The 3 Codes of Meaning & Endings

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Why your ending isn't as good as it could be!


This is a complicated topic, so this post is a bit longer than usual. But it's really important, so try to stick through to the end.


The dreaded last sentence. You've tried two different versions, and they probably look like this:

  1. This internship was of the most valuable things I've ever done in my life so far and I know I'll cherish the memories of it forever.

  2. Looking back, my internship was a valuable lesson in how to work well with others and influenced the trajectory of my life in unexpected ways that I'm ultimately grateful for.

These are both bad. Why?


3 Codes of Meaning

When you say anything, you can:

  1. say more than you mean.

  2. say exactly as much as you mean.

  3. say less than you mean.

The two examples I gave above correspond to the first two codes of meaning.


The first example, more than you mean, is obviously much worse than the second one. The reader knows that you're exaggerating, and this makes the underlying reality of your ending (what you meant) lose impact because it seems insignificant in comparison to what you said.


Achieving a true "say less than you mean" ending is hard because it requires context from previous parts of the essay. It should feature one of these:

  • implied information (especially an implied resolution)

  • ambiguity (pointing equally to two or more possibilities)

  • uncertainty (that you feel about yourself, the topic, or the future)

  • looking to the future

  • an incomplete resolution

Because context is required, the best way to teach you how to do this is through examples.


Examples

Here is an example in Tehanu from The Earthsea Cycle.


Ogion is a key mentor through this series. He is a recluse wizard who lives in a mountain; in his younger days, he saves a town from an earthquake. After this, villagers bring him gifts—and he always immediately sends them away. He eventually gets old and sick and calls his old apprentice to come help him. The main character (Ogion's apprentice) comes, and things are looking grim.


The chapter ends with this:


"That night his neighbors sat with Ogion, and he did not send them away."

When I first read this, I was shocked. The rest of the page was blank! I remember turning the page to see if, somehow, there had been a formatting error and there was more to the chapter. But no, the next page had the next chapter heading.


So what happened here?


Ogion died.


This is an incredible example of saying less than you mean, and a good place for me to emphasize that this is not understatement. Understatement is when all the information is there, but it is presented in a smaller way than what we would expect. In this example, we're missing key information (it's implied).


Why is this good?

Barthes, whose Five Codes inspired the name for my Three Codes of Meaning, says in S/Z that a story is a promise to reveal certain information. Once the story reveals this information, it's dead—it essentially kills itself for our entertainment. In order to be memorable, a good story will end with some element of incompleteness to show that it has not told us everything. Barthes calls this "an et cetera of plenitudes."


My theory is that, if the story can live on in our minds—even if just for a second—the fact that it doesn't immediately die on the page will make it much more impactful and memorable to the reader.


Further Reading

I always make my essay students read "Age of Instagram Face." It's a great example of a less-than-you-mean ending and register.


– Aaron

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