Power in the ending

Image: The ending of a long story (Lord of the Rings; Tolkien 1955, George Allen & Unwin, London).

If you’re like me (as a writer, I mean) you probably spend a lot of time thinking about the first sentences of things.  It’s true in fiction, and just as true in scientific writing, that the 1st sentence of a passage, a section, a paper, or a book has a big job to do.  A good opening sentence sets a mood, asks a question, grabs a reader and positions them for the journey to come.

It took me a long time to realize that the last sentence of anything is equally important.  If an opening sentence asks a question, the closing one resolves it (or reinforces a resolution that’s been established).  If the opening sentence positions the reader for the journey the writer will take them on, the closing one positions the reader as they leave the writing – and it plays an outsize role in shaping the message the reader will take away with them.  We call the start and end of any passage (of any length, from paragraph to book) “power positions” because of their importance. As a matter of human psychology, readers pay special attention to them; and as a matter of professional skill, good writers do too.

I live in a small city where a lot of residents and visitors come from smaller towns still.  As (I speculate) a result, drivers here often don’t park when they get where they want to be – they just stop.  Sometimes at the curb, but often blocking a sidewalk or a crosswalk or a driveway or even, not infrequently, right in the middle of traffic.  They seem to be blissfully unaware of anything other than the errand that they’re on, and their physical proximity to the next piece of it.  What, you might be wondering, does this have to do with writing?  I see the same habit in a lot of writers (yes, including myself).  I told one of my grad students recently that a draft Discussion she’d written “doesn’t really end; like a Fredericton driver, it just sort of stops”.  Without good use of the power position, writing can stop without coming to a satisfactory parking place.

As a reader, I now take special notice of powerful ending sentences, because as a writer I want to produce them. I’ve come to think that a good ending sentence does something that’s really quite remarkable.  A good ending sentence says to the reader,

“Here we are.  Look where I have brought you, and now you see why I’ve brought you’re here and why we came the way we did; and don’t we both feel content that we’ve made this journey together and ended in this place, the right place, the place we’ve both anticipated coming to.”*

That’s a lot of freight for one sentence (or a couple) to carry, but when it works, it’s spectacular.  Think (if I may divert to a musical analogy) of the final phrases of the last movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seaasons. Vivaldi’s closing musical sentence says all that. I’d love it if I could someday leave my readers feeling the satisfaction that Vivaldi leaves me with**.  (If the Baroque isn’t your thing, listen to the ending of Stairway to Heaven – same thing.)

I’m not Vivaldi, of course, so while my ending sentences have improved, I won’t claim that they’re works of art.  But I do work hard on them.  You can skim a few past blog posts and see what you think. Or you can consider the last sentences of my two books (one published, one on its way).  Here’s the last sentence of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing:

“Clarity should always be the first thing on your mind as your write – and the last thing, too.”

I’d give this one a B-.  It comes at the end of a chapter about humour and beauty in scientific writing, and it competently does its job of returning the reader from that admittedly weird excursion to a core concern of the book.  And the “first thing…last thing” construction has a shape I like, with the sentence standing in for both the journey the reader has taken with the book, and the journey any writer takes while they’re writing.  So, there are some aspects to like, but it’s a little clunky and I don’t love it.

Here’s the last sentence (OK, it’s actually two) of The Strangest Tribute:

“Ignominy and heroism; obscurity and fame; hostility and love; loss and hope.  It’s all in a Latin name.”

Better, I think – do I dare suggest an A-?  (I realize that it’s hard for you to judge these out of context; and particularly hard for this one, since you can’t even use Amazon Look-Inside to sneak a peek at the rest of the closing passage.) I think this closing bit recapitulates the book’s travels, finishing on a Vivaldiesque note declaring contentment with the completed journey.  And it has a structure that reflects the variety of stories the book has told, while also tying them together as a whole.  There’s still time for me to do better (leave suggestions in the Replies), but I’m not unhappy with it.

And now we face, together, an obvious question.  What will the last sentence of this post be?  How, after setting you up the way I’ve done, can I leave you with anything other than a masterpiece, a final sentence for the ages that leaves both of us smiling and leaning back in contentment, with the knowledge we’ve ended up in just the right place?  Well, here’s the thing.  I work hard at this, but just like you I’m no writing genius.  That’s important.  We all work hard at writing, and we all get better as we practice and as we think intentionally about how we write.  But none of us will ever completely perfect the craft.  I suspect that the last sentences of the 300 or so posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel make those points as well as anything.  So, if I can stick with it that long, will the next 300.

© Stephen Heard  February 12, 2019


*^”The place we’ve both anticipated coming to” seems to rule out the surprise ending.  In scientific writing, it certainly ought to.  What about other kinds of writing?  I’d contend that in fiction, an apparent surprise ending is usually set up in such a way that it’s not a surprise in hindsight, after a few moments’ rather satisfying thought.  True surprise endings are rare, and usually a sign of amateurish writing.

**^Although as a somewhat later songwriter informs us, in fact one can’t get no satisfaction.  So, perhaps in this case I can’t always get what I want. Fortunately, I gather that if I try some time, I just might find that I get what I need.

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3 thoughts on “Power in the ending

    1. crowther

      P.S. A reason I thought of you with in reading that article, aside from the strong ending, is that the article and the ending are about agency — is stuff just happening, or are people taking responsibility for being the ones making it happen? Which I think is a central concern of your passive-vs-.-active-voice position.

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