On Endings

This one is a small observation: Lately I’ve been walking my dog in a cemetery. Like a park, a cemetery is a generally quiet and beautiful place to walk, but for a name lover and story lover like me, the cemetery has something extra. Our particular cemetery has a lot of Wilheminas and Augusts, Ottos and Conrads. There is one family that has a John Fitzgerald, born in 1964 and a Jacqueline in 1965. There are tiny lamb tombstones where the year of birth and death are the same. There’s one man who lived to 101 and another where either the death date is missing or there’s a 140 year old man out there somewhere.

But here is the thing that has been striking me most lately: the people who died in the summer of 1918 and those who died in 1944. Because they didn’t get to find out how it ended.

I suppose that could be true of any death; there is always unfinished business, things left undone or unknown, but there is something distinctive about dying in the midst of a particularly dramatic narrative (and I don’t mean those who died in service). Whether in life or in fiction, things happen one after another, but in a good story — whether true or false–there’s a clear story arc with a beginning, middle and end. There’s a drive to keep going, to stay up late to read to the very end (I did that myself with a book last evening). A good book doesn’t tie up every single loose end any more than the end of a war ties up every loose end, but the central narrative that compels the reader forward provides a kind of catharsis And that is what the people who died just a bit too early in the wars missed. They may have died, glad to escape each day’s horrible news. They may have died oblivious to the fact that there ever was a war. But they may have died, still waiting for the end of that particular story.

As a writer, it reminds me of my responsibility to take the reader to the end of the story, and to take them there well. The book I read last night will remain nameless, because it’s caused a hue and cry in the time it has been out, because while it takes the reader to the end, it doesn’t do so well. The ending is a bit contrived and rushed; it doesn’t quite fit with the story that came before and the characters do things the characters would not do. Sometimes, even getting to the end is a disappointment.

I’m interested in what you think about endings. What do you need from a good ending? What leaves you disappointed? What satisfies you as a reader?

 

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