by Brian Plante
A few days ago, I received a couple of e-mails from readers of Realms Of Fantasy, telling me the magazine dropped the ending of my story, "Magic 101" in their February 2002 issue. This is not a good thing. Endings are important. [If you found your way here looking for the ending to that story, scroll down to the bottom of this article.]
In last month's column, I told you about the importance of a story's opening line. The opening "sells" the story and makes you want to continue reading it. The final line is similarly crucial -- it brings closure to the story, and ideally makes the reader keep thinking about the tale long after he put the book or magazine down.
In the case of the final line dropped from "Magic 101" I think that sense of closure in my story was lost by the omission. All the important action of the story was over at that point and the narrator was reflecting on what had just happened, but the missing line tied it all together by reiterating a thought from earlier in the story, and threw into doubt the veracity of the narrator's memory.
I don't blame the publisher for the missing line. It was just a screw-up at the printer, and I understand these things happen. I don't like it, but that's life. Unfortunately, the poor reader of my story would not know if he had missed a word or another ten pages. Realms said they would run an apology for the error in the next issue, which is nice, but doesn't really help the reader who will have forgotten about the story by then.
But enough of my woes. Why is the closing line of a story so important? As I said, it brings closure to the story, as if to say, "Stop reading now -- this is the end." At the same time the line closes the story, it may also open up new ideas. It could ask a question that spurs the reader to think about the issues in the story. Sometimes the final line can conjure up a whole new scene or story line that's left unwritten, or perhaps serve as a springboard for a sequel. In the case of "Magic 101" the closing line throws the whole narrative into doubt.
Last month, I concluded that the opening line sells the story to the reader (and the editor who buys it). In a way, the closing line sells the next story, leaving the reader with a feeling of satisfaction with the story, but also leaving him wanting more from me as an author. The best stories are the ones that make you think about them long after you have finished reading, and the closing line is often the device that starts that thinking.
Here are some examples from classic science fiction stories:
"The long night had come again." -- Isaac Asimov, from "Nightfall."
"If they try to beat me again Ill hurt them. I will." -- Richard Matheson, from "Born Of Man And Woman."
"Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out." -- Arthur C Clarke, from "The Nine Billion Names Of God."
"Next day it snowed, and killed off half the crops -- but it was a good day." -- Jerome Bixby, from "It's A Good Life."
"Cool and discreet, honey, in the dancing frost while the thermometer registers 10° fondly Fahrenheit." -- Alfred Bester from "Fondly Fahrenheit."
"P.P.S. Please If you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard . . ." -- Daniel Keyes, from "Flowers For Algernon."
OK, here's a few of my own closing lines, from stories that sold to good markets, along with my comments about why I think these lines work as closers. Maybe these aren't in the same league with the classics, but they're mine and this is my column, so I can do what I want. Deal with it.
"As a saxophone played the introduction to the old familiar tune, the big steel barrel and the inverted titanium funnel came together and moved around the room in time."
-- From "Moondance," this one left the reader with the vision of two robots dancing on the moon.
"That was when I knew for sure I could rehabilitate her."
-- From "I Wish You Dead." The story deals with the rehabilitation of the narrator in a virtual reality prison, but at the end of the story, this line turns the rehabilitated into the rehabilitor.
"And a future where a mother and child from two different worlds can cuddle, cheek to cheek, and share a breath of fresh air between them."
-- From "Fresh Air," this line puts a happy ending "spin' on an otherwise grim story.
"Reaching into the tote bag, she pulled out the pink tablet, took a deep breath, and opened the door."
-- From "Not Worth Fixing." The "tablet" is a kid's computer, a metaphor for the story's main problem, and behind the door its dying owner, so this line sets up a scene that's purposely unwritten.
"Let's see, for my first executive decision -- Effluvia Hunter, loser of electronic messages, mangler of office equipment, the queen of undrinkable office coffee -- look out!"
-- From "How I Got My Big head," the protagonist has her day and brings closure.
"After all, my soul, if I have one, is already in heaven. Or hell."
-- From "Already In Heaven," an artificial-intelligence priest wonders about whether he has a soul, and the last line makes you wonder about its disposition.
"Memory is a funny thing. If my memory is faulty, how would I know?"
-- This is the missing line from "Magic 101" and it works as a closer by making the reader wonder if the magic was real or if the whole story was just a figment of the imagination.
As I said in last month's column about openings, the last line does not make the story -- the story must stand on its own, else readers may bail out long before getting there. First and foremost, you must write a good story. Endings (and beginnings) don't make the story good, but they make a good story better. And that's all I have to say about that. The most important thing to remember is
Copyright © 2001 Brian Plante Count=6545
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