Many writers and readers alike say that the most important part of a story is the ending. When asked why, they say things like “an ending allows you to form a complete opinion about the work as a whole,” or “the ending is the payoff of what the writer builds during the story.”
These are probably part of the answer, but if the last 30 years of experimental psychology have taught us anything, it’s that we are surprisingly ignorant of why we form beliefs and opinions. A series of experiments by psychologist Daniel Kahneman–one of my personal heroes–and his colleagues Donald A. Redelmeier and Joel Katz suggest a simpler reason why endings are so important, and why as a writer it’s more vital for you to deliver a satisfying ending than almost any other factor.
It starts with a group of men. More specifically, their colons.
The colonoscopy procedure is about as much fun as it sounds. It is painful, intrusive, and embarrassing enough that many people skip the procedure as often as possible even when it’s vital to their long-term health. In their experiment, Kahneman et al. took a group of men who were coming in for a medically needed colonoscopy and divided them into two groups.Both groups were given the procedure and asked to rate their pain and discomfort during the process, and then once again immediately after it was finished.
The first group, the control group, was given the colonoscopy as normal. The second group, the experimental group, was given the colonoscopy as normal, but then the apparatus was left in for a short period after the actual procedure was done. They did not know that this extra period wasn’t part of the procedure, but they did know that the last few minutes of their procedure was considerably less painful than the bulk of it.
During the procedure, the experimental group experienced more total discomfort than the control group, because they had a full-length full-discomfort procedure followed an extra period of reduced discomfort that was still much less fun than less irritations like, for example, getting a root canal. However, when asked to rate the overall unpleasantness of the experience, the experimental group rated it as significantly less bad than the control group. Even though they experienced more total pain, the reduced pain at the end made the entire procedure seem less bad. Not only that, the people in the experimental group wer more likely to come back for a repeat procedure.
In other words, when they thought back on the experience, they mostly remembered the ending. The last thing that happened to them had a higher impact on their impression of the experience than the much longer period that preceded it. Even though their total discomfort was higher. It didn’t matter. The taste it left in their mouth, to use a metaphor that we should all agree not to think about too much in this context, was based on the ending.
These findings have been reproduced in other experiments under different conditions. Kahneman and Redelmeier, their sadistic lust for psychological insight not sated by even the most unpleasant medically necessary procedures, went on to blast people’s ears with unpleasant noises and submerge their hands in freezing water. In both cases, subjects rated the overall experience as less unpleasant as long as it ended more gently, even when the gentle-ending condition was twice as long. When asked which condition they wanted to repeat,the overwhelming majority of subjects chose to repeat the double-length torture period over the shorter one, as long as the long one had a milder finish.
This data stacks up with a great deal of other data from other directions to tell a specific story about the human mind: we massively overvalue whatever happens last in an experience. A fantastic vacation with a crappy final day will be remembered less fondly than a mediocre vacation that went out with a bang, according to survey data. A great dessert will save an otherwise mediocre restaurant meal.
So it may be, then, that the major contributing factor for why endings are so important in stories is simply that they happen last. No matter how carefully you craft the beginning and middle of your story, it just won’t have the same lasting psychological impact as those last few scenes. Another implication here, and I admit I am speculating, is that it might matter less than you think how well the ending ties everything together. It might be more important that the ending is enjoyable for its own sake.
Someone clever writer is probably going to have to torment some hapless readers to find out.
Most writers spend a lot more time thinking about writing, or planning to write, than actually getting words down on the page. We want desperately to tell our stories, but we find reasons not to do so right at this moment. There will always be time, we tell ourselves. Or, my story isn’t finished yet. When the time is right, then I’ll do it. Then I’ll tell my stories.
I’ve been helping to take care of my mother in law for almost 5 years, ever since her husband had a stroke that left him paralyzed. During that time we’ve become very, very close. This is a woman who has hugged Desmond Tutu and debated music theory with world-famous composers—and kick their asses, to hear her tell of it. She has two masters degrees. She had a radio show on the same local station as Jeff Smith of the Frugal Gourmet, and hers was much more popular. She once crawled out onto a thirty foot high scaffolding to fix a radio antenna that had been knocked over by a lightning storm. All of the guys, the rest of the AV department, were too scared to go up there.
She’s now 74 years old, and she’s been scatty as long as I’ve known her. She often loses words or forgets which stories she has told to which people.Some time in the last six weeks it has blossomed into full-blown dementia.
She can still get around a bit and make herself meals. But when she talks she stops making sense after about a sentence or two. Six weeks ago she was playing word scramble games, and reading novels she had never read before. Six weeks ago we had long conversations about etymology and the way interpretations of the Bible have changed during her lifetime and the centuries before.
She’s an old woman, and she hasn’t been in good health for a long time. But six weeks ago she would have said that her story wasn’t finished. That if she wanted to, there was plenty of time left to tell her stories. Now she gets dressed to go out to appointments she doesn’t have, and can’t subtract seven from one hundred.
There are a lot of little truths about writing, but only one big one. But it’s so big that it’s been said hundreds of thousands of different ways, and every one of them mattered. It’s been repeated over and over, and for every writer all over the world, of any level of skill or success or passion, it needs to continue to be repeated until you can’t hear it anymore. You already know what it is. Every writer does.
