Tag Archives: Blackbirds

The Final Word on Endings

The End.

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-

Bizzaro Book Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Let’s start at the end. For those of you just tuning in this is not my usual methodology, but for this book I thought it was important not to give my thoughts on the ending of this book at the end of the post. Because the end, by definition, is the last thing you read. The end of a book, the end of a blog post, whatever it is, the last thing we experience colors our memory of the piece more than anything else.

And here’s the thing: the only negative thing I have to say about this book is about the ending. And because this book is truly exceptional in every other regard I don’t want to risk leaving you on a negative note at the end of this review.

It’s not even a bad ending per say. It wraps up all the pieces of the story pretty neatly, but in my opinion there’s something missing. Here’s the deal: a number of scenes in the book cast shadows toward a particular kind of ending. They hint about sacrifice and the nature of justice, weaving religious iconography (strangely detailed religious iconography for a man who’s so well-known for his love for profanity) into dream-visions featuring a weird specter who claims to be more than the simple product of Miriam’s deranged subconscious.

But when we actually get to the ending, it seems too easy. No, “easy” isn’t the right word. Miriam Black goes through something close to hell before she finds her peace. She’s beaten to a pulp, pushed to the edge of sanity, forced to confront something within herself she didn’t know existed.

But what the ending is missing, the true and final ingredient left out of this otherwise perfect recipe is sacrifice. Miriam Black has to fight for her ending, but in my opinion she never reaches that crucial point where she willingly gives up something truly precious to her for the sake of someone else. That was the capstone I felt the story needed the final piece that would have made the puzzle complete.

Now. On to the good stuff. Of which there is plenty.

The premise of the book is this: Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. She sees it played out in her head like a movie (often an exceptionally gruesome movie) whenever she makes skin to skin contact with you. And as you might imagine this power makes her just a bit…unstable.

It is the character of Miriam Black that drives the heart of the book, a cynical and sardonic loner using her foresight to pick over the bodies of the newly dead like a blackbird (why yes, in fact that is the title of the book) scavenging for scraps of flesh. Her biting wit warns the world to keep its distance, and her heart seems to be covered in prickles like a cactus. But inside there’s something far different, a scared and scarred girl whose life has brought her to a place where she’s afraid to love or even trust anyone else. Her mocking wit is a shield she puts up lest anyone see her pain, and the more she tries to convince herself she doesn’t care the harder it becomes to believe.

The story properly begins with Miriam having a vision. She’s used to this by now, long since learning to deaden her feelings about the ever-looming specter of death. Only this time is different. This time as the death scene plays out in her head, she sees the trucker she’s only just met calling out her name as he’s brutally murdered by a man she’s never seen before.

Miriam knows there is nothing she can do about this. “Fate gets what fate wants,” she’s fond of saying. Intervention is pointless. Any effort to stop the death she has seen will only help to bring it to pass. She knows this. And yet she finds herself drawn to this man, this innocent, who will die in a few short weeks, and all because of her.

What follows is a tangled web of con men, killers and villains, all leading inexorably to a final showdown with the most powerful enemy of all: fate.

Blackbirds is plotted beautifully, drawing you in from the first page, and making you care deeply about this wounded and lonely soul named Miriam Black. It never falters for a moment. Every page, every sentence, every word work together to create a nearly perfect whole. In short it is an example of what truly great writing should be: fearless, powerful, effortless.

Don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself. It’s available in print and for ereaders from Amazon.com, and probably some other places too.