If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that for the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to get my smart bulbs to work. I’ve accused them of not being very smart at all, I’ve said there’s always a workaround, and I’ve said sometimes it’s okay to give up. Today, I’m here to report that I finally figured out how to get them to work. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say our outdoor lights now come on at sunset and go off at sunrise without us having to flip a single switch. The saga of the smart bulbs has reached its resolution, and there’s really nothing more I can say about that.
So let me talk about writing instead. In every narrative there comes a point where there’s nothing more that can be said. Every bit of the premise has performed its function. Every detail has been accounted for. Each main character has reached the end of their arc. At that point, there’s nothing for the writer to do except gracefully exit the stage. “Every trail has its end,” James Fennimore Cooper writes in The Last of the Mohicans, “and every calamity brings its lesson.” When we write a narrative, we move forward to a landing place where a world, meticulously constructed, will never be the same. Along the way, we follow the narrative arcs the characters themselves have created. Those arcs lead to moments of change, or refusals to change, which are moments beyond which a character’s life will never be the same. The possible life, the one someone might have had, recedes, leaving its shadow, and the readers feel its simultaneous absence and presence. “I was trying to feel some kind of good-bye,” Holden Caulfield says in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. “I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t you feel even worse.” Indeed. As readers, we like to know our characters’ worlds are irrevocably altered by the end of the narrative. A choice made, a word said, or a choice not made, or a word not said, brings us to the end. Something set in motion in the opening has its completion and its resonance.
Sometimes it takes finding the end of a narrative to truly understand its beginning. For that reason, I suggest always writing through to the end of a first draft. Keep going even when the writing seems like slogging through mud. The writing itself will teach you something about the tale you’re telling. Remember that illumination is always a part of resolution. Something ends, and, if only for a moment, we see more clearly. It may take countless drafts, but once you’ve understood the narrative arc—once you know where it ends—you can go back to the beginning and add or enhance the first details from which your ending grows. Those first words on the page? They’re always the beginning of the end.