craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
In The Art of Fiction John Gardner repeats Aristotle’s claim that the climax of a story must be “inevitable and surprising” (172). He is cautioning writers against leaving the big moment to chance—a stray semi on the highway, or an incident of food poisoning. The same can be said of story endings as well–by ending I mean the post-climactic-scene denoument. A satisfying ending will show the character’s change convincingly; it will be inevitable based on the change that has developed throughout the novel. But what do surprising endings look like?
To find out, I analyzed three Katherine Paterson novels, Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob Have I Loved, and The Great Gilly Hopkins. In all three novels, Paterson tackles inevitability head on by creating scenes that clearly show the protagonists’ growth, and in each novel, the “surprising” elements add complexity and evoke layered emotions in the reader. Paterson uses unique endings that fit the stories, but satisfy the reader in unexpected ways.
In this post, we’ll look at the ending of Bridge to Terabithia, the most conventional ending, and see how Paterson has added elements that surprise. (Watch for posts on Jacob Have I Loved and The Great Gilly Hopkins in future weeks.) Since we’re talking about endings, spoilers abound.
Bridge to Terabithia
In the 1977 middle grade novel Bridge to Terabithia, Jess Aarons wants to be the fastest kid at his school in recess races, but when a new girl, Leslie, moves in next door, she beats him handily. This competition turns into a friendship, a closer relationship than he has with his own family; he feels distant from them, especially his father.
Leslie and Jess play in the forest and create/discover a magical land they name Terabithia. They visit the woods often and fly into their imagined land on a rope swing over a river. When Jess is away one day, Leslie crosses the river into Terabithia, but the rope swing breaks and she drowns. Jess grieves, and through his grief he is able to connect with his family. It’s a heartbreaking and beautiful novel.
At the end of the book, Jess introduces his younger sister May Belle to Terabithia. This final scene mirrors a number of scenes in the book: the opening of the book, where Jess practices to run and win a recess race at school so he can be accepted by his peers and his father, the initial invention of Terabithia, and the many times in the book that Jess and Leslie swing across the river to enter their magical land. For Jess, Terabithia has been a healing place where he has practiced courage in battles and been seen, loved, and appreciated for who he is, something he doesn’t get from his family.
Closing the Emotional Arc
Jess’s emotional arc comes to a crisis after Leslie dies, not in his initial response to her death, which is to stuff down his feelings as he has done throughout the book, but in an encounter with his father when he finally lets his emotions out. At this point in the story, Jess has changed. He is emotionally reunited with his father, and thus his family. But the story doesn’t feel finished. Jess must show how he will move forward in the world
Showing Permanent Change
In passing the keys of Terabithia to May Belle, Jess enacts a change from the despair of losing Leslie and being disconnected from his father to hope for future relationships. He embraces the magic of Terabithia and shows that though he won’t always have Terabithia, the lessons he learned there will last.
Paterson does this partly by incorporating a number of story elements in the final scene. Jess has built a bridge over the creek to replace the broken rope swing that caused Leslie’s death, which symbolizes a new path forward. When he finishes building the bridge,
he put flowers in her [May Belle’s] hair and led her across the bridge—the great bridge into Terabithia—which might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully (191).
This moment signifies a healed relationship with May Belle, whom Jess has shunned through most of the book. The final exchange cements Jess’s changed view of the world, one with magic and where May Belle will be treated well, implying that he will treat her well too:
“Can’t you see ‘um?” he whispered. “All the Terabithians standing on tiptoe to see you.”
“Shhh, yes. There’s a rumor going around that the beautiful girl arriving today might be the queen they’ve been waiting for.” (191)
It is an ending of hope, after the crushing scenes after Leslie’s death. Jess’s emotional experiences have opened him to magic and family and the world in ways he wasn’t before.
The Surprise of Hope
After I read the scene where Jess hears of Leslie’s death, I thought, Where can this book possibly go? I expected a lot of sadness and maybe some movement toward accepting her death. I did not expect a hopeful ending. Yet a hopeful ending is the right ending. It honors Leslie more than Jess’s tears alone. Paterson models a way to surprise readers with this hope, but also makes it feel inevitable, as grief does not exclude hope for Jess, and need not for any child.
- What is the end of your character’s emotional arc? How do they change over the course of the novel?
- What’s one action that will show that the change is one that will continue into the character’s future? Can you use echoes of earlier scenes to add to the satisfaction of the ending?
- Is there an unexpected emotion that can surprise readers but also feel inevitable?
Keep an eye out next week for the unusual ending of Jacob Have I Loved.
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.