Novelist Tony Earley always says, “A story is about a thing and another thing.” So it’s your job to plan your stories so that you give your reader the satisfaction of getting closure from one “thing,” the most obvious thing, but keep the mystery of the other “things” intact.
A good example of this can be found in Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” the short story about a homeless Spokane Indian’s circular attempts to raise $1000 to redeem his grandmother’s powwow regalia from a pawn shop. The shop owner would like to give it back, but he paid $1000 for it himself. So he gives the homeless man five dollars as seed money and 24 hours to raise the rest of the cash.
In the first paragraph, Alexi gives the reader notice and sets up the ending of his story:
One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.
The idea of a “secret story” is the key to the ending. While the protagonist does manage to earn money, he drinks, gambles, or gives it away. After 24 hours, the money has not been raised, but the pawnbroker gives him the regalia anyway. The last paragraph of the story is this:
Outside, I wrapped myself in my grandmother’s regalia and breathed her in. I stepped off the sidewalk and into the intersection. Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing.
Because the regalia is given back, the story does seem to tie itself up (that would be the first “thing”), but this isn’t really about getting a stolen dress back. It’s about the struggle to regain one’s spirit — and that could be seen as the “secret” story (or the other thing) wrapped in this tall tale.
The ending that satisfies the reader, or ties things up, is never the real ending of the story. We discover that the grandmother’s regalia is returned, and yet the story continued on for a moment to put the act into context.
This sounds like good advice, though I’d say it differently. The “second thing” that ends the story and gives the context for the “first thing” shouldn’t remain a mystery. Kelby used “mystery” where he/she should have used “enigma”. The reader should see the tip of an iceberg, and may be uncertain exactly where its sunken outlines are, but still feel chilled by its bulk and nearness (or warmed, if your metaphorical iceberg is cheery). But you don’t want the reader to wonder what happened or what the second thing was.
Lord of the Rings continues on after the Ring has fallen into Mount Doom. The hobbits return and save the Shire from Saruman. I don’t remember this part, because it was boring, but you could argue that showing the Hobbits’ newfound ability to deal with aggression indicates that the story is about them. You could say that their selfless quest to save strangers led to them being able to save the Shire, and that this gave the novel a “the life you save may be your own” message.
(Peter Jackson, of course, omitted the ending from his movie, which was about Aragorn.)
Star Wars continues after the destruction of the Death Star to a painfully long awards ceremony. (Come on, how many of you fast-forward through that when re-watching it?) I think this is an overt statement that the story is about the heroes’ journey rather than about blowing up the Death Star.
The Last Unicorn has a final chapter after the plot has finished, in which Schmendrick and Molly talk about their feelings about the unicorn, and don’t talk about their feelings for each other while still giving the reader the impression that they will stay together for a long time.
I did this with my own stories and it seems I’ve been following this rule unconsciously. Deviating from it isn’t always wrong, but makes it much more likely that something is wrong with the story. Many writers deviate from it by closing with the plot tie-up rather than the resolution of the character arc. I usually deviate from it by trying to write the character arc as plot, which can succeed, but usually fails.
The “two things” theory touches on a distinction between popular fiction and “literature”. Popular works like The DaVinci Code or The Wheel of Time emphasize the “first thing”. Literary works emphasize the “second thing”. A few, like Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn, manage to do both.
An exercise for the reader: What is the “second thing” in Harry Potter and the X?