From: THE WRITE SISTERS
Last time, we talked about using entrances to introduce a character and show characterization. Exits, like entrances, are also devices that can strengthen a novel, although an exit is more likely to convey emotions, and help a scene rather than a character. And like entrances, an exit can be more than going through a door. Death is an exit, saying goodbye or goodnight is an exit, leaving is an exit. So let’s take a look at some literary exits and see how others have used them.
The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor
Princess Alyss Heart’s parents have been murdered by her aunt Redd, who wants to be Queen of Wonderland. As Alyss travels through a maze of mirrors, she encounters her dead parents who give her encouragement and confirm their love for her. Now they have to leave.
The royal couple turned and began walking off into the distance of the looking glass.
“Wait!” Alyss shouted. “Don’t go!”
But Genevieve and Nolan kept walking.
“Wa-ait! Will I ever see you again?”
They stopped, apparently surprised by the question.
“Again and again and again,” said Nolan.
“If you know where to look for us,” said Genevieve.
Then they were gone and Alyss’ reflection once again occupied the glass. All strength left the princess. She fell to her knees and buried her face in her hands.
Beddor uses the exit to create a bittersweet moment here. Alyss regains her parents, only to lose them a second time. She might see them again if she can figure out how, but that secret has departed with her parents. They’ve gone through the looking glass (the door) and it has closed behind them—Alyss sees her reflection rather than an empty mirror.
Beddor could have had Alyss simply remember her parents, but that would have been a stagnant scene with no movement or tension, and would have created little emotion. He also could have left the door open after Alyss sees her parents vanish in the distance, but that would have offered up some hope. Closing the door makes the situation seem hopeless and dark. Alyss’ situation becomes a bit more complicated.
Here, in A single Shard by Linda Sue Park, the author hits us with a double exit. This is not a big moment, but Park makes the most of it. Tree-ear, the MC, is leaving Min, the potter, to cut wood. He was hoping he’d get to stay and watch the potter create something.
Tree-ear swallowed a sigh as he placed the ax in the cart. Grasping the handles, he wheeled the cart onto the road. He turned to wave farewell, but the potter was no longer there.
Exit number one is Tree-ear leaving. You can feel his disappointment in that sigh and in his turning back. Park doesn’t have to say he’s disappointed. She could have moved on from there and had Tree-ear get his firewood. The first two sentences are serviceable and would have done the job. But by adding that third sentence, we learn that Tree-ear cares enough about the potter to say goodbye, even though he will be returning soon, and that the potter doesn’t think much of Tree-ear and cares little for him.
Again, it’s all unsaid by Park, but the potter’s exit implies it. His exit also makes Tree-ear’s disappointment bigger, which, in turn, creates empathy in the reader for him. Park has created emotions in the character and the reader with these two exits. Without Tree-ear’s attempt to say goodbye, and the potter leaving, this would have been two empty sentences that did little for the story.
In Tender Morsels, author Margo Lanagan, gives us a scene of fourteen year-old Liga having a baby. This is her second child, both by her father, who keeps her hidden away so people won’t know what’s going on. The first time, she had no idea what was happening to her and gave birth all alone to a dead, misshapen thing out in the snow. This time, she realizes it’s a baby, and underneath her fear and the pain of childbirth, there is joy and excitement. The baby will be someone she can love, someone else in the house who isn’t Da. But the baby is born dead, and Da has just walked in, asking her if she’s done yet.
She gathered up the baby in her two hands, its unliving heat. She turned, holding it as far out as the cord would let her. She didn’t know why she was showing him, offering it to him—to him, of all people, and so tremblingly. Maybe she imagined he would mourn with her?
“Give it here,” he said, disgustedly, coming at her big and heavy, alive and full of will. He took the baby and went to turn away with it, but the cord dragged it off his hands.
She caught it. “It’s still attached,” she said. She was beginning to shake hard.
“Well, cut it, cut it!”
She thought he meant her to cut up the child. “It is already dead.”
“Oh, you!” He swung from foot to foot in his exasperation. “Don’t you look at it. Give it to me. Don’t you go getting moonmoody on me; don’t imagine this is anything more than you bleed out every month.” He took it again, more careful this time, and tried to interpose his shoulder between her face and his hands.
The afterbirth came out, a great soft rag to her startled, wincing parts.
“Is that all of it?” he almost shouted, clawing for it, the child held like waste meat in his other hand, its head preoccupied with its ancient thoughts.
And then he was gone, taking everything dripping with him, and Liga was too glad to be rid of him to do more than kneel there, a drizzling mess, and stare at the fact that it was over, stare at the messed floor.
Lanagan has shown Da as a horrible man, and this horrible man could have tossed the dead baby out the window or into the fire and it would have been believable given his character. But all that would have done was make him more horrible and keep the tension high. And Liga would still be trapped in that house with him.
This, however was a long, somewhat graphic scene where the tension was kept at a high level for some time. By the end of the scene, the reader has pretty much had enough, so having Da leave not only brings a bit of relief to Liga, but to the reader as well. It gives both Liga, and the reader, a chance to breathe.
And while we know Da has gone out, notice there is no mention of a door. Mentioning one, and leaving it open, would imply something was going to change for Liga, that things would get better. Closing the door would make the situation seem hopeless, as in The Looking Glass Wars example. Not mentioning the door leaves things as they are. Da will be back and nothing will change, and that is exactly what happens. Liga’s father impregnates her a third time.
One of the reasons entrances and exits can be powerful is because a door, in itself, is a metaphor. An open door is welcoming, a closed door shuts you out. Opening a door can represent new beginnings, starting over, adventure and promise. Closing a door can represent endings, finality, a loss of hope, or even death. If you write horror or paranormal, you can use doors in the opposite way. The open door might lead to danger while the closed door shuts it out. Try experimenting with the comings and goings in your own work to see what those entrances and exits can do for you.