Friday, June 19, 2009

The Other End

There have been quite a few posts and some very interesting discussions around the pointy end of the book -- the all-important beginning, where magical words are invoked, and editors are drawn into hypnotic trances where they sign stunning contracts. But what about the other end? The end-point of all that structure and character development? The bit that comes before those extremely satisfying two words (at least in the first draft) "The End".

A good beginning might guarantee a sale, perhaps a readership. With enough marketing buzz it might even create a best-seller, but without that sublime end point, the book is in danger of losing its essential impact.

Perhaps the ending may be less important for books that survive on their characterisation alone (super-cool protagonists that wander aimlessly), or that support themselves on prose alone (we who are about to write salute you!). But for the other books, that perhaps lack that well crafted ending with its emotional punch and simultaneously delivered, poignant realisation: are they destined to drift out of the consciousness of readers as time passes?

So what constitutes a good ending?

What books have you read that have left you in a state of sublime happiness? A surging feeling right down in your gut that your life has somehow been enhanced? Pins and needles up and down the arms and a singing in your head as you lay that loved book aside with the sure knowledge that something truly wonderful has been passed from the writer's psyche to you?
If you are wondering about the picture to the top left, that is my grandmother Eileen McMahon nee Daley, circa 1910. She was the only one of my grandparents alive when I was born, and she died when I was 2yrs old. My mum and dad have recently passed away, and I have inherited her old piano. A very old overdamper style piano that was never played as I grew up, but that always fascinated me. For some reason I always felt connected to her and that old piano (which is now in my study).


John Lambshead said...

I wish I knew what constituted a good ending, Ron. I tend to try to reinforce what I think the story is about - probably linked to my real profession.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, John. I have been trying to think of books that have really moved me, that have given me that real impact at the end point. I know I have read books that have done that for me, but I guess not lately! I can't think of one.
That's why I'm even more eager to hear other people's choices. I want to go and read them!

Kate said...

The ending of the Lord of the Rings books. I don't recall the exact words but they come down to Samwise coming home after farewelling Frodo and Bilbo, hugging his wife, and taking his little daughter on his lap. "Well, I'm home."

It's very simple, but there's a wealth of emotion and a sense of closure there, a sense that Sam is now finally free to go back to the normal life he left when he joined Frodo back at the start of the books.

In a completely different light, there's the ending of Rats, Bats and Vats:

The unsuspecting Van Klomp took it, and took a swig. While he was still gasping, the small fluffy-toy cute creature, swaying a little, gestured at the large, hairy-armed, two-hundred-ten-pound Godzilla-in-human-form corporal next to him.

"How much, senor." asked the soup-mug sized creature, "for your sister?"

This one signals that whatever else happens, normal and sensible won't be part of it - which is of course the whole point.

Then of course there's what I personally consider to be the best last line evah (neener neener neener, I've read it and you haven't) from Sarah's DarkShip Thieves. Nothing says welcome home like a strip search.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I read a book a while ago where, after reading 1000 pages, the main characters went over a waterfall. Arghhh! Talk about a cliff hanger. I never did buy the second book.

Then there are the George RR Martin books. Nothing is ever resolved. A bit like life really.

Amanda Green said...

Well, Kate stole a couple of last lines I would have quoted. So I had to think for a bit and I've come up with a couple of others. The first is another of Dave's. This one from The Rats, the Bats and the Ugly.

But what kind of military requisition is a million pairs of rat-sized blue suede shoes?! You can just see the quartermaster standing there, staring at the requisition, convinced that the world has just taken a left turn into the Twilight Zone. I can't help chuckling every time I read that line.

Another is from Dave Weber's On Basilisk Station:

. "Well, Commodore Yerensky, I don't see how I could possibly turn your request down. It happens that I do have very strong feelings about the new armament—" her smile grew even broader "—and I'd be delighted to share them with Admiral Hemphill and her colleagues." Not only has Honor Harrington earned the loyalty of her crew on a mission that cost so many lives, but now she's going to let the brass who were at least partially responsible for the fiasco know exactly what she thinks about it. That one sentence is the culmination that proves just how much she has grown during the course of the novel and sets the stage for the novels to come.

I guess, if I had to give a definition of a successful end to a book, it would have to be one that brings the story to a conclusion without unnecessary cliffhangers and without wrapping things up too quickly. Sure, you can have a cliffhanger if you wrap up the other threads of the story, leaving just that one main storyline to continue in the next volume of the series. But to just stop, with nothing resolved is the quickest way to keep me from buying anything else by that author.

My other pet peeve along this line are those books that just seem to stop. Sure, there's an end. The author has wrapped up the main plot issues. But it happens so fast and is such a bare bones conclusion that you find yourself wondering if the author suddenly realized they'd reached the target word count and decided they'd not write a word more. Sort of like the way I'm ending this comment. [G]

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Kate. I can't read Rats, Bats and Vats without hearing Dave reading it. Highly entertaining.

I know what you mean about the George RR Martin series. I ran out of steam on that one, somewhere about p40 of book 4.

Hi, Amanda. Good point on the pace of endings. You want things wrapped up but not too abruptly, or too dramatically.

I get the feeling with a lot of books that the author is driven by the character, without too much thought about the conclusion. As they get toward the end they are already disconnecting, perhaps with a teary moment as they realise they are about to lose their new best friend, but disconnecting just the same - and things just sort of come loose.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. That section of my reply on the George RR Martin books was meant for you - forgot to reference.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, you may be right about the books that are character driven and the writer disconnect. I can almost understand that. But it is the plot driven books that sudden just end that drive me crazy. I just finished one where the 20 or 30 page build-up of action is finished in less than a page when this evil incarnate bad guy simply gives up and lets the good guys kill him. No muss, no fuss, no make sense. That one half page ruined the book, not that it was a great book to begin with.

Dave Freer said...

well, my theory (which is by me), is that an ending is a lot more than a line. It's a satisfactory tie-off of at least the main threads. It should leave the reader with a last taste of the 'flavor' of the book to linger on in their minds, to call them back - if not to that series -- to anything else you write. I'm often a bit shaky about beginnings but I must admit to loving my own endings to books. They're usually quite long on pushing people's (and I am one of those people) buttons with a fair amount of symbolism. Who know if the readers get it - I think maybe as an undercurrent (books starting at dawn and finishing at a sunset... My favorite ending though is to SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS - possibly because of where I am in my own life right now.

"Looking at the double star they were heading for, and the endless panoply beyond Lani squeezed his hand. This was the dream. This infinity was space enough -- just -- for the biggest dream. She looked away from it and back at Howard, also looking out at infinity, at the same dream. She touched his cheek and kissed him. "Do you realize that -- populated or not -- each of the habitats is a laser relay station? We can send messages back to Earth... at lightspeed."
"Then we should," he said.
She shrugged. Earth's solar system seemed very far and very insignificant. "What would we say to them? People are not sociological experiments?"
He was silent for a while. "Maybe. But I would tell them that mankind is a colonist species and belongs on far frontiers. I would thank them for their unintended generosity. And what I would tell them was this: It's from a poem I read by an Earth poet called Emma Lazarus.
'give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore...' "

Dave Freer said...

Oh, I meant to say don't you find alarming, Chris - "I can't read Rats, Bats and Vats without hearing Dave reading it." how often this is true? I've been lucky enough to meet a lot of authors, and I've found that we do reveal a lot of ourselves... I can hear you speak in yours. On the other hand I've met one or two whiny writers... and they write whiny books with whiny characters and...