Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Realistically Ever After

By Mandy Brown Houk

I’ve taught story structure to my high school students year after year, and even though each class is comprised of very different students with different skill levels and perspectives, they all tend to get stuck on the same point: the resolution.

My favorite story to use as illustration is The Wizard of Oz. There are few stories that are as universally familiar, but also few stories that have such clear demarcations at each point (ordinary world, inciting incident, rising action, climax/do-or-die moment, and all the layers that need resolution as the action falls).

As we finish up with our handy diagram, and Dorothy goes back to Kansas and realizes all that home really means, the students are smiling, satisified, and all is right with their world.

Then I throw the wrench in the works: “resolution” doesn’t mean things are resolved in the protagonist’s favor. That’s when we settle in for a reading of Guy de Maupassant’s “A Bit of String” or “The Necklace” (without blowing the endings, let’s just say that M. de Maupassant was allergic to happily-ever-afters). 

This very semester, upon reaching the end of “A Bit of String,” one of my students said (whined), “That’s not really a resolution, though. That’s horrible!”

Here’s the thing, though: when pressed, none of the students could arrive at any other plausible, believable ending that wouldn’t make the entire story pointless. And that right there is the key to a believable, resonant, meaningful “ever-after.” If it doesn’t make sense, then the story loses all power. The characters, though they may have seemed throughout the story to rise up off the page and walk around in the reader’s head, will collapse and dissolve into two-dimensional (or even one-dimensional) characters, crafted not of blood and bone but of paper and 12-point font.

That’s not to say that only a “downer” ending will ring true. Dorothy’s victory over the witch really does work, as evidenced by the timelessness of the story. If she’d lost her face-off with the witch, then all we’d learned about her (courage, desperation, the desire to do right by those she loves) would be rendered false, or at least devoid of meaning.

We can never forget as writers that our characters must lead the story. Even if you’re the writer that outlines each scene and sequel before you type the first line, the character’s…well…his character… has to determine the choices he makes, which then determine outcomes, one after another, after another. Anything other than that—if we become puppet masters who enforce outcomes based on our own preferences or prejudices or even laziness—will lead to a jarring, sudden stop to the story. An ending. Not a resolution. Not an ever-after.

As storytellers, we want our readers to reach the last page, close the book, and pause a moment, wondering what became of the characters in the next moment, the next day, the next year. In the play Flowers for Algernon (adapted from the short story and the novel), the main character finishes reading Robinson Crusoe and eagerly asks his teacher, “What happens to him after?” As a reader, that moment to me is delicious. As a writer, that moment is priceless. It’s victory. And if our “resolution” rings true, if what happens is not only logical, but is truly what had to happen, then that victory is ours, ever after.

About the Writer:  Mandy Brown Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches at a small private high school in Old Colorado City. She's written for several magazines and anthologies, and has completed two novels--only one of which is worthy of the light of day. Mandy's work is represented by Sally LaVenture at Warner Literary Group. Her web site is

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