Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Are Endings Important?

Are endings important? That’s what one author asked this week. Why must we be so concerned about not revealing the ending when the journey is what is important? Good question, but here’s my thought on the subject: Endings aren’t just important, they’re everything.

That’s not to say we have to be particularly concerned about revealing the ending, but that’s not because endings don’t matter. Rather, people are looking for an ending they like and want to read a book that takes them on the journey to get there. Consider, The Lord of the Rings. Didn’t you know that the ring would be destroyed at the end? Of course you did. You knew that from the beginning. That was the whole reason for the journey. Or how about Cinderella? That story has been told hundreds of different ways. We all know she gets the prince in the end, but we read it anyway. So how can it be that endings are everything when we know how stories are going to turn out before we read them?

If we see a story as a journey, we should consider that the most important thing about any journey is where you are going. Two travelers can start from two different locations. One may travel by car and the other by plane. It may take one longer than the other, but they both must end up in the same place. If one of them doesn’t reach the destination, then he has failed. So it is with a story. We have great flexibility in where we begin the journey as well as the twists and turns along the way, but if it doesn’t bring us to the right ending, then we’ve failed.

How then do we know what the right ending is? Why must Cinderella get the prince? Why must the One Ring be destroyed? Why is it that at the end of the yellow brick road, Dorothy must click her heels and go home? Why must Darth Vader be the one to destroy the emperor? In many ways, these are all predictable endings, but the stories wouldn’t be the same if the prince chose one of the step-sitters, the One Ring was reclaimed by the enemy, the wicked witch got the ruby slippers or Luke joined his father on the dark side. If these stories ended that way, we probably wouldn’t remember them at all.

The right ending is the one that corrects the problems that exist at the beginning of the story. Beginnings and endings are a matched pair. We can’t mix and match. Suppose Cinderella, after meeting the prince, clicked her heels and went home. Suppose Luke destroyed the One Ring. It won’t work. Instead, we look for that ending that puts the world where it ought to be. But we can’t take shortcuts. At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, we know that the ring is going to be destroyed. What we don’t know is why. The journey in the middle is there to persuade the reader that the ending is right.

Or consider The Wizard of Oz. Considering how bad Dorothy had it at home, why wouldn’t she want to stay in Oz. But we reach the end of the book and we’re glad to see her go back to Kansas. The reason endings are everything is because we’ve spent the whole book building up to the ending and persuading the reader that it is the right ending. The whole story centers around the ending.

Many times, the unexpected nature of an ending is what causes a reader to remember the book. How strange it seems to reach the end, find an ending we don’t expect and realize that we believe it is the way the story must end. But does that mean we must worry about revealing the end? I don’t think so. How often have we read stories again, just so we can experience the same journey? Knowing the end of the story is like knowing you will see a dear friend at the end of a long journey. It is with joy that we arrive at our friend’s home, but all along the way, we are also joyful in anticipation of that meeting. Surprises have their place, but there is also a place for reading of the struggles the hero faces and knowing that he will overcome. We need not worry, but rather we can look to the villain and say, “you’re going to get what you deserve.”