CLIMAX AND CONCLUSION
If the overworked editor, hastily skimming the heap of MSS. before him, comes upon one which promises well in the opening paragraphs, he will turn to its conclusion, to learn how well the author has kept his promise; and if he finds there equal evidence of a good story, he will put the MS. by for more careful reading and possible purchase. Experience has taught him that the end of a story is second only to the beginning as a practical test of the narrative; and therefore to the author as well the conclusion is of extreme importance.
The end of a short story comprises the climax and the conclusion. The climax is the chief surprise, the relief of the suspense, or the greatest relief, if there is more than one; it is the apex of interest and emotion; it is the point of the story; it is really the story. The conclusion is the solving of all problems, the termination of the narrative itself, and the artistic severing of all relations between narrator and reader.
The climax, in spite of its importance, is but a small part of the story, so far as mere words are concerned. In a properly constructed narrative its influence is felt throughout the whole story, which, as already stated, is but one long preparation for it. But in itself the climax is usually confined to a single paragraph of ordinary length; and the climax proper, the real point of the story, is usually conveyed in a half dozen words. For the climax, and particularly the climax proper, is the story concentrated in a single phrase. It must have been prepared for carefully and worked up to at some length; but when it does come it must be expressed so directly and so forcefully that it will make the reader jump mentally, if not physically. It is the desire to produce this startling effect that leads some writers to endeavor to gain artificial force by printing their climax proper in italics, or even in capitals. In "The Ambitious Guest" we have an unusually strong and perfect climax in ¶ 40, 41:
... a sound abroad in the night, rising like the roar of a blast, had grown broad, deep and terrible before the fated group were conscious of it. The house and all within it trembled; the foundations of the earth seemed to be shaken, as if this awful sound was the peal of the last trump. Young and old exchanged one wild glance and remained an instant pale, affrighted, without utterance or power to move. Then the same shriek burst simultaneously from all their lips:
"The slide! The slide!"
while the climax proper—the climax of the climax—occurs in the four words which compose ¶ 41.
"The slide! The slide!"
It is hardly necessary to say that the climax should be very near the end of the story, for even those stories which attempt to begin in the middle and go both ways at once place the climax properly. But there is a danger that the climax will come too soon. After they have reached what is properly a central point in their story, amateurs often become lazy or in too great a hurry, and rush the latter part of the narrative through unceremoniously. In the first part they may have been inclined to go into needless detail; but when once they come in sight of the finish, they forget everything except that their task is nearly ended; they plunge ahead regardless, treat important matters most superficially, neglect those skillful little touches which go to make a story natural and literary, and reach the end to find that they have skeletonized an important part of the narrative. In such a case the reader is very apt to come upon the climax unexpectedly, and so to find it forced and illogical; whereas if the author had preserved the proportions of his narrative, and led up to his climax properly, it would have been accounted strong and inevitable.
The climax of a story must be a genuine climax—that is, it must be the culmination of the interest of the story, and it must definitely end and eliminate the element of suspense. The climax, or its immediate consequences, must decide the destinies of all your characters, and the fate of all their schemes. If the heroine is hesitating between her two lovers she must decide in the climax or on account of it; if the hero is in a position of great danger he must be killed or saved. The revelation need not be couched in the bald phrase, "And so John married Kate;" but it may be hinted at or suggested in the most subtle manner; but settled in some way it must be. Stockton did otherwise in "The Lady, or the Tiger?" but he sought for humorous effect, and all things are fair in the funny story. Stories which are meant to be serious, but which leave the reader still puzzling over the possibilities of the plot, are likely to get their author into serious difficulties with the reading public, even if the editors can be persuaded to overlook his idiosyncracies.
The amateur is prone to the conviction, deduced, I fear, from the practice of the cheap melodrama and the cheaper novel, that "climax" and "tragedy" are synonymous terms, and that he is violating sacred traditions unless he ends his tale with a violent death. But it is by no means necessary that the climax of a short story should be or should contain a catastrophe or a tragedy. Its nature depends entirely upon the character of the tale in which it appears, and it may be just as strong and just as thrilling if it consists only of the "Yes" with which the heroine answers the hero's wooing. Indeed, it not infrequently happens that the tragedy or the catastrophe which appears in the climax is only an accessory to the real climax, a cause or a result of it. The climax of "The Ambitious Guest" is a tragedy; but the climax of Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," though certainly a catastrophe, is anything but tragic, if read in the ironic spirit in which it was written:
Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash; he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider passed by like a whirlwind.
