Do you remember the short story The Lady or the Tiger? All suspected criminals in a kingdom are put through an unusual trial – the criminal is sent to an open arena and has to open one out of two doors in front of the entire kingdom. Behind one door there is a beautiful bride, blushing and dressed in bridal finery while behind the other prowls a hungry tiger. Depending on the door the criminal opens, he either gains a wife (irrespective of his marital status) or loses his life.
The story’s main point of conflict is an illicit affair gone all wrong, for the story is about the lover of the kingdom’s princess in the open arena. As you read you realize that the princess, through her royal influence, knows the secret of the doors. The writer, Frank R. Stockton takes the reader into the mind of the princess. She’s torn between jealousy and agony: On one hand the thought of her lover marrying somebody else is killing her but the alternative is terrifying – the prospect him dying a morbid, gruesome death. Yet she makes a choice and as the man in the arena looks up to her, she gestures to the door on the right.
Do you know how the story ends? The writer says that he cannot make a decision on behalf of the princess! The story ends with the writer posing this question to the reader:
“And so I leave it with all of you. Which came out of the opened door – the lady or the tiger?”
I remember going through a series of emotions when I finished reading this story. First, there was irritation because there was no conclusive ending; instead we had a seemingly unsolvable problem. Secondly, what makes the writer decide that the reader can make the decision on behalf of the princess when he, the creator of the princess, couldn’t? When the feelings of irritation and feeling of being cheated melted away, I felt a little bit thrilled to play a participatory role in the story-telling process.
How to Write the Ending of your Story
Truths about Endings
- It’s not always about complete finality but about bringing about a sense of calm or a sense of this-is-over, for now, this being the resolution of the major conflict point. In this story, we know that whatever happens, the princess and her lover will not get together. What remains a mystery is whether he will die or whether he will marry somebody else.
- From the story of The Lady or the Tiger? I learnt one more crucial lesson: endings can be as intrigue-inducing as beginnings.
- It’s about reaching a point in the story where nothing happens further, for now. Readers’ debate is outside of the story and not within.
- In most cases, the major conflict point is synonymous with the premise of the story. Example: Sholay was about the defeat of Gabbar. It’s necessary to resolve that. How would you feel if the King locks away the princess’s lover in the dungeons and the story ends there? The major conflict of their future looms in the foreground.
What is a Story Ending then?
In simple terms it is the point after the falling action and a point that resolves the major conflict. Writer Flannery O’Connor writes that, “The end is when the story is complete, when nothing more than relating to the mystery of that character’s personality can be shown through that particular dramatization.” (On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey)”
Typical problems while trying to write Endings
1. Not knowing how to end
So the good cop has chased down the bad robbers and has him at gun-point. The cop also has his hands on the loot. Then he takes the careful look at the baddie’s face. Holy Molly! It’s the same guy who destroyed his family. So he gives him a piece of his mind. You’re-going-to-die saale and all that yada, yada, yada. Then he realizes that the system has made the baddie what he is. So, what does he do next? Shoot him? Or does he realize that he has to be the bigger person and let him go? Whaaaaaat?
This is a real story (genre: satire) a friend of mine was trying to write. After much debate and discussion, here’s what he did: the good cop strikes a deal with him. Upon arrest he’ll push-pull all political buttons-strings and get him a VVVIP prison cell with LCD TV, AC and uninterrupted internet access with 3G speed, better facilities and free chicken tikka masala. They even sign a contract and any contractual breach will invoke the underworld who will blow up the good cop’s, er, house.
How to tackle this problem:
- Be true to the genre. Don’t bring a sob-sob situation to end the story when one clearly needs humour.
- Think, think, think your way out of the quandary.
- Brainstorm. Figure out all the possible ends these roads of conflict can lead to.
2. Knowing how to end and not knowing who to get there
This is a classic problem. You’ve created all these conflicts for your lovers, parental opposition, family feuds and then to create a flourish of drama you bring about the girl’s stand that she will not bring dishonor to her family. Then you’re stuck. You know the end; they have to get together. But how? What will they do? If you have a story like this, remember that you haven’t even got to the point of climax! You are far away from the ending. But, it might be prudent to take a step back from your story, sit with a journal and pen and plan the story.
How to tackle this problem:
- Take an inventory of your characters: Is there somebody who can mediate?
- Go back to the basics: What is the base nature of the problem? Feuding families. Is there a secret that will dispel and cause the family feud to vanish into thin air so that the lovers can unite? You need to think this through.
3. Not knowing how to end and Not knowing how to get there
This is a toughie. If you are in this stage, I can say that you’ve probably only reached a point much, much before the climax. You’re still writing rising action. You are nowhere near the end, as I see this.
How to tackle this problem:
The answer to this quandary, as frustrating as it may sound, is this: keep writing. The guiding question has to be, “So what happens next?”
Remember that nothing is worse than providing a contrived, artificial end. It has to flow logically and in line with the story.
Have you encountered an interesting writing problem regarding ending your story? How did you proceed? Please share with us!
*Aside: notice how there is no women criminal. It’s always a man opening the door.