Monday, 17 March 2008

Beginnings and Endings

David Isaak has started an interesting thread over on his blog about opening/second lines and how important, or otherwise, they are.

Which got me thinking about the endings of books – not necessarily the last line, but the final chapter or scene. Thinking about it, in the final analysis, the ending of a book is more important to me than the beginning. A good opening page will hook me in and make me read on (though I’m still working to the rule I articulated in this post about when I might discontinue reading) but it’s the ending of a book – as much as what happens between first and last scene which will make a book memorable for me. I thought very long and hard about how to finish Testament – in one of the drafts (one I quite liked but Will never saw) the prologue and epilogue were essentially the same, with one or two minor changes as mysteries of identity and meaning (particularly of the wall painting) had now been solved. It gave the thing a certain sense of roundness, of symmetry and completion. And as someone who’s deeply wedded to symmetry as an aesthetic principle, this was important to me.

Testament in its published form still begins and ends with the wall painting but in a slightly less identical form.

I’ve realised, thinking about endings, that the ones I hate are the literary equivalent of the following:
1. She woke up and it had all been a dream
2. But the zombies weren’t finished and, as she walked away, her ray-gun still smoking (can you kill zombies with a ray gun? Well, whatever...) they were rising behind her.
3. But the big bad wolf had a brother who made the BBW look like a pussycat and now he was very pissed off
4. Resolution? You want resolution? Meh! Go and read Enid Blyton.

(Clearly, if I was a serious blogger, knew what I was talking about and had the memory of my old Eng Lit tutor who could find any given book in five seconds in a room which - a fellow-student and I once worked out - must, at a conservative estimate, have contained five thousand books, I would quote a well-known novel which exemplifies each of these styles. As it is, I’ve got a novel of my own to write, so I’m afraid that, as far as examples goes, it's 'bring and share'.)

The corollary of the above, slightly embarassingly, is that what I apparently do want in my endings is a dressed-up version of:
And they all lived happily ever after. Well, at least the ones who deserved to did. The others we’re not really thinking about because nobody cares about them, do they?

So readers and lurkers, what do we think about endings. Important or not? And do you share my likes and dislikes?

Quite honestly, if you do, I’ll be amazed…


David Isaak said...

They have a saying in Hollywood that people will forgive anything if you have a great ending.

That might be true of movies, but people seldom get up and walk out of a movie, while people frequently set aside (or don't buy) a book. Hollywood has the advantage of working in a medium where the audience is passive.

I think endings are vital in giving the reader a sense of satisfaction, and in achieving any fell of unity for the piece.

What I'm unsure about is whether it is the climax or the actual ending that is more important in schieving this satisfaction. Most novels don't actually end with a bang. There's often a bang, but afterwards there's usually at least a sweeping-up scene (or chapter, or two...)

I guess one of the things about the novel is that you can screw it up at any point. I think I'm going to switch to film.

KAREN said...

I do share your likes and dislikes - in films and novels. Personally, I favour the happy ending - or at least a hopeful one. Too often real life is the opposite and it's nice to feel, in fiction anyway, that that everything can be nicely rounded up. I've read a couple of novels recently with very sad endings, and while I appreciate they couldn't have finished any other way, they left me feeling oddly distraught!