While in Poe's "The Black Cat," one tragedy is a preliminary of the climax and another is in a manner the result of it; but the real climax is the discovery of the cat:
... a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. On its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!
Nor does the mere introduction of a tragedy make a climax, for though the following paragraphs contain two tragedies, there is no climactic force:
Joseph, who had been sitting with his head on his knees, and wondering what in the world was going to happen, raised his head, and exclaimed, on seeing his brother, "You have come after me—" At this instant some one struck him on the head with a pistol, which brought him to the floor. But Harry, hearing the familiar voice, and seeing the man also, knew too well who it was. He shouted at the top of his voice, "Stop! Wait! This thing must be investigated!" Telling them who the prisoner was, and pleading with them, he was finally able to disperse the mob, though against their own will.
The next morning, when Mamie was brought to consciousness again, she begged that he should not be punished.
On learning the truth he was immediately released, but the bitter grief, mingled with so much excitement, was more than he could endure. He died that night at ten.
The bitterness occasioned by this catastrophe remained in the bosom of Mamie, and she too died of a broken heart.
The plot of a certain type of story requires subordinate and preliminary climaxes to relieve the tension or advance the action, as already stated. Such periods, when given genuine climactic force, are antagonistic to the spirit of the short story, in that they violate the unity, and a story containing them is usually faulty otherwise; but such stories have been written by good writers and so must be recognized here. The preliminary climaxes must be sufficiently few, sufficiently subordinate and sufficiently distant not to detract from the force of the chief climax. The main point is to see that one of the preliminary climaxes is not really the climax, for inexperienced writers sometimes allow their stories to run on longer than they should; or they confuse what is merely an incident with what should be made the main crisis. In "The Ambitious Guest" there is only one climax; but in Hawthorne's "Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe" I find no less than five critical points, which I here subpend with the numbers of the paragraphs in which they occur:
"Old Mr. Higginbotham of Kimballton was murdered in his orchard at eight o'clock last night by an Irishman and a nigger. They strung him up to the branch of a St. Michael's pear tree where nobody would find him till the morning."
"... if squire Higginbotham was murdered night before last I drank a glass of bitters with his ghost this morning. Being a neighbor of mine, he called me into his store as I was riding by, and treated me...."
"No, no! There was no colored man. It was an Irishman that hanged him last night at eight o'clock; I came away at seven."
"I left Kimballton this morning to spend the vacation of commencement-week with a friend about five miles from Parker's Falls. My generous uncle, when he heard me on the stairs, called me to his bedside and gave me two dollars and fifty cents to pay my stage-fare, and another dollar for my extra expenses."
He rushed forward, prostrated a sturdy Irishman with the butt-end of his whip, and found—not, indeed, hanging on the St. Michael's pear tree, but trembling beneath it with a halter round his neck—the old identical Mr. Higginbotham.
These several climaxes form a perfect series, each a little higher than its predecessor, and all logically culminating in the chief climax of the story in ¶ 49; and by this progressive and culminative effect they go far to preserve the sense of unity which their presence endangers. Such real if minor climaxes are entirely different from the several stages of the story illustrated in Chapter IX by James' "The Lesson of the Master."
The novice usually has some hazy conception of the importance of a climax, and endeavors according to his lights to attain the desired effect, but he is seldom successful. Most frequently he is handicapped by his plot, which is not designed to produce a successful climax. If he has escaped that danger he is liable to ruin a possible good climax by too abrupt an introduction. His nearest approach to success is what may be called a "false" or "technical" climax, in the use of which he is very skillful—too skillful, indeed, for his own good. This false climax is produced by breaking off the narrative abruptly the moment the suspense of the story is terminated. It is really an abrupt conclusion, and not a climax at all; and it produces the jump in the reader's mind by its suddenness, and not by its concentrated force. It is sometimes made more pointed by the use of italics or capitals. Thus the following final paragraphs, which are typical of the work of the novice, have no hint of a climax as they stand:
... Mrs. Moore sat gazing into the glowing grate.
