Friday, May 29, 2009

How Do We Get Out of Here?

exit strategy--a dramatic design for concluding a scene in a novel or short story, a chapter in a novel, or an entire novel; a purposeful building of event, discovery/revelation, and surprise that will lead to a resolution in a longer work of fiction, or a significant, reflective pause in a short story.

The two key words for exit strategy are suspense and resolution. Ending a scene without one or the other tempts the reader to set the work down with limited need or intent to return. Ending a scene or chapter with suspense leaves the dramatic outcome unresolved, tempting the reader to remain, hopeful of experiencing further dramatic event, which is to say, how "things" turn out. If "things" turn out well enough to have resolved the major thrust of the story or novel, then the story or novel is ended and there is no pressing need to inject additional suspense.

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, the easy-way-out exit strategy was the trope "...and they all lived happily ever after." A notable exception, perhaps even a trend-setter exit strategy, was Huck Finn who, unwilling to be civilized, lit out for the territory ahead. This strategy was employed midway through the twentieth century when Joseph Heller had his determined bombardier, Yossarian, in a hegira similar to Huck, this one toward the neutral country of Sweden.

For a time in the twentieth century, it seemed that all novels moved to some highly structured resolution where the murderer was revealed and justice restored, where true love was finally allowed back on track, and where all teen-aged rebellions gravitated toward a sensible maturity. Simultaneously, all short stories ended with a punch line, heavy irony, or a trick. But the effects of writers such as Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, James Joyce, and in later years, Eudora Welty, John O'Hara, John Cheever, and Alice Munro forged the exit strategy where resolution meant something less finite, more reflective of how individuals in daily life behave as opposed to moral finality.

Thus does another burden fall on the writer, the burden of articulating a life philosophy that attends the characters and story of a given narrative, then structuring the ending to approximate as close-to-plausible-as-possible a payoff before leaving the reader with the unspoken implication that, soon enough, these characters will become involved in yet another story.

Lord Byron, the poet, observed that tragedies end with death, comedies end with marriage. Modern stories begin with the tragedy of death as it evolves into the next step in the lives of the survivors. Modern stories also begin with the humor of the romantic energy of marriage, then evolve to such mile posts as developing relationships, children, career, and aging, to name only a few. The purpose of a well-thought-out exit strategy in any story is to leave the dramatic quality of aftertaste, the recurring appearance of characters after the story is ended, haunting the hallways and battlements of the readers' mind with add-on possibilities for new stories.

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