This one's going to be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me...
We were watching Mr. Show last night because Mr. Show is, in my opinion, the funniest live action comedy show ever produced by these United States. Every time I see it, I'm struck by how they cleverly avoid the problem of coming up with an end to a sketch by just stopping when it was no longer funny and moving on to something else. It's the same thing Monty Python did and it's just as effective. Compare this approach to what Saturday Night Live has done since it first aired some time in the pre-Cambrian. No matter how slight the idea, they seem compelled to provide each sketch with an ending. All of the humor has long since been wrung from the concept, but they soldier on painfully (both for the actors and the audience).
Good endings are hard to achieve if you try to force them. The trick, then, is knowing when to stop as opposed to insisting on a specific ending at a certain time. Here's an imaginary G.K. Chesterton from an equally imaginary book*:
October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page, of ending a chapter or of shutting a book, did not end a tale.
Having admitted that, he would also avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: "It is simply a matter," he explained to April, "of finding a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content."
I saw Neal Stephenson at a book signing a good while ago, and he was asked the dreaded "process question." He said that he didn't have any set number of words he tried to write each day; he just worked until he wrote what he recognized as a bad sentence. He erased the sentence (he was writing longhand at the time and may still be), put down his pen, and stopped for the day.
While I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the film Stranger Than Fiction. You know the one, the Will Ferrell film where his life is being written by a novelist played by Emma Thompson. On a side note, I feel like Stranger Than Fiction is fading from the public consciousness. It certainly isn't as widely referenced as the equally-deserving Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Anyway, if you're thinking about graceful endings, you really can't avoid thinking about Stranger Than Fiction. The artistic tension between having the "right" ending and having the ending you want makes for surprisingly effective drama. I feel like Emma Thompson's character's choice was informed by the same sentiment the imaginary narrator expressed above, and I like that idea.
My mother always tells me that her favorite books have ending that land in such a way that, after reading the last line, she closes the book and exhales "Yeah." It sounds better in person, trust me. There aren't a great many that I can think of that end so gracefully. Terry Pratchett's Small Gods has a coda for the ages. Even if it weren't one of my favorite novels, it would be worth reading just for the end. The Grapes of Wrath ended beautifully, although I'm a biased Steinbeck fan boy, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.
For a post concerning endings, you'd think I'd have a good one queued up. At least, you would if you didn't know me. Ideas which occur to you while soaking in a tub half asleep might, might make for a decent post, but those hazy states of mind rarely provide one with a proper stopping point.
P.S. Songs which end albums well are rare and satisfying things. This doesn't really fit with the post, but I was thinking about some of my favorite album-enders and I'll just list them here:
- Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" (The Downward Spiral)
- My Bloody Valentine's "Soon" (Loveless),
- Radiohead's "The Tourist" (OK Computer)
- Spiritualized's "Cop Shoot Cop" (Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space)
- Pop Will Eat Itself's "Wake Up! Time To Die" (This Is The Day...This Is The Hour...This Is This!)
- Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage/Eclipse" (Dark Side of the Moon)
- The The's "Lonely Planet" (Dusk)
* This is from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. The lines are from a book in the Library of Dreams, a repository of books imagined but never written. They are Gaiman's imagining of Chesterton's imagining of the book The Man Who Was October. The Sandman really is extraordinary and you ought to read it. Funny thing is, I enjoyed Gaiman's imaginary Chesterton a good deal more than the real one.