"Well, truants, where have you been all this time? I—" She stopped suddenly as she saw Nettie's blushes, and the happy look on Guy's face.
"Mother, Nettie has made me the happiest man in existence, by consenting to be my wife. And we have come to ask your blessing."
"It is heartily given, my dear children. Nothing could give me more pleasure than to see you two happily married," said she, kissing them. "By the way, how did you young people happen to make this wonderful discovery?"
"Well, mother, I have had some serious thoughts about the matter ever since I surprised you and Nettie last September, but I never dared to put my thoughts into words till to-day."
"I don't remember that you surprised Nettie. She was out in the orchard, she told me, when you arrived."
"Yes, I believe I remember finding her in the orchard," and he gave a ludicrous description of their first meeting.
"That accounts for Nettie's blushes when I introduced you that day. You won't go west now, will you, Guy?"
"I shall have to, mother; but I'll sell out at the first opportunity. In the meantime I think we had better notify aunt Adams that she is doomed to have a son-in-law."
"I have thought of an excellent plan," said Nettie. "Let's all go east for the holidays. Only, for goodness' sake, don't tell Edith and Maud about my exploits in the apple tree. They would be so shocked at my lack of dignity."
So the following week they started for Nettie's home. Guy soon won Mrs. Adams' consent to her daughter's marriage, which was arranged to take place the following September.
"That is the month in which the old apple tree bears its most delicious fruit," Guy whispered to Nettie.
If, however, the author had stopped with the third paragraph, he would have had at least a false or technical climax. This false climax must not be confused with the coincident real climax and abrupt ending discussed further on.
When the climax has come the story has reached its end and the quicker you terminate it the better your reader will be pleased. With the passing of the climax interest ceases, and you have only to gather up and explain the few unsettled points, and round off your narrative gracefully. Any further interest in your characters is little more than a sense of politeness due to old acquaintances; or, at most, a psychological desire for complete impressions. So when you have told your tale, end it.
For the conclusion, as for the beginning, one paragraph is about the average length. The practice differs, of course, with different writers and different stories, but there is not so much variance as in the beginnings. An effective climax often completes a story in the most satisfactory way. In "The Ambitious Guest" Hawthorne employs three paragraphs (¶ 42-44), exclusive of the climax itself, to conclude the story. Each of these three paragraphs contains matter necessary to the completion of the tale in Hawthorne's style. It is probable that a modern writer would have condensed them into a single paragraph, because of the modern demand for extreme compression; but with the possible exception of the last two sentences of ¶ 44 there is nothing irrelevant in the conclusion. In "The Birthmark," and "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne uses but a single paragraph for his conclusion.
The conclusion and the climax should be as nearly simultaneous as possible. The present tendency is to make them coincide, and so increase the effect of the climax by making it the actual end of the story, as it is the end of the interest. It is not always that the coincidence can be perfect, but many a story could be cut short immediately after the climax, and be much improved thereby. For example, if Hawthorne had written "The Ambitious Guest" to-day it is probable that he would have ended it with ¶ 44: "The slide! The slide!" Had he done so he would certainly have given additional force to his climax, strong though it is now; and I believe that any reader would have understood perfectly all that is contained in ¶ 42-44. You must be careful, however, in the use of this style of conclusion, lest your supposed climax is merely an abrupt ending—a false climax—which leaves unsettled some things which a further conclusion should make clear. Not every plot allows an abrupt ending, even though it may have a good climax, and you must suit your method to your matter. In any case, the story must convey a complete impression.
But the conclusion must not be padded with irrelevant matter to make it appear rounded, or to please the perverted taste of the writer. The end is allowed scant space and has even less room for sage observations, or pointing of morals, or lamentations over the sins or misfortunes portrayed than have the other parts of the story. In the example already quoted the narrative drags on for some nine paragraphs after the story is really ended, without adding anything of interest or value. Happily such conclusions are infrequent, but the best of writers are occasionally dragged into them through their reluctance to quit forever scenes and people that have grown dear to them through close association. A somewhat similar method of padding out the conclusion to the detriment of the story is to end with a catch word referring to the beginning, as in the following example, where the "blackberry girl" is a reminder of the title:
I hope these few surprises of mine may serve as a lesson to some young man, and help to teach him to prove true to his first love, though she may appear to be only a poor girl—yes, even a "blackberry girl."
