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On Endings

In 2014, when I was still entertaining hopes of being a screenwriter as well as a fiction writer, I went to the Austin Film Festival and heard a lecture on endings by Michael Arndt, writer of Little Miss Sunshine. I’ve since grown disillusioned with screenwriting as an art form and Hollywood as an industry, but Arndt’s lecture has stuck with me, and, despite the distrust fiction writers often harbor towards screenwriters (Is it that we find screenplays overly corporate and formulaic or do we simply resent screenwriters for making more money than we do?), I’ve found many of his insights applicable to literary fiction as well.

A video version of the complete lecture is available to view on Arndt’s website, complete with movie clips and animations, and it’s worth watching in full, but his main points can be summarized as follows: in order for an ending to work, the story has to have from the beginning an effective set of stakes, which Arndt divides into three types—external stakes, i.e. the main conflict that drives the narrative; internal stakes, i.e. the protagonist’s emotional and psychological conflicts; and finally, and most importantly, the philosophical stakes, i.e. the story’s larger moral conflict, expressed as a conflict between the “dominant values” of the world and its “underdog values.” As an example, Arndt uses Star Wars, in which the external stakes are the rebellion’s conflict with the Empire, the internal stakes are Luke’s personal desire to be more than just a moisture farmer and escape Tatooine, and the philosophical stakes are whether the force is real (the underdog values) or whether, as Han says, it’s just “hokey religions and ancient weapons” (the dominant values).

A great ending, then, according to Arndt is one in which (among other things) the underdog philosophical values triumph over the dominant ones. In Star Wars, for example, Luke’s decision to switch off his targeting computer and allow the force to guide him while firing at the Death Star, along with Han’s decision to return and help Luke, confirm the power of the force and represent a victory of the film’s underdog values. In this same moment, the external and internal stakes are also resolved (the rebels win and Luke achieves a personal self-actualization by proving himself a great pilot), which Arndt also emphasizes is important for a powerful ending—the three sets of stakes converge onto one moment and are resolved all together. Of course, he adds that it’s not necessary for all the sets of stakes to be resolved successfully. A protagonist could fail in the external conflict and still achieve an internal resolution and overturn the dominant values, or else even fail internally and still achieve a philosophical victory.

Now, writers of literary fiction are often distrustful the rules set forth by screenwriters, which they see as too prescriptive. In his video, Arndt emphasizes repeatedly that his rules are not prescriptive but simply descriptive, but still, many writers I know reject the idea that a novel’s ending should be outlined like this and insist that their ending will simply come to them naturally as they write. But I’ve read too many works of literary fiction that fail to deliver a compelling and powerful ending, and I wonder if outlining beforehand, if considering the novel’s stakes and how they get resolved, would have helped. It’s possible, of course, that writing without outlining might lead you to an ending in which the world’s dominant philosophical values are overturned and the underdog moral values confirmed—this is, I think a very natural movement in any literary work, as most literary protagonists tend to be outsiders struggling against the world—but even then, I believe that it’s still worth reverse-outlining your novel to understand the way in which the philosophical stakes operate.

If we consider several classic works of literature from a range of literary traditions, we can see Arndt’s ideas of the philosophical stakes operating in their endings. Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations for example, establishes a philosophical conflict over materialism and class—Pip, our protagonist, desires to be a “gentleman” and when he’s given money by a mysterious benefactor, he enjoys his rise in status and grows alienated from his old family and friends, believing himself to be better than them and destined for great things. Eventually, though, Pip discovers that his benefactor is not the wealthy widow Miss Havisham, whose daughter Estella he’s been in love with for many years, but Magwitch, the convict he saved as a young boy, knowledge which overturns his understanding of his own status. But at the novel’s climax, after Estella rejects him to marry someone rich, Pip realizes the flaw in his own ideas about class and that he was wrong to value value wealth and status over personal kindness and therefore decides to try and save Magwitch form the law. This moment represents Pip overturning the dominant values of his society and rejecting his old understanding of class. He fails, ultimately, to save Magwitch, but he does come to learn how he’s wronged those closest to him in trying to be a gentleman. Thus, the ending is a powerful and satisfying one because we’ve witnessed our protagonist overturn his world’s dominant philosophical values.

Similarly, in The Great Gatsby, we find a philosophical conflict between Tom and Daisy’s class privilege and materialism and Gatsby’s dream of marrying Daisy and rising in status. Gatsby’s climax however, is far bleaker than that of Great Expectations. Not only is Gatsby rejected by Daisy, but he is ultimately killed and doesn’t reach the kind of internal peace Pip does. Yet on the level of the philosophical stakes, Gatsby is still victorious, because his failure to win Daisy shifts something in Nick Carraway, the novel’s detached narrator and audience surrogate. The climax is therefore really the moment when Nick shouts to Gatsby that “they’re a rotten crowd” and that he’s “worth the whole damn bunch of them put together.” To Nick, the underdog values of Gatsby’s class and romantic ambitions have triumphed over American society’s dominant values of hierarchy, and even if this change happens only in one person, it’s powerful enough to happen in the reader too.

Finally, we come to Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the bleakest of my three examples. Here, the philosophical conflict is between the consumerist values of contemporary American culture (supermarkets, malls, etc.) and older values like family and religion. At Arndt’s lecture in 2014, I asked him whether he believed an ending could still be powerful if the protagonist fails on all three levels of stakes—in other words, the kind of ending where on the philosophical level the underdog values do not triumph. Arndt said that he didn’t think such an ending could be powerful, because even amidst failure the audience has to feel that the story reaffirms the right values—but this is where I disagree. I believe that an audience can experience a kind of negative emotional satisfaction after witnessing an ending of complete and total failure. In White Noise, we witness such an ending when our odd little protagonist, Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney, confronts the man who’s been sleeping with his wife and providing her with an experimental black-market drug designed to alleviate the fear of death. After shooting and wounding the man, Jack appears to have a change of heart, and it seems at first as though the novel will end in a more traditional way, with our protagonist saving him and thus reaffirming the values of family and community that have been almost wholly absent in the bleak world of the novel. But when he takes the injured man to a hospital run by a group of nuns, he discovers to his horror that even these nuns no longer believe in God. He then returns home to his family and has to go on with his normal life.

Thus, far from a philosophical victory of the novel’s underdog values, the values of family, community, and religion antithetical to the bleak consumerism of DeLillo’s late-capitalist America, White Noise suggests there may be no escape—that there is no going back, that the world is irrevocably changed, that even the nuns are now postmodern. And yet, the ending is still grimly powerful and grimly satisfying. The uneasiness and the melancholy that the audience feels might not conform to Michael Arndt’s ideas about a philosophical triumph in the face of external and internal failures, but this actually prove the validity of his ideas. As audiences, we expect endings that give us a sense of philosophical victory, and by withholding such endings, postmodern writers like DeLillo can achieve a negative version of the power Arndt describes.

Thus, as writers, we should be conscious of how we craft the endings of our novels. When we write, we may not explicitly identify the philosophical stakes—and we may even finish the novel without even being conscious of them. But we shouldn’t be afraid to look back at what we’ve written and ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve with our ending, what values we’re trying to affirm, what emotions we’re trying to elicit. Novels are crafted things, after all, not fully formed works of pure inspiration sprung from our minds like Athena from the head of Zeus–and while, as fiction writers, we may not agree with everything that screenwriters do, we can certainly learn something from their conscious attention to the constructedness of their stories.