“For the tale to end, the snake must swallow its tail”
A while back I saw ‘Embrace of the Serpent’, a spell-binding and dream-like film set in the Amazon. The film’s opening credits play out over shots of an immense anaconda hatching scores of baby snakes. As a sequence, it was both chilling and laden with heavy Biblical overtones (The Garden of Eden is but one version that came to mind). However, it was while working on the ending of my current manuscript that this image of the slithering snake reminded me of another snake-based symbol, that of the Ouroboros.
The tale must swallow its tail.
I thought about this musty maxim, something remembered from a writing workshop that I attended in my undergraduate days, dealing with the dark arts of narrative structure and craft.
Like all good maxims, dictums and sage rules spouted by know-it-all writing teachers, it has its own truth while possessing a built-in problem: in this case the word ‘must‘.
Each story arises from its own unconscious rules written in drafts from a story that tells itself. The writer takes what he discovers and crafts it to look as if he knew exactly what he was doing all along. That’s the essence of the craft, the difference between an apprentice and a journeyman writer.
The ouroboros (pronounced oo-ro-bor-os), the ancient symbol of a snake (or dragon) swallowing its tail has appealed to many cultures. For the writer, as a symbol or archetype, it appeals to the universal notion of completeness, coming full circle, tying it all up, if not in a nice, neat little bow, at least in something that Joseph Campbell called the “eternal return.”
Perhaps a more useful question for a writer of fiction: How can I craft the tale to swallow its tail?
On a practical level, the craft technique of repeating, as subtlety as possible, an image, is a reliable and simple technique of carrying the emotions and the story’s ideas.
Earlier in the year, I heard more sage / practical advice “Pay attention to your endings” (if you want to get published) by a publisher/writer at another workshop. And I have kept these words in mind while working on the final chapter of my novel ‘The Branded Hand‘.
The story I have written spontaneously begins with an image of a flock of swallows flying over the sky above Berlin, a sight I have experienced on the few occasions I have visited that city. It was also an image from the 1987 Wim Wenders film “Wings of Desire” which is one of my favourite films. I wanted to reference these birds at the beginning of my story. While I fall firmly into the story planner (not pantser) camp, my problem was that I did not have a sense of what would be the right image for the ending of my story, some two years after I began to write my opening sentence.
And yet, when the time arrived the image of birds in the skies over Berlin revealed itself to me and worked its way into the ending. The story is still in need of another draft, or two, but I am satisfied with the basic structure and of having found a way for the tale to swallow its tail.