Climaxes: Happy Endings in Storytelling

Regarding Climaxes: I’m not sure if I am writing an essay on how sexual climax is like giving an ending to a story, or how storytelling is like sex. Maybe it’s not one or the other but a look at how we apply the concept of satisfaction to a broad range of human experiences. Either way, be warned: there’s some spicy language and mature content today!

It came to me in a dream: endings matter, and how they are accomplished matters even more.

The typical way to end a Hollywood film is, in current fashion at least, the unrepentant, big-bang climax. It’s like the standard V-I or IV-I wrap-up to a classical music piece, and what it amounts to is essentially orgasm, sigh.

The Evolution of the Climax?

I have to admit, it made me laugh when I realized what I was thinking, but maybe it’s apt. Maybe because women experience sex differently, we are destined to bring a different ending to stories.

Denouement used to be rather standard in storytelling; we were interested in what happened after the proverbial shoot-out or car chase as well as what had taken us to that point. Shakespeare’s Act Vs were nothing more or less than a wrap-up, something we’ve now apparently delegated to the “post-show” or worse, an entirely unaffiliated commentary program in which “experts” and the public weigh in not only on what comes next but what should have happened.

Film may have been the ultimate factor in changing the fashion for endings. Hollywood wants us to see the explosion and move us right into the credits. They’re not paying big bucks for us to watch a couple of actors talk things over after the fat lady sings. The big bucks go into the pyrotechnics; people pay more money to watch movies where more money is spent; therefore, by the rule of supply and demand, there’s nothing more important than the climax.

“I Just Want to Snuggle”

Basically, we’ve downgraded the post-coital cuddle to gratuitous.

If I could propose a “feminizing” of storytelling, I would advocate a gentler ending to the process. I would return, or progress, to letting ’em down slowly, in essence. Instead of a “big bang,” you could have your orgasm and enjoy it too.

In music, we don’t mind a hanging ending every now and then. A song like “Against All Odds” stands out because instead of that V-I progression, the last chord is unresolved. It tells us “there’s more to this than I’m telling you.” It invites us to take another breath instead of to jump up and applaud.

One of the reasons my personal taste cautions me to avoid contemporary literature is the fashion for writers to end a story before the climax. I’m all for “coming in late and leaving early,” a very good piece of advice when it comes to writing scenes. That said, I am left entirely unsatisfied when an author opts to let me decide what happens after I turn the last page.

Being something of a structure fiend, I want every thread to play out, every foreshadowed element to lead to the thing that cast it, and every character to have a purpose. I am not a fan of the open-ended narrative, the “slice of life.” It’s my taste, but I also see it as a bit of a cheat to make storytelling a blow-by-blow account instead of an attempt to create sense out of nothing.

Follow-through Matters

For me, to leave a story without an ending is to deny the reader or viewer a sense of satisfaction. It’s tantric sex without hope of release. I hate messy conclusions that leave characters hanging, waiting for something the writer promised and didn’t deliver. It’s the worst kind of false hope, and the more intricate the set-up, the more cheated I feel.

More and more, though, I want more out of an ending, not less. I want the comfort of sitting back with the characters, basking in the afterglow, able to sigh with pleasure at what has gone before and in anticipation of what might come next.

We know that concepts enter our memory best with revision. If we study our notes before a test, we fix them in our long-term memory because we have upgraded their perceived importance. When we move directly from climax to The End, we tell our brains, “It’s over.” There’s no real reason to return to what we’ve just seen. We remember the bang, but its fascination fades quickly.

When we have a denouement, we return to the climax in our minds and tell our brains, “That had meaning.” We remember an ending we’ve had time to process; we forget one whose effects we ignore.

Maybe this is the point in a big-budget feature film. Without a denouement, we’re immediately hungry for more. We aren’t entirely satisfied so we return to the trough for more. We consume blockbusters like junk food. And when we aren’t getting all our nutrients, we eat more.

Satisfaction for all!

It’s the difference between fucking and having sex with another person. A woman knows that sex can be very, very bad in a way a lot of men don’t seem to understand. We can be fucked, and in both senses of the phrase. A woman knows you can be there and still not be part of what’s going on. A man can be satisfied and totally unaware that his partner didn’t even have fun.

The female orgasm has always had a downgraded importance compared to its masculine counterpart. When we insist upon it, we can find ourselves without a partner. When we don’t, we can languish in unsatisfied limbo. No one would advocate a sexual encounter in which neither partner climaxes. Still, we have apparently through most of history accepted that it’s all right if at least the man gets off.

In order for a woman to enjoy sex, she must not only participate fully but be acknowledged to be participating. In other words, not only must the man think about her pleasure as well as his own, he must treat her as if she is a partner in the thing instead of just the object he is interacting with.

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Women know sexual desire is a continuum, not something that comes with an on/off switch. We’re aware of the intricacies of attraction because we have to weigh our consequences that much more carefully. We are more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections; we get pregnant. And we suffer disproportionately from poverty, illness, and loss of reputation when we fuck. We don’t do it lightly.

But we do it for the same reason. It feels great, and to reach orgasm is to experience something for which there is no substitute.

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