Sunday, August 21, 2011

Craft - Pt. 5 / The Ending

I don't care how prolific someone may be, the ending is always the hardest thing to write. I've only gotten to a true ending once and it took me entirely too long to get there. Every other piece I've done remains unfinished because of any number of reasons; either I've lost passion for the piece (unlikely) or I just want to make sure the ending is worth someone reading "x" number of pages to get to. I can think of nothing more offensive than buying a book that reads so well up until the disappointing ending comes. This is when I want to throw the book across the room in anger. If the same amount of time and care had been used to craft the ending as was used to craft the entire rest of the book, the work in its entirety could have been more respected.

I recently finished Kevin Brockmeier's "Brief History of the Dead." Really interesting concept about how the memories of the living affect the afterlife progress of the dead. Until the dead have no one else on earth to remember them, they're stuck in a kind of expanding and contracting purgatory. Once any memory of them is gone from the earth, their spirit passes on to what I'll call the next level of the afterlife.

Brockmeier creates an incredibly vibrant and interesting afterlife that mimics that of the physical world. Characters meet up with their long lost family members or engage in occupations that they wanted to while alive, but couldn't for whatever reason. The concept is super engaging but the ending falls so far short of what I was hoping. Split into two separate alternating stories, the earth has been consumed by a fast acting virus that's eliminating the populace. With so many people dying all at once, the expanding/contracting purgatory starts overflowing with confused people. As more people on Earth die, more people in purgatory move on to Next Heaven, until there remains a large group of people in purgatory. This means there is a survivor on Earth...and she is a scientist working in the arctic circle, completely away from the rest of the infected.

I knew from the outset of the novel that the parts of the book focused on the main character lost in the arctic circle were going to be rough and often slow going. But I pressed on because I felt the concept was interesting enough that the ending would live up to everything up to that point. Main characters moved on without much explanation, loose ends weren't tied up as nicely as expected and the book felt as if it just kind of ended rather than eased the reader out. This angered me as I'd spent so much time trudging through the really pedantic parts of the story, the parts that REALLY slowed the prose down and made the book difficult to finish. People should never be subjected to an unsatisfying ending; not in books, not in the movies, nowhere.

A professor of mine says we should "always be aware of the 'Spielberg line'," meaning you don't want to have your ending lead up to some absurdly overly-sentimental tripe that tries to pull at the heartstrings. That kind of ending works for some people (okay, for a LOT of people), but it's not always the most interesting or surprising.

Yes, I LOVED the Harry Potter series of books. Aimed at more youthful readers, J.K. Rowling's books showed her writing getting better and better with each successive chapter in the series. By the time we get to the end, there is a great deal of emotional investment in all of the characters involved. We know the intricacies of the world she's created and while we probably know going into it that the good guys win, the ending still packs a powerful punch. That Harry defeats Voldemort in a final battle is unsurprising, nor is the epilogue that follows, but the endings are SATISFYING. The loose ends that Rowling leaves scattered throughout all seven books are tied up, there is emotion, and the writing is solid. I don't know of anyone who has read the series that was disappointed in the ending. I wouldn't call the series masterful, but considering the age group it was geared towards, that it fulfilled both young adult AND adult tastes...that's pretty close.

Bottom line: I knew when I turned in the ending of "Impasto" this last semester that it was terrible. I knew that the payoff for all the work my readers had done wasn't going to be worth a damn. The ending was some of the worst, cliched writing I've ever done and the comments I received deservedly reflected the terrible writing. I had led my class to believe that my book was worth reading, but then gave them a turd of an ending as if to say "your time is irrelevant, this is the end." Thankfully, that ending has been changed since then into something much deeper, more emotionally satisfying and with characters people will (hopefully) care about to some extent. Loose ends are tied up, plot holes are filled, so on and so forth. There was serious effort on my part to make sure I'm not wasting the reader's time.

Because've already spent who knows how many months or years crafting the book. What's another month or another year to make sure that ending is right if you've already gotten everything else where you want it? The ending is the taste you'll leave in the reader's mouth once the book is closed and you want that to be as delicious and enticing as possible.


  1. Stephen Fucking King (or Stephen FucKing?) comes to mind. The Stand, in particular. Brilliant writer. Arguably one of the most influential of the 20th Century. However, the man can't end a book to save his life. Even with the Dark Tower, he was like, 'ah, fuck it.'

    Endings are tough, though. I don't know that I've ever had a real bad one, but I know I've labored over when and where to end a story, and how to make the ending support the integrity of the overall tale. It's a balancing act, and it's one of the few moments in my writing when I think about the audience. When I write it, I try to shove everyone out of my head, but then bring them, crashing, back in when I edit the ending. It's important to let your instincts do their thing, but if you want commercial appeal, you have to tighten that shit up.


  2. i loved the idea of brief history of the dead. and i fucking LOVED that cover.

    and i agree! stephen king is the worst at endings! a giant spider?? come on.

    you know what is awesome? great first lines.

  3. ugh. yes, theresa. great first lines...i'm gonna have to use that as a prompt for another post. thank you!

    "brief history of the dead" had so much promise based on the summary and the cover. i actually angry when i finished it. i felt super cheated.