Monthly Archives: December 2012

THE END: How it can “end” your story

(not in a good way)

readers review the end of your writing closely

Readers look closely at endings… writers should too. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

To me, the ending is the most important part of whatever it is I’m writing.

Now, ends don’t get us anywhere unless there’s been something good that led there first, but the end is definitely a place with an increased risking of causing the whole previous construction to fall flat, like a cake that’s not cooked properly.

The flat cake speaks to the engineering talents of the chef, as Anne, as in Anne of Green Gables, can attest.

Same thing with a crappy ending. The story, article, essay, whatever, can be the most brilliant exposition of all time, but will be totally ruined if the ending sucks. The author, I can’t help feeling when I come across one of these sad examples, dropped the ball.

In “The Geography of Sentences,” a fabulous piece about sentence style in prose, Emily Brisse talks about laboring over the final sentence of her essay drafts, spending exorbitant amounts of time and reimagining the word construction in a hundred different ways. And there’s a good reason for that.

Obvious alert: The end is the last thing people read.

Which is a big deal because it totally affects how readers relate to everything you wrote before.

Everybody likes to talk about how important the beginning is to the success of any story.  I could quote pundits by the dozen who cite the need to “pull in your readers,” make them curious to know more. The pundits call it “the hook.” If we want to publish a story, then the first hurdle is to make the editor or agent to whom we are submitting same want to read more. Editors, agents, and other free individuals are important people with many other demands on their time. Either we grab their attention right away, or all is lost.

However, there is nothing so misleading as a great story that just loses it at the end.  All that work… and for what?

It’s always easier to start something than it is to finish it.  Anyone who has ever had a New Year’s resolution has personal experience of this phenomenon.  And the same observation holds true for writing as well.

I’m working on an essay right now and the middle section is going pretty well, considering the number of drafts and revisions I’ve dragged it through. But this just makes me terrified of the ending. If experience is anything to go by, those final 2 paragraphs are going to take as long to construct, deconstruct, and polish as the whole rest of it took to write and revise.

How many novels or stories have you read where you thought the ending was perfect? How many where the ending just falls flat? Tell me — what else do you remember about the stories with the crappy endings?

That’s right, probably not much.  If you’re charitable, you might say something like, “oh, I thought the rest of the story was pretty good, but…” and the but says it all.

One of the worst ways to end things, I think, is the neat wrap. All characters are accounted for, good people are suitably rewarded, bad people punished, no dangling ends of narrative, yadda yadda.  That book and all the magic it contains goes up in a poof! of dust as soon as I close the covers.  Later on I might wonder if I ever did read it, that’s how memorable it was.

Fairy tales are allowed to have characters live happily ever after — unless they’re stories collected by the brothers Grimm, in which case maybe some characters get eaten, and which I find entirely more interesting to read. But if there is nothing left for your characters to say or experience at the point where your story ends, either they aren’t real and interesting and three-dimensional enough to begin with, IMO, or you are cutting them off at the knees with your prose.

[Digression: Does anyone want to argue with me that the last Harry Potter does this? Talk about a major ending fail!]

Most of us aren’t in third grade, anymore.  “And, in conclusion…” is an unacceptable way to end things unless we’ve written a scientific paper which reviews the results of research, in which case, the construction really is necessary.

I’d like to posit that sometimes the best ending is not an ending at all.

Especially in creative works, such as fiction or personal essay, this is not a school exercise in which we need to go back over the points we’ve raised in the course of the narrative and make sure we summarize them at the end of the piece. Usually, major plot points are fair game for the ending treatment, but it’s a lot more fun to play with doubt and ambiguity.

Readers get to wonder: what’s going to happen to the characters next? how is that particular issue to be resolved? They’ve come to the end of their privileged access to events, but the tension remains. If they want more, readers are compelled to consider and create the possible alternatives themselves.

In the fancy-pants world of modern social media marketing, this is what’s called engagement.

We should all try it sometime.

What are some of your favorite endings?  What is it about them that you like so much?