the story — the ending has meaning precisely because of what comes before it.

Berthe, on the other hand, feels that skipping to the end turns the story into a kind of “framed” story.

“Ultimately, you know what is going to happen and so it is almost even more suspenseful because you are waiting for it to happen,” Berthe said. “I think it makes it more exciting for you. If [someone asked] me, ‘Should I read the end first,’ I’d say go for it.”

The emotional attachment that readers develop to a story can explain why endings stay with us so long after the initial and even repeated reading. The energy invested in identifying with a character in a fictional world no longer needs to be expended, leaving the audience feeling that a piece of them is missing.

“I think the problem with the ending is that it comes to an end,” Will said. “You can’t believe that those characters that you identified with are no longer there. I think that means that the ending of a novel, the ending of a work of fiction can be very traumatic for the reader. In a certain way, you want to put that off as long as possible.”