You need to get writing.
You might think you have time. You might think you aren’t done learning or growing. You might think your mind will be strong and clear for long enough that there’s no reason not to put writing aside for just a little while longer.
Six weeks ago, so did she.
The goal of writing is to communicate ideas from one mind to another. But sometimes it’s difficult to find the right words. We all have these marvelous, complex, nuanced worlds inside of our heads. It is staggering that other people can’t see them. They’re so obvious.
Or sometimes you want to express to someone the depth and intensity of emotion that churns inside of you every time you see their smile. But the sensation is too big for words. So you stutter, and struggle, and stammer out “I love you” like you have eight billion times before.
You hope desperately that they understand that when you’re around them your blood cells become rose petals and the air becomes honey and when they smile that sweet hot wicked smile you feel like a dolphin must feel when it bursts out from the ocean after a deep dive and fills its lungs with tropical air. But the images hide under your tongue, and you don’t want to puree your metaphors.
Wouldn’t it be great if could abandon the clunky tool of language and pour our thoughts directly into each other’s open minds? Wouldn’t it solve all of the worlds communication problems if we could just ditch this inefficient talking nonsense and communicate telepathically?
If humans had telepathy there would be no miscommunication. Imagine that world for a moment. Every one of us would be able to convey to everyone else exactly what we thought, with no mistakes or errors.
Or subtleties. Or nuances. Or metaphor, symbolism, or poetic imagery. Because nuances are by definition ideas that are not conveyed clearly. They are tiny little things, clinging to the edges of our words and hiding in the shadows cast by our expressions. What is poetry but an attempt to communicate in small packets of words ideas that should take a thousand pictures?
The goal of writing is to communicate ideas from one mind to another. But the beauty of writing comes not from the perfection of communication, but from its flaws. The power of writing emerges from the way sentences planted by the writer blossom into great torrents of foliage in the reader’s mind.
Therein lies the paradox of writing. As a writer it is your task to communicate your ideas with purity and clarity. But the strength of your writing lies in its carefully sculpted use of miscommunication. It lies in the gaps between what you intend to say and the flawed and limited medium with which you say it.
There is no magic in the word sunset. Those six letters alone cannot convey the majesty of the pink light as it scatters across the cloud-laced twilight sky.Your writing cannot perfectly pluck the sunset from your brain and flick it into the eye of your reader. But somewhere in every reader’s mind is the memory of that moment when they looked up at a sunset and it was magical. If you choose your words with care, maybe you can reach in, touch that memory, and wake it up.
That is the paradox of writing. Not to achieve perfection, but to fail spectacularly.
When you ask writers why they write, or how they find the motivation to keep going, you often hear an answer like this:
I’ve always written. When I was little I would sneak away from my parents and sit under a tree and just write and write. For me, writing is like oxygen. It’s like food. It nourishes my life and my waking moments. There’s never been a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. I couldn’t not write even if I wanted to.
For some aspiring writers an answer like this is inspiring, because they feel exactly the same way.
For others it’s terrifying.
If you don’t feel like this, is there any point in trying to be a writer? Do you need to wake up with story ideas swimming behind your eyes, bursting to flood out through your fingertips?
The idea used to scare the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong; I love writing, and I have from a young age. But I love a lot of other things, too. I’ve gone for years without doing much of any writing at all. Whenever I heard a writer talking about how “writing is like oxygen” and how they couldn’t live without it, my insides tensed up. Did this mean I didn’t have what it took to be a writer? Is it worth writing at all if it isn’t an all-consuming passion?
Those fears were thoroughly squashed by a panel I attended at a science fiction convention. The panel was called “Organic vs. Structured Writing,” and it was hosted by four published, successful SF novelists.
Someone asked the panelists the dreaded question, as someone always done in something like this. “Why do you write? How do you find the motivation to keep writing?”
The first answer came from a writer who was very much on the “organic writing” side of the equation. She gave the same answer I had come to expect. Writing was like breathing. She has never gone a day without writing. She has to either write or explode.
My heart sank. And then the next panelist spoke up, and changed everything.
“Writing is very difficult for me. I have to struggle to make myself write every day. When I’m between novels I can spend weeks or even months without writing, and without even thinking much about writing. It’s important to write as often as you can, but you have to be realistic. A good start is to write 500 words a day, and see where that gets you. I remember once I set myself a task where I tried to write 1000 words every day for a month, and I couldn’t do it.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. This was a published, successful science fiction novelist. She had written half a dozen novels and right now was addressing a panel full of fans who were desperate to replicate her success.
She didn’t write every day.
She didn’t feel that if she didn’t spend every free moment writing she would explode.
She didn’t have the all-consuming passion to write at the expense of everything else in her life.
And she made it anyway.
It’s important to love writing if you want to be a writer. Passion is certainly a part of the equation. But it isn’t the whole equation, and it isn’t the only option.
Professional writers have a wide variety of personality types and approaches to their writing. You don’t need an enormous wellspring of passion. You just need enough to make you care. Enough to make you keep going. You have your own reason why writing is important enough to you for you to pursue it, despite all of the difficulties. That reason, in all its nuance and complexity, is unique to you.
Whatever it is, it’s enough.