We humans are a bit strange, to say nothing of the dog… Sorry, sometimes I mix what I’m reading — Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) — with what I’m writing, or should be writing.
Anyway, I was saying we’re strange. For example, we tend to give a lot of importance to the way things end.
I mean, if we go on a vacation for a fortnight and then the last day it rains, we’re bound to feel a bit cheated and depressed. Instead, if it rains the first day of our vacation it rarely is a big deal.
The same goes when we have to sit through a dental procedure. Even if the dentist is a sadistic jerk, it’s not a big problem. Really, all he has to do is to let the last five minutes of the procedure go without any discomfort on our part.
Instead, even if we sat through a mostly painless procedure, but with the last five minutes spent screaming in pain, in retrospective we would tend to rate such an experience as way worse than the first.
(If you’re curious and want to read more about this phenomenon, the peak-end rule, you can check out Thinking Fast and Slow, by the Nobel prizewinner psychologist Daniel Kahneman.)
I used dental surgery and vacation going to make it clear from the get go that endings aren’t just important—they can make the difference between a forgettable book and another that instead will linger in its readers’ memories for a long while.
How to end a story… start with a good story!
I consider endings sort of rockets. And like all rockets they need fuel. A lot of fuel.
The Saturn V and the Space Shuttle gobbled enormous amounts of liquid hydrogen. In Star Trek, the USS Enterprise relies on antimatter. And in Star Wars the Millennium Falcon’s diet requires gamma radiation.
Instead, the essential fuel any ending needs is the story leading up to the ending itself. As simple as that.
If our story sucks from the beginning, or halfway through it begins to veer off route, then not even great writers like Elmore Leonard, Harlan Ellison, or Stephen King could do anything to salvage it.
Of course, from a technical point of view they would write better endings. But even so, they would be unable to push the rocket to go any farther, or any faster.
So we must make sure the ending comes when it is really time for it to come. That’s to say, when the story we’ve been telling is as complete and truthful as possible.
Genetics and literature
Curiosity is an essential aspect of us humans. It leads to questions, and from these to progress. Just think of genetics. Of how scientists have managed to mingle genes from different species together.
Years ago, using bioengineering techniques, Eduardo Kac ‘created’ a glowing bunny. For some this is art. For some others, just an expression of bad taste.
Irrespective of the merits of such manipulations on live animals, we should leave
genetic engineering unnatural manipulations out of our stories.
The reason is simple. The ending of a novel can have a chance to work only if it grows naturally, ineluctably I would say, out of the story. However, this doesn’t mean such an ending has to be predictable.
In fact, often writers have to work hard to make sure the ending offers an unexpected twist, but such that, when analyzed, it makes perfect sense.
For example, we might have a murderer who is sentenced to death because he has killed a man during a robbery. This is an expected end. One that can nonetheless work well if properly treated. We might show the execution and then the unsatisfied widow while she realizes this isn’t the kind of closure she needs.
But what if after the execution we discovered that the widow was in reality planning to kill her husband, and now she feels frustrated because the murderer has prevented her from having her revenge?
In the first case we have a reasonable story. In the second we have almost the same story, with an ending that is perfectly organic, but forces us to replay all the story under a new and more interesting light.
This seems strange, but a great story rarely needs an ending pumped up on steroids.
Have you ever noticed? Great stories and great endings work wonders with simple phrasing. With simple words. After all, the ending is also called denouement, and this in French means ‘untying’. I think the image of a knot which comes undone is perfect.
Again, this doesn’t mean our story must peter out as a wet firecracker. It just means that a somewhat restrained prose (with respect to the style of the whole book) if well exploited can heighten beyond belief the emotional charge of the ending.
After all it’s the end. The end, above all, for our protagonists. We have to let them go.
from The Stranger, by Albert Camus
As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the benign indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Even the most gripping story is a failure if it lacks at least some sort of ending.
In literature, happiness isn’t only a way of travel it’s also the destination. We must come up with an ending at all costs. It’s not a matter of having a particular type of ending, it’s a matter of having an ending.
Sure, completely unresolved endings can lead to sequels. But for me this is cheating. Because the story isn’t really finished. Only the book is.
A train wreck waiting to happen?
Some time ago I wrote about beginnings. Because writers have to come up with instantly gripping beginnings–otherwise no perspective reader would ever buy their books.
Here I took care of endings. Because endings can be instrumental in making our story stick in our readers’ mind. Then, of course, there is the sagging middle. It also has to be taken care of. Otherwise, out of outraged boredom, our readers will chuck our book…
Are you starting to see what I mean? That a story can derail any moment and that the task for any serious writer is to keep it on track? Word after word after word?
So it doesn’t matter if you’re straddling the middle, you’re crawling up the beginning of your first page, or you’re free falling into an unplanned ending. Just make sure the word you’re about to use says something meaningful.
Turn writing into real communication, communion.