Personal family photo, used with permission
Any writer worth the ink in his printer knows how crucial the first sentence of his story must be, how perfectly constructed and seductive it must read. It’s this hello there that has to make our reader (agent, editor) suffer delirium tremens to get his hands on the rest of that first paragraph and the entire initial page and the whole of chapter one. No first sentence wowzer, and you have no purchase, no reader, no admirer, no nothing, nada, zilch, squat. Bubba, you just ain’t worth the sweaty socks on your computer’s mouse because you ain’t a writer.
If you’re still not sure, read – no, ingest, Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. It’s one of the books I rest my weary head upon each night as I go sleepy bye, hoping to absorb more of his wisdom. It’s a book so highlighted, underlined, and filled with sticky tabs pointing out instructions of merit that the only words not notated on my copy in some way are and, the, to, for, with. I exchange my blood for this book, and it’s only one of many writers’ guidebooks that stack between my spine, holding me up.
But that title, The First Five Pages, brings me to the subject of this article. What about the last five pages? What about who got in the last word of the story, and what, by the way, was it? Because if the first five pages and the first five sentences and the first five words, and if indeed even the very first word are all so important, why don’t we talk much about the very end of our stories? Doesn’t the end count? In every other endeavor, it’s only the end that counts. We know who won the race but very little, and frankly, my dear, we don’t even give much of a damn, about how hard that person trained. We just care about the shiny medal around the neck of the winner who stands on the golden podium at the end of it all. We know who won the Olympic medal, the Oscar, the Presidency, the war, the lottery. We know who became valedictorian at our high school (especially if we thought ourselves in the running,) if the surgery was successful (and it better have been), who got the job we wanted. Even if our memories of conclusions are entrenched only until the next event, we care about that final moment because it’s the one that makes a difference, or at least it does for a minute or two.
So why do we devote so little to the end of our stories? I ask because I can think of a number, one too high to ignore, of published stories that were beautifully, excitingly written, books I couldn’t put down and skipped dinner to read (and if you know me, you know I don’t skip dinner), whose endings are fuzzy in my mind. The story captivated and exhilarated, but I can’t remember the end because the end seemed to slide down a long embankment to land under a scraggy bush. Won’t budge from there. I won’t mention the titles of those books because they are after all published books by well established writers, and I am not yet published. I hardly belong in their company. I won’t mention them either because you may not have read the books I’m thinking about, and spoilers have their own bunk beds in hell that I’m trying to avoid.
Other people who’ve read those books usually find the same ambiguity about the end of these stories, and we all wonder why. What happened? Are we readers supposed to fill in the blanks, assume we have the wisdom and required evidence to complete what the writer neglected to do? Did the writer just throw in the towel, finally so bored with his own work, so weary with re-writes, with perfecting the first sentence and developing the complex plot and unique characters, that he simply ran out of originality for the final act, and so plopped in the words The End on the bottom page and called it quits?
Some books have endings we will always remember. You know about The Lord of the Rings, and only because one of you may not have read the trilogy I will not tell you what happened at the end, but suffice to say it really wasn’t a foregone conclusion. I perched at the edge of my seat, wondering, not sure I knew which way I wanted it to go until, well, it went. Well done, Tolkien. He knew how to write the first five, the last five, and all the other multiples of five in between, for three incredibly thrilling volumes that have held the attention of millions of readers for decades. Suspense all the way to the very last word. OK, I’ll tell you the last word right here so you don’t have to go look it up. The word is said. There, make up my bunk after all.
I always write the last chapter long before I complete my book. I know for my protagonist the order and choice of final words, the concluding context, the resolution or lack of it are essential to the whole of my story. The ending is important to me because it’s important to my reader. I spend a lot of time on last sentences. I want my work to be experienced as a whole unit, beginning to end. Something started, something finished. The final words must have impact, the locking clasp to my story. Or to put it another way: perfectly constructed, and seductive to the very last word. We have landed. Plant the flag.
There I am finally, at The End. At least until I begin the re-write.
Perhaps you and I will write that anxious book, The Last Five Pages.
Be well, friend.