Monday, August 24, 2015

Every silence ends. "Silence Like Diamonds" ends in Episode 10. So here are some thoughts about endings.

The last episode of "Silence Like Diamonds" is now up, and those of you who have been waiting to read it all at once should get busy, because after this piece, I shall have no caution at all about spoilers. Yip and everybody are going to find out what it was all about, you're going to find out what happens to everyone, and in short, after this ep, the story's over and it's time to go find another story.
It is a truth universally acknowledged among writers that endings are hard. Lawrence Block, who knows a lot about storytelling* and has written a couple of the bestbooks there are about it,** once compared the job to being a homicidal cruise director: you welcome everyone aboard with music and sunshine and the promise of a happy time, you keep them amused on the cruise, and then you kill them at the end. Roland Barthes, who knew a lot about reading, said that fiction is basically striptease: anyone who has been around at all knows that you start with someone pretty with clothes on, and knows perfectly well what you're going to see at the end, so all the entertainment value is in how you get from one to the other.  (Anyone else notice that the American writer picks a violent metaphor and the French critic picks a sexual one?)
The interesting thing to me about both comparisons is how much they stint the ending. Block is all about how to get the reader into the book, reading and demanding fun; Barthes is about how to keep the reader reading; but about the ending, shorn of the metaphor, each of them just says "Do something big."  Block says to impress them (at least I hope that's what "kill them at the end" means) and Barthes says to give'em what they've been promised and think they want (a good look at a bare-naked lady, even though you hope they're well past the point where that's a mystery to them).  Neither of them really says what "something big" to satisfy or delight the reader might be.
As for me, well, I won't say I'm no good at endings. No good  would be never getting one that works, as opposed to occasionally.  Probably not very good at endings would cover it nicely.
I've written a few endings that I think worked pretty well and I'm proud of: The Sky So Big and Black,  Kaleidoscope Century, and The Armies of Memory. Readers seem to agree with me about them. I've written a few endings that weren't what they needed to be and still nag me: A Million Open Doors and A Princess of the Aerie, for example. And there are plenty of endings about which the readers and I would disagree.  Endings that I really liked, but many readers grumbled about: Orbital Resonance, Finity, and The Last President. And there were a couple times I threw up my hands and just got out of the book that for some mysterious reason were much enjoyed by some readers and earned some laudatory fanmail: The Duke of Uranium, Mother of Storms, and Daybreak Zero. I suppose my personal take on endings for novels is not unlike the supposed early days of aviation rule that if you walked away, it was a good landing.
So, anyway, there's an ending to "Silence Like Diamonds," and it's there in Episode 10; head on over and read it.
Not a spoiler, I think, to say that if something human-created ever does end the world, it will almost certainly be something created with good intentions.
But of course, "Silence Like Diamonds" is a novelet, a short fiction form with its own rules. So what about short fiction?
Short fiction, if it is at all plot-centered, has to be about the ending.*** The story sets up its last couple paragraphs, sentence, sometimes even just its last word (see Asimov's "Liar!", which is both the title and the last word) to have some immense wallop.  There are quiet wallops and loud ones, gentle ones and brutal ones, but one way or another, the whole piece of short fiction, in retrospect, is the series of fakes, windups, and clears by which the short fictionist prepares to give you a good kick in the brains.  (Or punch right on the heart, or maybe to whip out a 10 foot spear from nowhere and skewer you through a vital organ you'd never even heard of).
So as an exercise for the reader, here are 20 great endings, a mixture from older science fiction, mainstream, horror, and mystery because those are the things I know best. I'm deliberately choosing most of them from quite a while back, and preferring the famous to the obscure, because I'm hoping you will experience the following contrast:
The ones from the stories you know will instantly bring back a jolt of emotion, very like the way a hook from a significant song will. And the ones from stories you don't know will make you say, "Hunh?" And in that difference lies the point of short fiction:
In novels (and novellas, and other long forms), no matter how plot-centered, ultimately the ending is the release from the work; it lets you out to the wider world again. But in plot-centered short fiction (which is particularly common in the short-short and the novelet, but found at all lengths), it's rather the other way round. The story prepares you to find meaning in the ending; in fact the story sets up that strange, parallel moment when a few ordinary words become something much richer and more important, whether it's a deep insight or violent shock, a quiet moment of reflection or the crashing of the Last Chord.
So, here are the well-known endings I have thrown together into a heap for you. No keeping score. When you recognize one, does it wake up the memory of the story? When you don't, does it at least intrigue you that these few words could mean so much? Perhaps enough even to look up the story and see why that would be?
I've put them in alphabetical order, by the way, just because it made as much sense as anything else.  Read away ...
  1. When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of the joy that kills. 
  2. Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus—yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.
  3. Then ...... some idiot turned on the lights.
  4. "Solely," said Linley, "in order to get an appetite."
  5. She lifted the glass.
    "Thanks, Nettie," she said. "Here's mud in your eye."
    The maid giggled. "Tha's the way, Mis' Morse," she said. "You cheer up now."
    "Yeah," said Mrs. Morse. "Sure."
  6. "She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
    "She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
    "Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.
    "Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."
  7. Romance at short notice was her specialty.
  8. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
  9. "Oh, that," said Father Brown. "I opened it as soon as I saw it lying there. It’s all blank pages. You see, I am not superstitious."
  10. Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!
  11. Nick stood up on the log, holding his rod, the landing net hanging heavy, then stepped into the water and splashed ashore. He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground. He was going back to camp. He looked back. The river just showed through the trees. There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.
  12. "It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
  13. I must have looked through every pile of mail a hundred times before I found the letter from the Clearys. Mrs. Talbot was right about the post office. The letter was in someone else's box.
  14. I didn’t do anything to die for... I didn’t do anything...
  15. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he'd just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.
  16. He slept, and the world passed by.
  17. "God," he cries, dying on Mars, "God, we made it!"
  18. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling.
  19. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honorable title of the woman.
  20. And found the Flower Passage, and Kelly and Lou and Bo and Muse. Kelly was buying beer so we all got drunk, and ate fried fish and fried clams and fried sausage, and Kelly was waving the money around, saying, "You should have seen him! The changes I put that frelk through, you should have seen him! Eighty lira is the going rate here, and he gave me a hundred and fifty!" and drank more beer.
    And went up.
I doubt most people will recognize all of them; I don't expect you'll have both my exact reading habits and my exact notion of what is memorable. Nevertheless, if you aspire to write short fiction of the fantastic, you could do worse than to look up the ones you don't know. The idea is not that you should be ashamed not to have read all of them, but that these are small wonders of the form, and if you can see how they make their last 10-100 words have such an effect, you'll really understand the ending in plot-centered short fiction.
So I tried not to make this a quiz, though I suppose some people will, because some people can't resist comparing.  The real comparison that matters, though, is the feelings evoked by the ones you know (quite possibly a memory of a good wallop past) and the feelings evoked by the ones you don't (quite probably "what could that possibly mean and why would those be the last words of a story?"  For the curious, and for determined self-studier, you'll find a list of the titles by number in the footnote marked ****.
Was the ending of "Silence Like Diamonds" up to those standards? I have no idea, really. Maybe I'll have more of one some day. At this point, I'll just have to hope it was up to yours.

