It’s kind of a big old deal isn’t it? Whether it’s the end of a relationship, the end of a life, or the end of an empire we mark our lives far more by endings than we do by beginnings. Lately I’ve learned that even the quintessential beginning, birth, is really just the end of a pregnancy. And when we’re talking about writing, the ending might be the single most important element of the story.
Recently in my review of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds I noted that there was something I didn’t like about the ending, something just slightly out of tune. I also said that the rest of the book was utterly fantastic and totally worth reading. But somehow my slight dissatisfaction with the ending turned into slight dissatisfaction with the book as a whole. Objectively I know that I loved 99% of everything I read, but somehow my memory of that experience has been thrown out of balance.
Now, let’s take an alternate example from the same author. Just days before Blackbirds was released I received an early copy of Chuck Wendig’s pulp epic Dinocolypse Now! (Incidentally in the very same week Chuck Wendig’s vampire-in-zombie-land sequel Bad Blood was released as well. I think I’m going into Wendig overload. Not that that’s a bad thing.) Dinocolypse Now! was….okay. I’m not going to write a whole review here, suffice it to say that it’s not Chuck’s greatest work, but neither is it necessarily bad. But the ending, dude, the ending in that thing was such a kicker. I loved that ending so much. I asked that ending to marry me, and when it spurned me I wrote poetry all night made from the tincture of my tears. Consequently, when I think back on Dinocolypse Now! my brain goes, “Dang, that book was good. Remember that part? And that other part? And that part where the hollow-earth caveman did that thing to the hyper-intelligent ape?”
Why does this happen? Well, let’s consider an experiment wherein researchers read people a list of different kinds of ice cream and told them to pick from any of the varieties on the list. The researchers found that no matter what flavors of ice cream they presented to the test subjects or what order they were arranged in, the flavor they named last was far more likely to be chosen than the others.
The moral of this story is that somewhere in the world there are scientists doing experiments that involve giving away free ice cream. It makes you wonder doesn’t it? Where would you sign up to be one of these experimentees? Did the scientists pay these people? Would it be possible to game this system and get a full-time job eating ice cream?
No, wait, sorry, the moral of the story is that there’s a glitch in the workings of our brains, a subconscious subroutine that causes more recent experiences to be valued over earlier ones. And in terms of writing this is why it’s so crucial to get the ending right. Because unless you’ve got the world’s slowest readers, odds are that the time they spend remembering your book will far outweigh the time they spent reading it. And your reader’s brain will value the final memory of the book above all others.
Point is, endings are important. They’re not all-important of course. There are other story elements you’re going to need to keep the reader interested enough to actually get to the ending. But if you’re going to do anything right, if you can make only one moment in your story amazing, make sure it’s the ending.
Now you may be wondering, “Albert, you’ve written a whole blog post about endings, so how are you going to end this sucker?” Well, fortunately for me, I’m a big fan of self-referential irony which means I can just-
That was a brilliant post, Albert! Firstly, sorry I haven’t commented on your blog lately, but I have been very busy. However, I have subscribed your posts and all of them have got me thinking and introspecting. So a big thank-you!
Coming to this post, you have nailed it! My husband and I recently were having a debate on how to end a story I have been writing. I had written only half of it and read it to him and he said that sounded like a complete story and I should just end it there. But I thought it was just too abrupt and had a nice fairy-tale ending all thought out to the last detail. But no, he wouldn’t listen. He loved the flow cut short so suddenly and how it left the rest to the reader’s imagination. So, I left it where it was.
So many good stories, I believe, give the reader a burst of adrenaline in the very last line! And the intoxication of the overall reading experience is, like you say, mostly because of that one last line!
Looking forwward to the next post.
The ending is the solution to the problem, if only symbolically. Our brains are hard-wired to seek and value solutions. It’s an evolutionary adaptation.
You sucker. That was a terrible ending. 😉
This is a great post. It makes me also think about beginnings. When LOST started, everyone’s breath was literally lost in excitement–but when lots of people talk about it now the voice disappointment in it because of the ending. But for me, the beginning was awesome enough to carry it through because I cared for the characters. Same thing with Memento. The beginning is breathlessly awesome. Same thing with the new Predator. It was enough to get me through to the end, even if the end was just okay.
So for me, it needs one or the other. A good beginning or a good end.
Agreed. Although, I think you’ve got to place as much emphasis on the beginning as the ending. At least with books. If the beginning (and by “beginning” I mean the first page) sucks, I won’t read on.
Pingback: The Fault is Kind of in the Stars, Seriously | Thoughtspresso