Longtime readers know that I’m a proponent of The Power of the Ending. In other words, if you have an appropriate, satisfying and strong ending, your readers will tend to forgive some of the gaffes you may have committed in the middle of the book. So if you’re all about commercial fiction, you’re all about a knockout opening and a killer ending, right?
Well… except when the ending doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s not the ending that makes the story worthwhile. Sometimes it’s the journey you take to get to the ending… no matter what that ending is.
Let’s take for example, one of my favorite songs, Gallo De Cielo by Tom Russell (although I prefer Joe Ely’s live version1). It’s a great piece about a man who steals a fighting rooster, sneaks it into the States, and begins to cash in on the bird’s victories, all for a very noble cause. When I first fell in love with the song, I played it in the car for my wife – “You gotta hear this!” Less than halfway through the song, she looked at me and said, “The rooster dies, right?”
Well, right. But I tried – and failed to properly explain – that this was not the point of the song. It was the way that Russell spun the words together, and the way that events build and build and build toward what may be an inevitable conclusion, and the lingering effects of what happens after Gallo del Cielo’s last fight. Russell even plays games with the point of view during the song. Yeah, the rooster does die, I said. But it’s the way it happens. I guess I was trying to justify the ending because I know that my wife doesn’t like unhappy endings.2
But the ending of this song doesn’t need justification. It’s all about the journey – literally, as Carlos Saragosa wanders the American southwest, putting his bird up to fight and netting increasing amounts of money – all for his Mission3. Alas, he fails, right when it matters the most, right when victory is in his grasp.
Saragosa’s story is a tragedy, one of those rare genres where the ending isn’t going to make up for what happens in the middle of the book, so the middle better be darn good. Why even bother with tragedy? For the journey. And before you say it can’t be done, have you seen Hamlet lately?4
I suppose there are other novels without much of an ending – much of a plot, even – where it is all about the Journey. Not even necessarily tragedies. Some of Vonnegut’s early stuff would qualify, although he was always better when he had a real plot and a real ending, as in Slaughterhouse Five.
So if you’re going to insist on a realistic ending, then your Journey had better be a darn good one. And if you have a gripping start, a great Journey, AND a great ending… that’s going to be some book.
However, it’s not for beginners. So if you are one, finish what you’re working on first. But you might want to start planning now.
- Ely being one of three country artists that I have more than one song or album by – as much country as a guy can be who opened for The Clash on their London Calling tour and sang backup on the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. A colleague of mine says Ely isn’t country… “He’s Texas.” I can’t argue with that.
- This being the same woman who, as we watched Lady and the Tramp with our children one evening, leaned over to me and whispered (so the kids wouldn’t hear), “This really would be a better story if Trusty died at the end.” And like me, you know in your heart that she’s right.
- With a capital M.
- Kenneth Branaugh’s full-text film is highly recommended.