Daniel Pink on the Perfect Fictional Endings


Daniel Pink is the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. His new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, digs into the research to make the case that timing isn’t an art; it’s a learnable science. Here Pink shares his insights on the power of a perfect ending.

A great novel and a well-lived life have much in common. Neither typically follows a clear, linear path. More often, they’re both a series of episodes—with beginnings, midpoints, and endings. The emerging science of timing has shown that each of these stages has a distinct effect on our behavior and well-being. But endings are especially powerful, as I show in my new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. And we can get better at recognizing the power of endings with a simple technique.

For example, read the following sentence:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”

The literary among you might recognize these words as the first sentence of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In literature, opening lines bear a mighty burden. They must hook the reader and lure her into the book. That’s why opening lines are heavily scrutinized and long remembered.

(Don’t believe me? Then call me Ishmael.)

But what about last lines? The final words of a work are just as important and deserve comparable reverence. Last lines can elevate and encode—by encapsulating a theme, resolving a question, leaving the story lingering in the reader’s head. Hemingway said that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms no fewer than thirty-nine times.

One easy way to appreciate the power of endings and improve your own ability to create them: Take some of your favorite books off the shelf and flip to the end. Read the last line. Read it again. Ponder it for a moment. Maybe even memorize it.

Here are some of my favorites to get you started.

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Animal Farm, George Orwell

“‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

The Lottery, Shirley Jackson

“For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

“In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.”

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

In stories as in life, endings leave an imprint. Endings affect us in multiple ways. They help us encode—to evaluate and record what we’ve encountered. They help us energize—often inspiring us to act better or differently because of what we’ve learned. And they help us elevate—not through syrupy, cliched “happy” endings, but through endings that deliver meaning, purpose, and significance.

It’s probably no surprise to serious readers that good books and meaningful experiences share common ground. What’s more surprising—heck, as a serious reader myself, I consider it exciting—is that we can use literary endings to enrich our personal endings.

Oh, that last sentence of A Farewell to Arms—the one Hemingway finally settled on? “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

Be sure to add Daniel Pink‘s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing to your Want to Read shelf.

posted by Cybil
on January, 17

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