Endings and Modern Authors

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Aaron Carroll writes today about Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which I haven’t read. And he tells me that King did something remarkable: Just before the end of the last book, he wrote a coda telling his readers not to bother reading the final chapter. Just enjoy the journey of reading the book and let it go:

I forced myself not to finish the story. Instead, I thought about how much I had grown and changed while I enjoyed it….I’ll admit that I went back later, and finished the book. To be honest, I had sort of predicted the final bit, much as I liked it. But Stephen King succeeded. In all the times I’ve talked to others about the series, I have never discussed the ending. I don’t care. What mattered, and what people who have read the book care about, was what happened before the ending.

But still, what I think about most is the coda. He changed the way I think about books and reading. I’ve learned to slow down and think about the story. I’ve learned to appreciate the journey, and focus not so much on the ending.

Oh, Aaron. You’ve been snookered. Stephen King has somehow contrived to make a virtue out of the fact that modern authors are so relentlessly crappy at finishing up their stories. They can write 500 pages of wonderful, well-crafted prose — or, in King’s case, probably 5,000 pages — but most of them simply have no idea how to provide a conclusion that’s equally well crafted and satisfying. Why? I don’t know. But it’s a defect, not a virtue. I don’t know if the ending to the Dark Tower series was any good, but don’t listen to Stephen King. Authors should learn how to write complete narratives. That means a beginning, a middle, and an end. Anything that lets them off the hook for not getting all three parts right — for not giving the ending every bit as much love and attention as the rest of the narrative — should be treated as nothing more than the special pleading that it is.

UPDATE: I didn’t make this clear, and I should have: I’m not insisting on neat and tidy endings. Be as cryptic as you please! But too often endings these days seem almost like afterthoughts, dashed off because the book was due at the publishers and the author just ran out of ideas or something. Modern authors can obviously write with immense craft and sensitivity, and I think that endings deserve exactly as much attention to craft and tone and narrative as the rest of the book. That’s all.

Also: this has nothing to do with Stephen King. I have no opinion about the endings to his stories. He was just an excuse to get this off my chest.

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