How to Write an Ending that Doesn’t Resolve Conflict

23 Dec
Owen Egerton's essay about his parents' odd Christmas tradition appeared in Salon last Christmas.

Owen Egerton’s essay, “Jesus never gave Christmas porn,” about his parents’ odd Christmas tradition is heartfelt and excellent.

The best essay about Christmas that I’ve ever read is by Owen Egerton. I don’t make this claim lightly, given that there is no shortage of holiday-themed writing this time of year. The essay is notable for its perspective (Egerton grew up a humanist, became a fundamentalist Christian, and now writes searching novels about faith) but also its content: as a kid, the Egerton children rushed downstairs to find their stockings stuffed with pornographic magazines.

After Egerton experienced a religious epiphany as a teenager, these gifts still appeared, and the essay explores the inevitable tension with his parents. I can’t recommend the essay highly enough, especially its ending, which manages to draw the tension to a close without resolving it. “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” was published at Salon, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay sets up two clear belief systems. The first belongs to Egerton’s parents, especially his father:

My father grew up as the son of a minister in rural England. He never embraced his own father’s faith. Instead he became a practical man of medicine who viewed sex as a pleasant and necessary part of the human life cycle. Sex was never a taboo subject in our house. Sex was something to talk about, laugh about and responsibly explore. Sure, buying your kids pornography might seem at tad unorthodox, but at the heart of the gift was my parents’ desire to instill a healthy view of sex in their children.

This humanistic view of sex was paired with Egerton’s parents’ attitude toward Christianity:

There was another reason my parents felt compelled to give flesh mags. Pornography was a way to simultaneously celebrate the holiday and keep its more religious themes at bay. Christ got no preferential treatment in our house.

The result was stockings filled with Christmas-themed pornography magazines. Like most children, Egerton went along with his parents’ beliefs when young. But as he reached his teens, he began to explore ideas outside of those accepted at home:

The summer of my 16th year, I spent a week at a Christian summer camp and came back home a born-again Christian. The very night I returned, before my bags were unpacked or my new Adventure New Testament was cracked, I opened my bottom desk drawer, removed three years of well-used Christmas pornography and dumped it in the trash. I didn’t even take a final peek.

With one swift act, I replaced my father’s humanistic view of lust for a moralistic, evangelical view. Lust, I now understood, was in itself a sin.

Like any teen with a new idea, Egerton tried to convince his parents of its worth:

I put my parents through laborious conversations and countless clumsy metaphors, trying to get them to see what I saw so clearly. They were patient, nodding at my testimonials and refilling their wine glasses, but they were not to be moved.

This is where the essay reveals its greatness. As readers, we want endings to resolve tension. But how can this tension be resolved? Egerton’s parents weren’t going to change his minds, and he wasn’t going to change his (at least not for several years). He could have ended by fast forwarding to that subsequent conversion, but what would it accomplish? Many people change their minds about things—even about beliefs that, like religious tenants, are often central to our identity. And, of course, most of us make ridiculous claims and arguments when we’re teenagers. So, an ending that resolves the religious conflict avoids, in a way, the basic tension of the essay: when you love someone but don’t agree with them, how do you live together?

As a teen, Egerton handled the conflict by giving his father a rolled-up scroll with a hand-written Bible verse. In the essay, he handles the ending like this:

We sat in our living room on that Christmas morning, he with the scroll of verses and me with an unopened Penthouse, both feeling his gift had not been appreciated, both sure the other just didn’t get it, both believing the other was drifting down a path that led to something like damnation and wanting more than anything to rescue them. I was trying to save my dad and he was trying to save me. And neither of us knew how.

In the end, Egerton doesn’t try to resolve the conflict. Instead, he can only acknowledge the impossibility of resolving it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s conclude a moment of tension without resolving the underlying conflict, using “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Identify the conflicting beliefs or desires. This likely seems like an obvious step, but it’s surprisingly easy to write an entire essay or story without clearly defining this conflict. Or, we’ll define one but fail to put that belief or desire into direct conflict with a competing belief or desire. (A story about someone in love who never makes the feeling known is a story without a conflict.) So, try this exercise with the major characters in your story or essay: Have them say, “I really want_____” or “I really believe_____.” Force them to make explicitly what might presently only be tacitly understood.
  2. Put the beliefs or desire into conflict. Perhaps you have a major conflict in mind (a clear destination for the story), and, if so, that’s great. But you may want to introduce the conflict in a smaller way before the big blowup arrives. In Egerton’s essay, we know that he’ll get porn in his stocking even though he’s become a born-again Christian. But Christmas morning is not the first appearance of the conflict. Instead, he shows public scenes of dinner-table debate and private signs of belief (dumping the old magazines in the trash). These scenes end politely but with the conflict clearly unresolved. How can you introduce the conflict so that everyone behaves well? How can you create the anticipation in the reader of a bigger blow-up to come?
  3. Consider the possibility that the conflict will never be resolved. An ending that resolves the conflict neatly—so that all tension that was created in the beginning is now gone—can be disappointing. To avoid this let down, consider this what-if question: If the conflict cannot be resolved, and the characters cannot permanently separate themselves, what then? This is the conflict that causes so much stress during the holidays. People move away from their families (often a source of conflict) but then are forced to sit at the same table and stay in the same house as them for a few days. Every year, you’ll hear people asking, “How do I get through the holiday?” Let your characters ask this same question. What does it mean to remain close to someone with whom you have an essential conflict? The answer may be your ending.

Good luck and happy holidays!

2 Responses to “How to Write an Ending that Doesn’t Resolve Conflict”

  1. LaTanya D. December 23, 2014 at 8:02 p12 #

    Great post! Just as in real life, most conflict is not neatly resolved. I am dealing with this in my memoir. Sometimes you have to just leave it at that. Thank you for sharing this post with me.

    • michaelnoll1 December 24, 2014 at 8:02 p12 #

      Thanks, LaTanya. Good luck with your memoir.

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