There was much buzz at the World Fantasy Convention a few years ago about a book containing, shall we say, an unfortunate turn of phrase. I haven’t read the book in question so I don’t know if this was a lapse or par for the course, but surely there’s nothing worse than a passage written with serious intent turning out to be unintentionally hilarious?
Well, yeah. There is.
Embarrassing as this surely was for the poor woman in question, I guarantee that more people will remember the writer’s name than remember why they remember. Besides, no matter how good you are, lapses are inevitable. You fail to notice that a sentence you’ve read over a hundred times has a key word missing, and so doesn’t say what you thought it said. A word that you were so damn sure of the meaning that you didn’t bother to look up also doesn’t mean what you thought it meant. Or you just have a brain freeze and write something stupid. Almost all writers doing an editing pass on a new manuscript have had to stop at one time or another and wonder “What the heck was I thinking here?” And if it’s never happened to you, all I can say is you’re either extremely lucky or not paying attention. That’s why good copy editors are worth their weight in assignments and are, arguably, even rarer than good writers.
No, lapses aren’t the worst thing. At most they’ll ruin the occasional story or mar an otherwise good book, but here’s something that’ll strangle a career in its cradle: failure to accomplish the ending.
Note I didn’t say “an ending.” All you need to do is put “The End” at the place where the story stops, and you’ve written an ending. That’s technically correct but not nearly good enough. You have to write the ending, the right ending, or the story suffers. It doesn’t matter how keen you’ve been up to that point, how profound, how fast-paced and exciting, if you don’t tie it all together, if you end the piece wrong, the story is wrong. And there isn’t a copy editor in the world who can help you. A good editor might, if the failure itself turns out to be a form of lapse. The editor can say, “This doesn’t quite work. Try again” and you see immediately that they are right and fix it. Yet after much reading I’ve come to the conclusion that some writers simply Do Not Get It when it comes to endings.
Ok, so it’s a problem. Yet surely it’s not that big a deal? Umm, no. It is that big a deal. If the prose is simply clunky and ineffective, if the story doesn’t interest you, as a reader you bail and no harm done, at least from the reader’s point of view. But what if the story’s good? Well written? Raises interesting questions, puts a new angle on things, tells you something that you never realized before, or any of a number of things that makes you want to shout “Yes!!!” What if the writer makes you trust him or her for ten pages or three hundred and, at the finish line, they let you down? And in so doing, prove conclusively that they didn’t understand what they had?
A readership is based on a two-way trust: As a writer, you trust your readers to be able to follow where you lead. As a reader, you trust the writer to lead, to know what they’re doing and tell you the truth about it. Once that trust is violated, it’s hard to get back. And, as a writer, if you don’t have the readers’ trust and can’t develop it, you are in deep kimchee.
I’ll give a couple of cases in point: a few years ago I was reading a mostly very good story from a very good writer. To give him his due, line by line he may be one of the best in the field. He had created a very vivid, haunting, compelling story, and I was glad to be compelled. By the time I got near the ending I was eager to see how the writer was going to pull it together. He didn’t. Instead an abrupt bit of nihilistic nonsense was tacked on in the place where the words stopped, and I’ve never willingly read another word this person has written since. It’s not that he violated my expectations; such was the power of the story that I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect and was quite willing to follow wherever he was going. The problem was he didn’t go anywhere. I’ve since learned enough of the writer in question’s philosophy to realize that he chose an ending that fit his preconceived notions of what fiction is supposed to be rather than writing the ending the story required, and he did it on purpose. As a reader, I’d be a fool to trust this writer ever again. Another instance is more recent and slightly different. In this case I was reading a story from a magazine and enjoying it very much. In fact, with only about a page of the story left to go, I’d pretty much decided to recommend the story for a Nebula. Then I read the end and changed my mind. Unlike the previous example, this writer was actually trying to find the right ending. She just simply blew it. I know that’s rather judgmental, but I also know that I’m right. Any time the last line makes the reader go “Huh?” instead of “Ohhhhh…” the writer blew it. Period, non-negotiable.
The really frustrating part was that the writer had actually created the right ending, but it was two lines back from the ending she chose. She had it, but didn’t know she had it, and so tacked on something that sounded deep on the face of it but only proved that she had neither control nor a full understanding of her own material. It’s not that the ending was bad, per se. It just wasn’t right. Another writer written off by a demanding, unforgiving sob of a reader? Not this time. Unlike the first example, this writer didn’t screw up the ending on purpose. She made a mistake, as we all do. I’ll probably read her again. Judging from what she’d done up to that point, I think there’s a chance she might get it right next time, unlike the writer in the first example who simply proved himself incapable of serving his own story. For that writer, one strike and you’re out, and in the latter case, at most she’s got one or two more turns at bat. From a writer’s perspective that may sound severe, but from a reader’s point of view, it’s a second chance and damn generous. Frankly, we’d all be lucky to get as much.
Endings matter for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important is that a proper ending signals clearly to the reader that the writer knows what he or she is doing and that the reader is in good hands. Readers will put up with a lot of things, but betraying their trust and wasting their time aren’t two of them. We fail to understand this at our peril.
Really good post. You got me to thinking about endings, too. I may have to post something about them later on as well.
The problem with a bad ending is that no matter how good the rest of the book was, I always feel cheated, especially when the author isn’t being true to the characters, or the world he created. So I’m not as likely to read that author again in the future when I see that.
It’s like a good routine in gymnastics. You lose a lot of points if you screw up the dismount.
Thank you this is all so true. You state it so simply but what a revelation – when the ending is bad it is clear that the author didn’t understand what they had. I had not looked at it this way, but have definitely read books where they drag out the UFO at the end and just stop trying. I’d like to read more of Your writing!
Thanks! I’m glad it made sense to you.