“…I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.
There are many things to think of.
There is so much story.”
This is from, The Book Thief, by Mark Zusak, wherein Death had just given away a huge plot point; this was his reasoning behind it. Death is absolutely right. It’s not about the big booming, softly sighing, gut-wrenching finish, but all that leads up to it that makes a story great. The coolest plot twist in the world isn’t going to atone for a mediocre build-up. And while a great build-up attached to an otherwise lackluster ending sucks royally, at least the author has entertained long enough to pull the reader to that ending. Of course, the reader might never pick up a book by that author again, but that’s another post entirely.
Whether as readers or writers, we’ve all heard the term “muddy middle.” It’s that part of the story not the beginning we’re all excited about writing, not the ending we all can’t wait to get to, it’s that middle part where the fun beginning gets tied to the exciting end. For some, it’s the hardest part. It’s when a reader will put down a book, or a writer will stall. Getting a reader hooked is hard, Keeping them hooked is harder.
I’ve picked up books because the opening hook is fantastic, only to be disappointed thirty pages in. My best example of this is Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet. It is, without a doubt, my absolute favorite opening scene of all time. It sets the stage for an exciting, intricate, well-paced novel and, despite the tome-ish size of the thing, I couldn’t wait to read it. And then it never happened. Don’t get me wrong! It was obviously a great book, it just wasn’t the book the opening scene set me up expecting. I have to say that, for me, it ruined the rest of the story. I just kept waiting for more of what I got in the beginning, and while I got flashes (usually involving Ellen, or her son, Jack) it just never fully realized.
Maintaining the momentum you set up at the beginning is crucial, no matter how difficult it is to one-up your beginning–and I don’t mean by bigger and bigger BOOMS; the stakes have to rise, whether physical or emotional. We can’t all get away with giving up our big finishes the way Death (and Mark Zusak) can. It has to fit. It has to be part of that build-up, or it comes off as contrived. And if you’re going to slam readers with a fabulous opening that sets up something that never comes, you’d better have the background and stamina of Ken Follet, whose success speaks for itself.
However hard it is, we have to make our middles as fabulous, more fabulous than the bookends of our stories. That’s how we keep readers who cheat and read the end of the book first. (You know I’m looking at you.) Like Death says, it’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest and astound.
What about you? Can you forgive a so-so story for a big-boom ending? A great story with a lackluster finish?