CLIMAX & RESOLUTION: What Matters? What Doesn’t?

Pick a cherished book and think of how it ends. I’ll work with To Kill A Mockingbird because so many in this land have read it by choice or requirement (the latter growing to love it, I’m sure). Ask yourselves whether the problems Scout, the POV character, faces are fully resolved in the end or whether it matters to you. Or pick another book. You can still talk about climax and resolution with us.

Let’s assume that the climax takes place when Scout discovers Boo Radley hiding behind the door while her father talks with her and the Sheriff about what had happened to her brother, Jem, that evening. Until then everything was pretty much downhill for Jem, her father Atticus, their neighbor Dill, and herself. But when she discovers who Boo is, everything changes. Tension drains from every strand of the narrative. But were all the problems presented resolved in an “okay, that has been fixed” sense? How much had actually changed in Maycomb? If you could imagine yourself living there after the story, how different would their lives be?

You’ve certainly had questions when you turned the last page of a book you couldn’t put down. Perhaps someone asked you what made its ending satisfying. Perhaps you’ve thought more broadly, from having read a lot of books, about what it takes for you to judge them as having achieved a satisfying and realistic resolution.

When the first pages of a book I’m reading show me where it’s going, I want no gift of Hallmark happiness wrapped in pretty paper with ribbons and bows. That would be like comfort food, which is not why I read or write. But no strand in the narrative should go untended; all should move toward resolution – some point of finality to the action with some lessening of tension. If the author wants art to imitate life, he needs to show me a sense of wonder about what the characters, especially the POV character, must address after the last page. Yogi Berra is purported to have said, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” When is any strand of our lives over?

In my novel, Boundaries, I try to create that feeling. It begins with a lawyer withholding important information from a client who later makes similar ethical transgressions on behalf of her effort to regain custody of her child. Ben and Sydney go astray out of their passion and affection. I want readers to see that, in their journey through the problems they create and those that befall them, there are internal boundaries that must be crossed in order to grow. Readers will know that after the last page Ben and Sydney will have looming mountains to climb using, hopefully, what they have learned about themselves. Complete resolution would turn the story into comfort food.

Where is the climax for you in To Kill A Mockingbird or some other favored story? Did you think that because Scout learns who Boo Radley is and walks off with him hand-in-hand, Harper Lee is telling you everything is going to be all right, and there is nothing left to wonder about?

Regarding how they end, what makes stories a satisfying read for you…or not?

Jim

2 thoughts on “CLIMAX & RESOLUTION: What Matters? What Doesn’t?

  1. Actually, Jimmy, I’m pretty shallow, and I like my endings tied up with a bow. But that’s not the mark of a true English teacher, but rather the desire of the little girl, Pollyanna. I agree that the better/more realistic endings are those that make you wish for the sequel right away because you know the characters have not solved all the issues that faced them in the story. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to mystery stories–they usually end with a pretty definitive “answer.”

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    • Lee, how are you about endings that affirm what a character does in a struggle without making the outcome a complete success? I like the outcomes – both those I read and those I write – to be in keeping with what life is like. Like you said, it keeps readers wanting to know what comes after the “ending.” I’m sure you set aside your Pollyanna nature for the sake of your students. How did they respond to novels or short stories with realistic endings? I’ll wager that a fair portion of them appreciated them because they could relate to them. Isn’t it the best way to “connect” on deeper levels? I’d like to hear what a lot of readers think.

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