What makes a story work, beginning to end? All writers have the same tools, but each wields them differently, so that time bends in one writer's hands, but is linear in another's. One writer excels in action, another in dialogue or description. But one shouldn't only play to one's strengths; all writers should -- in my occasionally humble opinion -- practice to add muscle to their weaknesses, turning them into strengths.
One way is to study other writers and other stories. I often go back to the classics. For instance, the classic revenge tale, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, begins thus:
On February 24, 1815, the watchtower at Marseilles signaled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples.A deceptively quiet first sentence, it still has the tang of mystery about it. Why the importance of the date? The word watchtower has more than one implication, the arrival of a ship also signals the arrival of people and goods, and the cities are ports of call where intriguing events might have occurred that will affect the story.
Just as the book opens with a ship's arrival, it ends with the sailing of another vessel:
"Look," said Jacopo.I'm not a fan of all those exclamation marks, but that last line is as strong an end as a story needs.
The two young people looked in the direction in which he was pointing. On the dark blue line separating the sky from the Mediterranean they saw a white sail.
"Gone!" cried Maximilien. "Farewell, my friend, my father!"
"Gone!" murmured Valentine. "Farewell, my friend! Farewell, my sister!"
"Who knows if we'll ever see them again?" said Maximilien.
"My darling," said Valentine, "the count just told us that all human wisdom was contained in these two words: Wait and hope."
Fast-forward a couple centuries, and Will Thomas writes an excellent series of mystery novels featuring Barker & Llewellyn. The first book, Some Danger Involved, begins thus:
If someone had told me, those many years ago, that I would spend the bulk of my life as assitant and eventual partner to one of the most eminent detectives in London, I would have thought him a raving lunatic.It ends thus:
I mused for a moment. "We did it, didn't we? We actually solved a case. Well, you did, anyway. Racket tried to throw us off the scent, but you saw through it all. There's just one thing that puzzles me."Humor and mystery, even at the end. Perfect.
"What is that?" he asked.
"Who's this widow you haven't mentioned before?"
He didn't say anything, but I knew I'd struck a nerve. His pipe went out.
The Queen of Bedlam, another mystery, this one by Robert McCammon, begins with a bit of philosophy and history:
'Twas said better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but in the town of New York in the summer of 1702 one might do both, for the candles were small and the dark was large.And it ends with a bit of rumination:
Matthew held the glass close to the fingerprints and narrowed his eyes.Again, a book that ends but a story that doesn't, as the main character, having survived and solved a case, still seeks a killer who eluded him.
How like a maze a fingerprint was, he thought. How like the unknown streets and alleys of a strange city. Curving and circling, ending here and going there, snaking and twisting and cut by a slash.
Matthew followed the maze with his glass, deeper and deeper, deeper still.
Deeper yet, toward the center of it all.
How about another classic? JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, my introductory drug to the whole fantasy genre, begins with a now-famous paragraph:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.Hmm. Exactly how does a hobbit-hole mean comfort? And what in the world is a hobbit?
"The the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!" said Bilbo.A cozy ending to a rousing adventure, coming (almost) full circle, for the hobbit at the end, while still enjoying his comforts, is a different hobbit from the fussy little man at the beginning.
"Of course!" said Gandalf. "And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"
"Thank goodness!" said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
This last illustration is from The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox:
After killing the red-haird man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper.The first time I read that line, I didn't want to read the book, because such a sentence could only be a trick, a flamboyant barker's call to ride the rollercoaster, and the rest of the ride would be disappointing. Not so. And, just as in The Count of Monte Cristo, the quest for revenge turns the man seeking the revenge:
This, then, is what I have learned, since writing my confession on this final shore:Regret, lessons hard-learned, and desires unmet: Was the revenge worth the cost?
Honor not the malice of thine enemy so much, as to say, thy misery comes from him; Dishonour not the complexion of the times so much, as to say, thy misery comes from them; justifie not the Deity of Fortune so much, as to say, thy misery comes from her; Finde God pleased with thee, and thou hast a hook in the nostrils of every Leviathan.
I long for sleep, and for soft English rain. But they do not come.
As for my own writing, I know where I want a fantasy story to end -- the final scene has been written for years -- but there's still a manuscript-and-a-half to finish first. However, because of what the three characters endure before that scene, the quiet ending will carry the weight of all the adventures and sacrifices, all the dreams and losses, that have gone before it.
In the science fiction serial novel, I don't know the ending. I know the conflicts and the characters, and the broad brush-strokes of the background, but the minutiae I'm learning as I go, right along with the readers: the less-obvious motives of the characters, the various reasons the colonies exist and are in conflict with the rebels, what's going to happen next.
I just don't know how it's going to end.
Having a work in progress even as it's being published is a disquieting circumstance for me. It keeps me writing, and it takes me on a journey. Maybe I'll only know the ending when I get there, and not a moment before.