How do you bring a story to a believable reversal without the ending feeling tacked on?
There are many kinds of stories, obviously. Some answer resolve conflicts, but not all lend themselves to closure. In literary stories we know that often dilemmas do not resolve and life goes on. But I would argue that even fans of these stories expect at least one character to arrive at the end profoundly changed or why bother.
According to Robert McKee, in Story, a story arrives at a satisfying reversal when the value, established at the beginning, faces forces of opposition near the end that contradict that value. Here’s how it works. A value, say “justice,” encounters opposition that runs contrary to the stated value, say “unfairness.” Risk levels escalate as opposition increases. Around the point of no return, justice will find itself up against its contradiction, “injustice.” If the story ends tragically, the ending will lead to something like “tyranny,” a situation in which even the possibility of justice has been removed.
To illustrate this principle, McKee offers “Missing,” a film based on real-life events that follows American Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) on a quest to Chile to search for his son, who disappeared during a coup d’etat. In Act One, the U. S. ambassador tells half-truths intended to dissuade him from his search (unfairness). At the end of Act Two, the point of no return, Hormann discovers that the junta murdered his son, that the embassy knew about this, and that the murder was accomplished with help from the C.I.A. (injustice). The story could end there, but doesn’t. In Act Three, seeking retribution, Hormann only encounters persecution. An autocrat has taken over Chile and suspended rule of law. All that is left for Hormann is to tell the story.
An analysis would look like this: JUSTICE (the value)… leads to UNFAIRNESS (contrariness)… leads to INJUSTICE (the contradiction of the value)… leads to NEGATION (the absolute removal of the value’s possibility).
Let’s consider two story examples, one literary and one from “popular” fiction.
In the John Updike short story, “A & P,” anthologized in Points of View (edited by Moffett and McElheny), a nineteen year old grocery clerk, Sam, has his world rocked when three teenaged girls waltz into the store wearing nothing more than skimpy bathing suits. This creates opposition that is the first step in what will become a revolution in value. At the story’s beginning, Sam values the comfort of conformity that he associates with family and his working-class neighborhood. He encounters contrariness when the girls, who are not from this neighborhood, break rules of etiquette and seem to get away with it. Contrariness increases when the store manager orders the girls to leave, thus taking away the temptation that has Sammy in thrall. The contradiction of his value comes at the end when, having flung off his apron, he walks out into a world that will not support this defiance and will likely ostracize him for failing to be one of them. The girls are long gone. Lengel, the store’s stern, stiff, middle-aged manager, has made it clear Sammy will not be welcomed back. Saddled with an epiphany, “my stomach kind of fell, and I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter,” Sammy can only step forward into that fraught territory ahead. Has the disturbance been resolved? Far from it. One could argue – he would – that he is in a possibly far worse spot now.
In a Dennis Lehane novel, A Drink Before The War, the narrator, Pat, a self-employed private eye working in Boston, is hired by two senators to track down a cleaning woman who recently disappeared with some potentially incriminating documents the esteemed senators want back. Find Jenna. That is Pat’s quest. His value? Serve social justice. Pat runs repeatedly into the value’s contrary when between gangs and the perps of Jenna’s murder, not to mention reps of the government, it becomes clear that seeking social justice will not only make it hard to get paid, he and his partner might well end up dead themselves. Near novel’s end, Pat discovers he was set up as the dupe that led the killers to their quarry. Pat and his lovely partner outlive a gang war and end up with the sought after documents and are left with a dilemma: take their pay, stay alive, and walk away, or expose the corruption that will be the undoing of two senators. I can’t tell you how it turns out. Suffice it to say the senators provide strong contradiction to Pat’s value. In a final test, Pat must seek a way to achieve victory over the contradiction or, all that matters will be lost, though he did his job.
In a nutshell: establish a value. Design events to use opposition to push that value’s contrary. At the point of highest risk, that value should encounter its contradiction (or events have not gone far enough). The final act might result in a negation of the value, or a victory over the contradiction, or, life will go on, but changed. The reader, in any case, will be rewarded with that revolution in value that they came to the story seeking.