Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Happy Ending

Lately, my husband Don and I, Donis, have been preparing to die. Not that either of us are currently in the process of dying. Or even feeling poorly. It’s just that the day eventually comes for all of us, and trying to ignore the fact isn’t going to help anything. Our thinking at this point is that if we try and get things relatively prepared beforehand (knowing full well that you’re NEVER really prepared), we can sit back and relax and amuse ourselves with living until the inevitable happens.

We’re doing a fair amount of research and trying to see that everything is neatly tied up. To that end, I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book called Being Mortal, Medicine and 
What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. If you’re interested in managing your own demise, I would recommend it.

But even when planning my own induction into the choir invisible, I can’t help but think like a writer. Toward the end of Dr. Gawande’s book, he quotes a study done by Daniel Kahneman, who says something to the effect that it doesn’t matter too much how much pleasure or pain we endure, it’s the ending of the experience we remember. As an example he cites the experience of watching an exciting sports match, when your team, “having performed beautifully for nearly the entire game, blows in the end. We feel that the ending ruins the whole experience…The experiencing self had whole hours of pleasure and just a moment of displeasure, but the remembering self sees no pleasure at all.”

What does that tell you, Mr. or Ms. Writer?

We are told that we must have a gripping beginning to our novel in order to engage the prospective reader as soon as possible. Then we have to keep drawing the reader on, keep him interested as we work our way through the long middle of the story. All excellent advice.

But, by God, the ending better deliver. Because as we all know, a great beginning makes a reader want to read your current book, but a great ending makes her want to read your next book.

I don’t really care if the reader figures out ahead of time who the murderer is, but I do want to leave the reader with some kind of twist or jolt or delight, or something memorable about the end of the story. In one book I wanted the to be killer to be someone who absolutely could not have done it, and it was tremendous fun to figure out a plausible way for the person to have pulled it off. I’ve had characters who were supposed to be alive actually be dead, and vice versa. More than once I’ve tried to make characters not be who they seem to be, or some situation to be completely other than it first appears. The happy ending has to be hard-won and entirely worth it, plausible and satisfying.

And that is not so easy to pull off. Ask anyone who has ever tried to do it. When I begin a book, I usually know where I want the story to go. It never ends up there. Where it does end up is as big a surprise to me as to anyone. The ending usually works out better than I had planned. I feel like if I can surprise and delight myself with an ending that fits perfectly, I’m on the right track.


Sybil Johnson said...

So true about endings. I recently read a book where the beginning was okay, it picked up in the middle, but the ending was so good that I will always remember it. And it's that ending that will get me to read the next book in the series.

Unknown said...

This past Thursday night, my dear and long-time friend Betty shockingly and yes, suddenly passed away Upon seeing a Fb message from her daughter to call, I thought it to be a luncheon invitation...never, ever did I imagine this sort of news. At the time, I was drinking a freshly made Starbucks pumpkin frappuccino, this too was soooo Betty! Yet my uncontrollable weeping evidenced how much she would be missed. I am sharing because it was Betty's joy of living that inspires and consoles me to remember her so very well. She would agree that it is a book's beginning which enthralls and beckons us to invest into its promising rich content. If we are connected to the story and its characters, like I am to my dear friend, even in their demise, they stay alive. It is the story's remarkable journey we recall. The finish merely echoes, reaffirms and even defines how well the story lived. For Betty, she is forever remembered not because she died so suddenly and yes, quietly. It is clearly how she lived so fully.