Endings are my kryptonite. I love noodling around on openings, trying to find the tone, the dialogue or the action and description that sets you up for the rest of the story. I love reading great openings. (I have become one of those readers that gives up on a book if I the opening doesn’t grab me. If I’m not in by the first 60 pages, I’m done!) Things start to wane for me around the mushy middle – you’re trying to get the damn story down, you’re building up to the end and whooo, what a slog.
There’s so much to be done to get your project to the third and final act. But how do you know when you’ve hit the end?
I’ve had two little epiphanies about this, although admittedly I still have to really think it through – it’s not automatic that I write and declare: “This is the climax.” I can’t say I nail it on the first draft every time! I don’t see it as clearly as that.
The first epiphany came with this New Yorker Fiction podcast, in which Dana Spiotta reads Joy Williams’ Chicken Hill. During the discussion with Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, Spiotta talks about how Williams’ characters have a “moment of grace” and there was something about that – that there’s a moment when the character has a choice before her and she can do or not do something that is a demonstration of agency and affects the direction of the story. It formed in my mind as a definition of what it means to hit the “climax” of a short story.
Chicken Hill is about an older woman who is being sunk by deep grief and the feeling that Death is stalking her. A child from the neighbouring farm appears and they have these odd little exchanges on the woman’s veranda and you see how they’re at the opposite ends of the life spectrum, but have very similar anxieties around loneliness and being a bit adrift.
Here’s what I think is the moment of grace in the story:
When the child appeared again, Ruth was back on her veranda, staring without much interest at her right hand, which had recently completed a letter of condolence to her mechanic’s widow. As a rule, the mechanic had not accepted Toyotas, but he had made an exception for Ruth, and though he had worked on her car with some indifference and disdain, he’d kept it running, and at a fair price. People were dying right and left around Ruth. Death was picking up the pace. Two poets she had never met but read with great pleasure were taken on the same day. Her pedicurist had died, and what would Ruth do without her unjudgmental services? It was so easy to let oneself go.
“You’re here for the jewelry, I suppose,” Ruth said.
“I’d forgotten about the jewelry. But O.K.”
Ruth had actually gone through her jewelry some time ago, but she was still amazed at how much of it she had. She could remember the provenance of only a fraction of it.
“Provenance,” the girl said. “That’s an interesting word. What does it mean?”
Ruth wasn’t aware that she had uttered the word aloud, though there was no reason not to, it being a perfectly benign word.
The child was paler than Ruth remembered and scrawnier than ever. The pink backpack could quite possibly weigh more than she did.
“Do you really need that thing?” Ruth inquired. “Doesn’t your mother ever wash it?”
Ruth supposed her own question had been merely rhetorical.
“Bring it up here, take everything out of it, and I’ll scrub it with a good bar of soap.” The thought of some of her jewelry (for she had no intention of giving the girl all of it) being lowered into that stinking sack prompted her to action. Also, she was curious as to what could be in the massive thing.
The child hopped up the steps, unstrapped herself, and began unzipping the backpack’s numerous pockets. This took some time.
There was nothing. It held nothing.
Ruth decided that she didn’t want to tackle the problem with a good bar of soap. It was all right. Whatever. Sometimes you try to fix something and it ends up more broken than ever. Or broken in a different way.
“You don’t even have your drawings in there. What happened to your drawings?”
“I decided that was the wrong approach. What would you say your discomfort level is right now, on a scale of one to ten? One being your most comfortable or least discomfortable, of course.”
“I’m quite comfortable, thank you,” Ruth said.
“Mine’s around a six.”
“To be honest, perhaps mine as well.”
Neither chose to elaborate on these disclosures.
Ruth sees that the girl’s backpack is empty and she chooses to do… nothing. It doesn’t feel like much of a climax, right? But for me it’s that moment of grace, where the main character comes to a realization. I loved that the girl wanted nothing from Ruth – she’d forgotten about the jewelry; she was there for the pleasure of her company – and Ruth finally realized it. The girl carries this backpack, which is described earlier in the story as being almost bigger than the girl herself. But it’s empty.
What Ruth seems to take from this is that there’s nothing wrong with her and nothing wrong with the girl. They needed each other in their own ways, but nothing needed to change. The girl needed only encouragement and company, same as Ruth. Same as all of us, let’s face it.
Read the rest of the full story here.
Or listen to Spiotta read it and discuss it with Triesman here.
Take a second look at your current project. Has your character had a “moment of grace?” Is their story’s climax coming from something they’re doing, or something that’s being done to them? Have you really reached the end?
What I will say is that as much as I love this, as much as I love the climax described as a character’s “moment of grace,” it’s kind of hazy, isn’t it? My grip on this is tenuous at best – and maybe that’s what’s great about writing. It’s a bit scary every time.
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)