Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stories Should Have a Killer Ending (or Die Trying)

Like most writers I tend to fret over nearly every aspect of the stories I write. It's natural to want them to be 'just so,' perfectly delivering on that impression we have in our heads. But since we can't jack our readers straight into our skulls yet, we're stuck using words. Not just any words either. We quest endlessly for that perfect set of words, or at least as close to ideal as we can make them.

Start to finish, a writer relies upon the right words to deliver the story as intended. Every word is vital, though the opening and closing ones do extra duty by drawing the reader in and then delivering the final payoff of the intended, overall impression.

Namely, hook 'em. Then leave 'em with the lasting thought and feeling.

Like most writers, I labor over my story openings. They're tough buggers to nail. Twiddling, tweaking and tuning can be, and often is, involved. Sometimes extensively. I think two things work here in the writer's favor though. One is the writer quite often has a good sense of how the story will begin. (Whether it's an appropriate or the best beginning is a subject for another time.) The second thing is, if the writer's first few words aren't supreme, there are a handful more that come right afterwards that can, hopefully, pick up the slack.

Wrong way to look at it? Point taken.

It certainly pays to make those first few words the perfect hook. But just in case the hook is slightly dull, the second sentence or paragraph might be sufficient to set the barb. As a reader, I have never bailed out on a story after sentence #1. Page #1, yes. In rare cases, perhaps paragraph #1 or #2 gave me enough to know the story wasn't for me.

This is not the case with the story's final words. Those sit there on the screen or page naked... alone... with no hope of reinforcement. They cannot be weak or inappropriate choices for the closing lest they compromise that all-important payoff. They must deliver.

So I, as the writer, must provide the perfect, final words. Those words must impart the final impression of the story, the last piece the reader requires to complete the experience.

These two burning needs often vex me. For me, it's mostly a problem of choice. As in, too many to pick from.

Some stories I write have what I'd call obvious endings. You know the ones. They practically write themselves. Done deal.

Some story endings gel only after the tenth, fiftieth, or one hundredth time reworking them. These elusive ones you know aren't quite right when you first write them. Try, try again ultimately prevails though and it's a small celebration the day your rewrite clicks. Whew.

Then, there are the bad boys. These tend to defy logic and threaten sanity. The problem is not rooted in the story. It's me. The writer.

I'm the problem because I quite often haven't resolved exactly, precisely what I want. Actually, that's a misleading statement. I want perfection. Perfection is a real bitch to pin down. In fact, it's near hopeless. But you still have to try because 'good enough' really isn't.

Good enough is compromised. Flawed. Left alone, you know the story requires more attention. It deserves a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand reworks to make it proper, whatever that ends up being. Whatever it takes.

Then, reality intrudes. At some point, the writer is forced to let it go and move on. I hate that point. Actually, I hate facing that point, but once you're past it, it's a huge relief. Talk about getting an 800 pound gorilla off your back.

Unfortunately, I don't have any particular brilliancies to share regarding these problem children. Except, like real children, the best you can do is to love and nurture them as much as possible to the point where they must fend for themselves, for better or for worse.

And that's OK to do, even if it's not guilt free.