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Archive for December, 2013

With the year coming to a close, this seemed as good as time as any to talk about endings.

Endings come in all stripes.  You’ve got your happy endings and your sad endings, your wrapped-up-with-a-neat-little-bow endings and your open-ended endings (some of which are so open-ended that they are actually non-endings—see Catching Fire or any Second Acts).

Then there are the Surprise Endings, which can run anywhere from “What a swerve” (The Usual Suspects) to “What a crock!” (cop-outs such as “And then I woke up”).

No matter the medium—novel, movie, TV show, essay—a Great Ending is absolutely essential to a work of art. In fact, in some cases, a really, really Great Ending can redeem an otherwise mediocre text—if only because addled people like me can’t remember anything beyond the previous five minutes.

Think of it as the literary equivalent of a walk-off homerun victory:  an exciting ten seconds at the end of a game can help fans forgive the torturous tedium of the previous eight-and-two-thirds innings.

But writing that Great Ending is tough, even for published authors—a truth that was reinforced for me with the three books I read last summer.  (I’ve actually disclosed this before, but the irony of being an English teacher is that we’re so busy reading student essays that we never get to read—you know—books and stuff until the summer.)

The first book from my summer reading list: John Green’s Paper Towns, which I read because… well, reading John Green now seems required by law.  So last June, I dutifully went to the library, picked up Paper Towns (the only Green book that had not been checked out)… and was immediately hooked.paper towns

And not just because of the plot, which involves the search for a high school runaway, the beautiful and mysterious Margo Roth Spiegelman.  What drew me in the most was the narrator, a seventeen-year-old boy named Quentin, who has a sweet-if-not-slightly-obsessive crush on Margo.  Quentin is awesome, which I know is narcissistic for me to say—mainly because he reminds me a lot of me when I was seventeen.  Like Quentin, the seventeen-year-old version of me was a generally witty, optimistic guy, with a band of wacky yet devoted friends and a tendency to fall for girls who would inevitably bring him heartache.  And, most of all, Quentin and I are both English class wizards/ nerds.

I found this book funny and insightful and touching and infuriating.   I loved everything about it—well, mostly everything.  I have to say (Non-Spoiler Alert), I found the ending… shall we say, slightly protracted.

In my opinion, Green took a few more pages than necessary to get to the climax.  Don’t get me wrong: I liked those pages.  Those pages were filled with good, funny stuff.  But I wanted to get to the ending; I wanted to see how Green was going to resolve all the issues he raised.  So, great book, just maybe it could have been trimmed by maybe ten pages.

Next up:  The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle’s fascinating exploration of the Tortilla Curtaindestructive effects of xenophobia and poverty in modern-day California.   The book follows the parallel lives of two men: Delaney Mossbacher, a white nature writer who lives with his family in the most gated of gated communities; and Candido Rincon, an illegal Mexican immigrant who is desperately trying to build a new life for himself and his pregnant wife, the not-so-ironically named America.

In the very first chapter, Delaney accidentally hits Candido with his car and, instead of taking him to the hospital, Delaney gives him $20. The two men go off in separate directions, but their lives intertwine in curious ways throughout the novel.

One of my best friends recommended this book to me six years ago, and I just got around to it this summer. (See what I mean about English teachers never having time to read?)  But it was worth the wait: fascinating read, filled with sentences that literally angered me, because I knew that I would never be able to write like that.

But I did have a teeny-tiny problem with the ending—just the opposite problem I had with Paper Towns.  This time, I thought the ending came on too abruptly.  To me, Boyle built up and built up this incredible climactic moment, only to cut everything off prematurely.  I expected to turn the final page (or flip the screen, since I read this on iBooks) and find an epilogue, something that explains what happened to all of the characters.  Nope.

This isn’t even a critique or a regret, because I truly enjoyed 99% of Tortilla Curtain, and I recommend it highly.  But for me, five more pages of epilogue would have really made a difference.

I don’t really have too much to say about the third book, Dan Elish’s Born Too Short, the story of an 8th-grade shrimp of a kid named Matt whose best friend Keith is the best looking, most athletic, most talented kid in the whole school.  So one night, the in the presence of creepy (and possibly enchanted?) homeless man, Matt wishes bad tidings on his best friend, which seems to trigger a deluge of misfortune to descend on poor Keith.

Now, that sounds fun enough, but I had two problems with the story:

(1) Pick a genre, already!  Was the book realistic or fantasy?  Did Matt, with the help of the mysterious homeless man, somehow magically cause bad luck to befall his friend?  It’s never clear.  Aaauuggghhh!

(2)  Where’s the ending?  Perhaps the “can’t decide on a genre” problem had something to do with it, but to me, nothing gets resolved in this book.  The author raises some potentially interesting ideas but never takes them to any sort of logical (or even illogical) conclusion.  Literally, my son (who also read it this summer) got to the end and said, out loud, “What? That’s it???”

When thinking about endings, I was reminded of a decree one of my fellow teachers issued to his students many years ago:  no more conclusions. No, he didn’t want them to write the Never-Ending Essay.  But he no longer required concluding paragraphs—mostly because their conclusions were usually redundant and toothless and entirely unnecessary.

Now, in many ways, I didn’t agree with this policy.  After all, often times, I think students don’t even figure out what they’re trying to say until their last paragraph.  And as I suggested earlier, a really good concluding paragraph can absolutely save an essay.

On the other hand, I could see where my colleague was coming from.  After all, I’ve read many, many essays with conclusions that are really just recycled intros; the student-writers obviously just copied their intros and just sort of “synonymized” the words.  These conclusions don’t add anything new to the piece, so really what’s the point?

And I’m not necessarily sure I can fault high schoolers for not being able to craft great conclusions.  So many factors go into an essay that I know I rarely spend a lot of time talking about strategies for conclusions; in a sadly fitting way, it’s the last thing on my list.

Besides, as I said earlier, writing endings is tough!  For example, ever since I started writing this entry, the knowledge that I had to write a really good ending has been looming over me.  I mean, this is a piece about endings, after all; I really have to bring it home!  Should I offer some pithy advice about crafting endings?  Should I give examples of endings I’ve liked?  Should I circle back to some idea or clever line I’ve mentioned before and then put a different spin on it?  So many possibilities… I just can’t decide…

And then I woke up.

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