Of all poor conclusions the conventional is most to be feared by the novice, for it is surely fatal to the story to which it is attached. If the story is conventional in plot and treatment it is inevitable that its ending should be conventional, so here again we see the necessity of originality of plot. But too often a writer, after having successfully carried his story past the climax, will grow weary or careless and end it with the conventional ideas and phrases which were worn threadbare ages ago.
The inexperienced writer of the gentler sex is peculiarly liable to be guilty of using conventional endings. To her mind, apparently, the chief end of man is marriage, and the proper end of a story is a wedding. It must be acknowledged that this is the only logical conclusion to her stories, for from the moment they appear in the opening paragraphs the reader knows that in the last the hero will marry the heroine, willy nilly, at the behest of the matchmaking "authoress." "To the author, who has suffered with and on account of his characters more intensely than any reader can suffer, there is something amusing in this anxiety to have the old formula, 'And they all lived happy ever afterwards,' repeated at the end of every tale. A tiny bonne bouche of happiness is so inadequate after some stories of sorrow that it seems almost an irony to offer it to the readers; and yet, like children who have taken a bitter medicine, they are very likely to complain that they have had no taste of sweetness, if it is not offered to them.... The common feeling that death is inevitably sad is responsible for much of the stress which is laid upon the endings of books. That, and the belief that people who love each other can have no joy or benefit of life if they must live apart, have set up two formal and arbitrary conditions which a story must fulfil in order to be considered cheerful. The principal characters may go through fire and water if necessary, but they must get rid of their smoke stains and dry their costumes in time to appear alive and smiling in the final chapter; and the hero and the heroine must marry each other, or, if the writer has allowed their affections to wander further afield, they must at least marry the people of their choice. These, of course, are not the standards of the most thoughtful readers, and yet, like all conventionalities, they extend further than an author likes to believe."
The fact is, however, that if real people were constantly thrown at one another's heads so determinedly it would take a stronger power than even the omnipotent literary aspirant to force them into matrimony. Nor are weddings, or descriptions thereof, particularly delectable reading when they desert the society column for the short story. They are usually very much alike—though one original writer did perform her ceremony up a tree—and the bride always wears the same dresses and smiles the same smiles and weeps the same tears. So if you must have a wedding, let the reader off with the classic formula, "And so they were married and lived happily ever after;" but don't inflict on him such cheap sentimentalism as this:
Christmas morning was clear, cold and bright, just such a morning as had marked Fred's first departure from the Blanford's some three years before.
Grace's sisters had come home to take charge of affairs for the day and evening so Grace did not have much to see after but herself. Fred, supposing he would rather be in the way, did not arrive until about an hour before the ceremony was to take place, which was in the evening. A good many guests were invited and as they had already begun to arrive, Grace but barely had time to greet Fred, when she found she must withdraw and don her wedding garment.
If Grace had looked pretty with her gown held up about her a few weeks ago, she now looked handsome indeed as she came into the well crowded room.
Her rich silk gown fell in deep soft folds at her dainty feet. The soft creamy lace fell about her well shaped neck in clusters; the color of the gown made her hair and eyes look black as jet; and the excitement still kept the roses in her cheeks. Fred did not look so handsome, but no one could help admire the manly form as he stood beside Grace answering the questions that were to acknowledge them man and wife.
As soon as the ceremony was over and congratulations had been extended to the bride and groom, they were ushered in to a nicely prepared supper. A merry Christmas evening was spent. Grace's brothers did not lose their housekeeper, as she and Fred made their home with them.
They spent their days not like the hurrying brook, but grasped all the sunshine that was meant for them.
And in general it is much better—better art and better manners—for you to draw the reader politely aside as soon as the heroine has whispered the inevitable "Yes;" for what follows should not be spied upon by any third party.
 "The Problem of Endings," by Mary Tracy Earle. The Book Buyer. Aug. '98.
Excerpted From Short Story Writing, by Charles Raymond Barrett