Beginning – and Ending – Well

So let’s talk about one of my pet peeves.

The writing community is, these days, quite occupied with good openings. On writing blogs, in discussions and critiques, at the writing conference I attended last month – it comes up again and again: the Opening; Are Your Readers Hooked?

Taken individually, there’s nothing wrong with any of these posts or discussions; they were all interesting and informative in their own right. But taken together, they show a fixation with openings that strikes me as out of proportion to the actual importance of openings.

Oh, I know openings are important – beginning of the story, first impressions and all that. But the first five hundred words of a novel don’t hold a candle to its plot, characters, and style. And why, in all the attention to openings, does no one pause to discuss endings?

The way some people talk about openings, you would think the purpose was not to begin the story but to sell the book: This will be good! Any writer who can make an opening into a promise like that has accomplished something worthwhile. But if the opening is a promise, the ending is the fulfillment. A good ending is far more vital to any story than a good opening, but people appear less interested in it.

I think one reason for this is that you can snip the opening of a book and critique it to see if it fulfills its purpose (“hooking” the reader). But you can’t snip the end of a book and critique it for its success in its purpose (satisfying the reader). You cannot ultimately analyze the end of a book until you’ve read the rest of it.

And, I would contend, you cannot give final judgment on the opening of a book until you’ve read the rest of it. The judgment of a journey’s starting point is more reliable once you know the journey’s destination. You can, reading an opening, pick out its weaknesses, but you can’t properly weigh them. That it took J. R. R. Tolkien two hundred pages to get out of the Shire is certainly a flaw, and you’d know it without going past the two hundred pages. What you wouldn’t know is that in the vast breadth of the work of Lord of the Rings, it’s a small flaw.

I cast a vote for patience with openings – and, for that matter, more attention to endings.

Nemesis and the Deus Ex Machina

Today I am going to follow up my review of Heroes Proved with a few thoughts on the ending. This post will be specific and spoiler-heavy – not a review for those who haven’t read the book, but commentary for those who have.

While I was looking at the Amazon reviews, I saw one that complained that “the story is resolved through deus ex machina–Air Force One crashing into a lake.” On one level, this is hard to argue with. The terrorist attack that brought down Air Force One came out of nowhere; nothing in the book struggled against it, or for it. It also abruptly eliminated the broader importance of Martin Cohen’s rescue, at just the time he was rescued.

Yet the terrorist attack was not a deus ex machina in that it solved a dilemma that could have readily been solved ten other ways. Oliver North could have raised a Nemesis for the president from the story he had spent three hundred pages telling: Martin Cohen and his captors, the listening ears of Frances James, the Newman clan, the president’s own crimes and interminable intrigues.

All of them could have given the president an end. None of them could have given her an end as complete and dramatic as Air Force One crashing into Lake Erie.

And there were practical benefits. The terrorist attack was the sort of catastrophe that allows a nation to reset – and with that hopeful possibility, the dystopian Heroes Proved ends. Nor was the president dying by terrorism merely expedient; it was also a kind of grim justice, a poisonous reaping of her own poisonous sowing.

Nemesis is a goddess, and the pagan gods were always capricious. Yet she came as a response, a cosmic reaction to human causes. In the same way, the ending of Heroes Proved is not strictly a carry-though of the story’s logic, but there’s a certain cause-and-effect to it.

Caprice, it must be admitted, is generally inartistic in a novel. In fact, it almost always is. It can be interesting anyway. Heroes Proved, in its sudden end, did not reward the heroes’ efforts enough, or follow its own logic closely enough, to be satisfying in a classical way. But it is satisfying in a more obscure way; Nemesis usually is.