Fiction

The Non-Cliffhanger Cliffhanger

One day, I am going to write a book or blog about the basic strategies for ending a story. When I taught composition at Simon Fraser University, I had handouts on starting and ending strategies for essays, so if I research, theoretically I can do the same for short stories and novels. Towards that goal, I would like to comment on one of the most unusual conclusions I have ever seen: the end of King Chondos’ Ride by my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer. At first glance, it looks like a cliffhanger, but, on closer inspection, it is a graceful economy of storytelling in which what happens next is obvious.

Paul Edwin Zimmer was a founder of the Society for Creative Anachronism and the younger brother of Marion Zimmer Bradley. Given the revelations about his sister’s child abuse, I should quickly add that he was nothing like his sister, and would have been horrified had he known what she did. He published a handful of fantasies, all of which are sadly out of print, but deserve to be better known. King Chondos’ Ride is the second book of The Dark Border, following The Lost Prince. The story has too many battle scenes for my taste, but is brilliantly structured, with characters who contrast each other and together make up a study of what it means to be a hero that is unequalled anywhere.

Paul told me that the ending is inspired by William Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere.” In the poem, Guenevere, King Arthur’s Queen, is on trial for adultery with Sir Launcelot. Guenevere mounts a spirited defense, insisting that she was put in the impossible position of having to choose between two splendid men, and implying that while she may have broken her marriage vows, she had remained loyal to Arthur. The last three verses are:

“All I have said is truth, by Christ’s dear tears.”

She would not speak another word, but stood

Turn’d sideways; listening, like a man who hears

His brother’s trumpet sounding through the wood

Of his foes’ lances. She leaned eagerly,

And gave a slight spring sometimes, as she could

At last hear something really; joyfully

Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed

Of the roan charger drew all men to see,

The knight who came was Launcelot at good need.

There is no need to go on to describe Launcelot’s battle to rescue her. To do so would detract from Guenevere’s spirited defence. Besides, writing in the Victorian Age, Morris could take for granted that his characters would know that Launcelot would rescue her. The few who might not know the story could gather from the final verses that a rescue was on the way.

In his book, Paul set up a similar situation, making anything beyond his final paragraph redundant. Early in The Dark Border, Istvan and Martos, two of the main characters, are separately attacked on the streets by gangs of men. Both survive, although seriously outnumbered.

At the conclusion, the plot to replace the king of the land with his evil twin is discovered and foiled. The twin flees into obscurity. Through tragic circumstances, Istvan kills Martos, who has been deceived by the evil twin and believes he defends the rightful king. Istvan’s victory leaves no doubt that he is the greatest living swordsmen in the land. Istvan notices a door ajar and opens it to discover supporters of the evil twin who are in wait to kill the greatest in the land and create chaos, unaware that they have been abandoned. The supporters move towards him, thinking “it was only one man.”

The final paragraph reads simply: “Then the greatest of living warriors was among them, and his sword was singing.”

It’s an economic piece of writing that never fails to make my heart leap. Like Morris before him, Paul has stopped exactly at the point where what happens next is inevitable. Obviously, undeniably, Istvan is about to slaughter the supporters of the evil brother. With his twin gone, the true king will reign uncontested. Readers can fill in the details for themselves, so why belabor what they already know? Lesser writers like me would probably provide an epilogue to leave no doubt, and really bad writers might provide another chapter or even another book, but Paul knew better.

In order to work, this tactic requires careful setup. The story has to unfold in such a way that what comes after the final paragraph cannot be mistaken. Even then, readers may mistake it for a cliffhanger. After King Chondos’ Ride was released, so many came up to Paul at conventions to ask when the next book would be published that he took to wearing a button that said, “There is no third book” and would simply point at it when asked. I never could figure out what they expected, since all the plot points had been resolved, but it points to a possible weakness: unobservant readers conditioned by cliché.

So far, I have never dared to imitate Paul’s tactic. Still, I admire its chutzpah, and one day I hope to find a situation where it is appropriate.

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