Friday, September 18, 2015

What It All Means (September theme) by Claudia Mills

I already know how your personal story is going to end. I know how mine is going to end, too.

Spoiler alert: we're all going to die.

This may be why, when it comes to endings, I'm less interested in what happens than I am in what it all means. Why did the author choose this particular stretch of experience in the life of one particular fictional character to enclose between the covers of a book? Unless the main character does die within the time frame of the story, lots more stuff is going to happen to him or her later on. So why end the story here? Surely the reason has to do less with plot than with theme.

Do Rhett and Scarlett get back together or not? Even on the last page of the novel, Scarlett thinks she'll win him back at some near or distant future time, and maybe she can and maybe she can't. But if she won him back at the end of this book, it wouldn't be called Gone with the Wind.

So what I read for is not to see how the events of the story play themselves out, but to see what the character or reader learns along the way, what central truth about the human experience is revealed in the all-important epiphany moment. That's when I get tears in my eyes: when I reach that achingly wonderful moment when the main character finally gets it.

No author is better at delivering fabulous epiphany moments than the incomparable Katherine Paterson. Here are two of my favorites. (Note: Paterson also delivers her stunning epiphany on the very last, or next to last, page, something I can never quite manage to do.)

Lyddie opens with a great first line: "The bear had been their undoing, though at the time they had all laughed."After scaring off a literal bear intruder into their Vermont cabin, Lyddie is determined to save herself and her younger siblings from the bears of debt, poverty, and her mother's inner demons. But at the end of the book she realizes that the bear she needs to stare down is not what she had thought it to be: "The bear that she had thought all these years was outside herself, but now, truly, knew was in her own narrow spirit. She would stare down all the bears!"

The Great Gilly Hopkins closes with an epiphany moment that changed my own life, as Gilly talks on the phone to her foster mother Trotter, after she has thrown away her best chance at happiness by pursuing an empty dream. Trotter tells Gilly that "life ain't supposed to be nothing, 'cept maybe tough." Gilly asks her, "If life is so bad, how come you're so happy?" Trotter replies, "Did I say bad? I said it was tough."

Yes, yes, yes!

So, as I write my own endings, I care first and foremost what that epiphany take-away will be, even if I may not discover it myself until my character finds it for me. Epiphanies are the reason I read. They are also the reason I write.


  1. I'm getting to the end of project right now, and this is JUST what I needed to hear.

  2. I love that idea of thinking of the epiphany moment!