Ah, the possibilities of beginnings! Smorgasbords of plot potential and crackling climaxes. Endings? Necessary evils – often awkwardly awful termini, wrap-ups rushed like the “Sixty Minutes’” second hand ticking to the hour’s end.
Endings tend to be as problematic in books as they are in life. However, Tom Vanderbilt writes in “Inconclusion” that good final lines are satisfactorily unending, just as good openings should be merely books’ starting points. In well-written fiction, readers should want to know what happened before we wandered into the story and what happens when we leave. The New York Times Magazine article notes that we writers spend endless time crafting our openings. I rewrote the beginning of this post at least a half dozen times. As examples, Vanderbilt quotes some memorable first lines easily identified with oft-read books.
Final lines don’t fare as well. In an end-of-article quiz matching last lines to five well-known books, I scored abysmally, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one. Vanderbilt suggests several reasons why we tend to be better at beginnings than endings, whether making a good first impression on a date or catching readers’ attention to keep them reading.
As important as openings are, endings are no less important. Countless times, I have read good books only to be disappointed in what seemed to be slap-shot finales. It’s as if the authors had lost interest and had dashed off an ending, so they could move on. Having invested my time in the stories and my emotions in the characters, abrupt and unsatisfying conclusions leave a bad taste in my mouth, negating the good writing that went before.
I admit I’m an offender, having written bad endings more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve finished an article or story and am faced with the dreaded need to conclude. There’s always the fall-back cliché, ending with a quote. But in doing that or writing a final sentence that neatly wraps things up or makes a point, I feel twinges of guilt, like I’m cheating, taking the lazy writer’s way out. It’s what Vanderbilt calls “a Lunchables of the mind,” compressing “a tangle of ideas into some little container.” To do so, he says, is to fail the reader and to fail as a writer.
Rather, Vanderbilt says to consider every ending as a potential beginning. Not in callous anticipation of a sequel, but as a hallmark of good writing. Only then will our characters and places live on in the imaginations of our readers.