August 26, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the beginning of my story, stressing and sweating over whether or not to lop off that dreaded prologue (Apparently, people hate prologues? Maybe this is true, but I haven't been put off by a prologue yet).  Is my opening sentence enticing and evocative enough?  Are the opening pages too much of a backstory dump?  And on and on it goes, where it stops, nobody knows... This topic comes up a lot on the various websites I frequently visit.  All of this emphasis on strong story beginnings got me thinking about the opposite--story endings.  Is it not just as important to end well as to begin well?

My husband and I recently watched Return of the King (again) after years of not seeing it.  I had completely forgotten about the ending, followed by an ending, followed by another three hundred endings.  I exaggerate, but in all seriousness every time the screen faded to black I kept asking myself, "Is that finally it?"  Don't get me wrong, I love those movies to death, but it really does prove the point that good stories are often difficult to end.  I can't even begin to imagine how hard it must have been for J. K. Rowling to part with Harry and his friends at the end of The Deathly Hallows.  How challenging must it have been to wrap up this seven book gem of a series to her own satisfaction and to that of the rabid fandom?  How gut-wrenching must it have been to kill off much-loved characters like Fred, Lupin, and Tonks?  Don't even get me going on Hedwig...

One of the reasons I find myself continually coming back to YA fiction from 'grownup books' is the endings.  For me, reading is all about escapism, getting lost in a good book.  In order for me to really escape, I need to feel as though the story is building toward a satisfying close.  It doesn't have to be tied up perfectly all neat and tidy with a shiny bow, but I would still like it to end well.  Somebody (I can't remember who) pointed out that one of the essential differences between adult and YA dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction is the element of hope.  This person suggested that the latter provides this, while the former often does not.  From my own reading experience I tend to agree.  Like I said, an ending doesn't have to be perfect for it to be good.  I want to be left thinking about the book at its conclusion, reluctant to resurface from its pages.  Give me the bittersweet wrap up of Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay any day over the toothache-inducing too-perfect ending of Stephenie Meyers' Breaking Dawn

It seems to me that as a writer you need to strike the right balance between the too tidy ending (of the "And they lived happily ever after" variety) and its opposite which lacks the right amount of closure (if you've ever read the short story "The Lady or the Tiger" by Frank Stockton, you'll know what I mean).  My favourite stories usually wrap up similarly:  Main character(s) triumph and come through mostly unscathed, but is/are fundamentally and forever altered by their experience.  This is why Mockingjay is so thought-provoking and memorable.  I have to admit, I wasn't originally in love with the ending, but after much thought I have come to accept and understand it.  It feels like the only ending this series could have had.  There is simply no way that the main characters could have come through their experiences without some kind of lasting effect (Notice how I did my best not to include any spoilers? Eh? Eh?).  Everyone dies!!! Just kidding...

I've rambled on WAY too long here.  Here's to good (but not perfect), real (but not too real), and memorable (but not for the wrong reasons--I'm talking to you, Smeyers!) endings.  Famous last words, if you will. 

And on that note, I thought I would leave you with some entertaining (slightly morbid?) pictures of 'famous last words'--funny tombstone epitaphs!  Nice to see that even in death some people have a sense of humour.


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