*If you don't know his books, go here and look; I'm a fan of the Scudder and Keller novels, but Bernie Rhodenbarr has his many passionate supporters.

** I particularly recommend the many incarnations of Writing the Novel: From Plot toPrint, but there are numerous fans of Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, and they are not wrong.

***There are dozens of other things a piece of fiction can be centered around besides its plot: character, identity, experience, alienation, growth, epiphany, point, idea, preaching, position, fable, any sense, sound of words, rhythm, reversal, theme/variation, motion, countermotion, action, anger, nostalgia, and shit blowing up. For a piece of short fiction, any of those can and will do. But up above the footnotes, what I am talking about is a story centered on plot. Not because that's the best thing for all circumstances, but because (for reasons you can find here) it's what I think the classic novelet should be about.

**** What those are the endings of:
  1. Kate Chopin, The Story of an Hour. 
  2. Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer.
  3. Ray Bradbury, The October Game.
  4. Lord Dunsany, Two Bottles of Relish.
  5. Dorothy Parker, Big Blonde.
  6. Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
  7. Saki, The Open Window.
  8. Arthur C. Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God.
  9. G.K.Chesterton, The Blast of the Book.
  10. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
  11. Ernest Hemingway, Big Two-Hearted River
  12. Shirley Jackson, The Lottery.
  13. Connie Willis, A Letter from the Clearys.
  14. Tom Godwin, The Cold Equations
  15. John Updike, A&P
  16. Roger Zelazny, The Graveyard Heart
  17. Theodore Sturgeon, The Man Who Lost the Sea.
  18. James Baldwin, Sonny's Blues
  19. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia
  20. Samuel R. Delaney, Aye, and Gomorrah ....