Elements of Critique: Ending

During our time on Okinawa, my wife and I had a favorite date-night restaurant. Palm Springs was situated in a large round ring on the seventh floor of a building overlooking a nearby Marine Corps camp. They served French cuisine, or at least said they did. We didn’t know any better. On our first visit, we weren’t sure what to expect.

The meal came out in courses. Tiny little plates with a sprinkle of food on them. My American desire for a giant pile of delicious food protested this obvious mockery they called a “meal.”

But the first course and second were both stunning. Perfect. My wife looked at me with eyes wide, reflecting the surprise I’m sure my face revealed. Subsequent courses did not disappoint, packing absolute satisfaction into each plate that seemed too small to hold such taste.

The meal ended. We sat back, and considered how we felt. No overstuffed “loosen the belt” sensation. No desire for another bite. The gas tank gauge in our stomachs hit right on the “F” with no need for more.

That’s what the ending of a piece of writing is designed to do. That’s what I’m looking for, if applicable, when I critique.

Now I know, some of you are probably saying, “No it’s not! Are you kidding? What about hooks? How do I get the reader to keep reading?”

Well, SPOILERS: hooks are for H, not E, so bear with me a moment while I make my case.

First, if an ending is appropriate for the piece of writing, then it had better be there. In a nonfiction article or a personal account, I want to know how the story of that event ended or what point the writer is making. In a fiction piece, the conflict has to be resolved. If it’s a chapter in a longer work, at least the conflict in the scene should be completed (before the hook that makes the reader start the next chapter to see what happens).

Maybe there’s a longer background battle taking place, which spans two or more chapters. That’s great.

But within that one chapter, I need to see the character make a decision, resolve an internal struggle, or accomplish an important goal. Otherwise, what’s the point of including the scene?

In works of fiction, we don’t include scenes and interactions to show how cool we can write or what mastery of dialogue we possess. We include them because they advance the overall story. They lead up to an ending of some kind, even if it’s part of a larger whole.

But with endings, the biggest danger is not failure to include one. That’s easily caught and corrected.

The biggest danger is that it falls flat. In a short story, or in a nonfiction article, no reader wants to get to the end and be shocked that it’s the end. I don’t mean shocking endings and surprise twists are bad. No, they’re great. I mean if I turn the page expecting more and find out “Oh, that was the last line” then I’m disappointed.

Not the kind we're going for in writing.
Not the kind we’re going for in writing.

After three pages of short story about the main character searching for a solution, once the problem is solved, the next line is not “And they lived happily ever after.”

Bam. Dead end. Brick wall out of nowhere.

Endings usually have some kind of impact. But not that kind.

A piece of writing, fiction or non, deserves a conclusion. This is something we build toward. When conflict is resolved (at least for the present), we know this scene, article, account, or story is coming to a close. We can take the time to let that sink in as we approach it.

Where abrupt or weak endings feel like a dead end, a proper conclusion feels like pulling into the driveway at home.

Conclusions often recap or summarize the main point. In a non-fiction piece or personal article, that might be the lesson learned, or the end result of the experience or event. In fiction, that might be a clever way of showing the moral of the story without preaching it to the reader.

If nothing else, they wind the piece down and offer a witty or memorable line to give closure. (You’ll note I’ve attempted to do this on each of these A to Z posts, with debatable success as far as wit is concerned.)

Now the reader knows the tale is finished, and they can move on. Or leave a comment. hint hint

Consider The Lord of the Rings. The Ring is destroyed, the Dark Lord defeated. The King sits on the throne of Gondor once again. And for a few chapters, the Hobbits still have to return home, reconnecting with old friends and saying their goodbyes. Then they have to fix the mess waiting in the Shire. And even then, they realize that the Shire is no longer home for Frodo. The heroic Hobbit departs for the West, and Sam makes the journey back to Bag End. He stands at the gate in a bittersweet scene, delighting in his children and wife while grieving the loss of his friend and Master. And almost with a sigh, he declares, “Well, I’m home.”

The gauge in the reader’s mind hits “F.” He or she sits back, sets the book down, and sighs with Sam.

The end.

Speaking of “F,” that’s what’s next on the A to Z of Elements of Critique, of course. It’s a fact. And that’s what I’m going to write about – including (and checking) the facts in a written work.

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