Endings, like plants, grow toward the light.
They are seeds planted at the beginnings of our stories.
As the story unfolds that seed--that promise--pushes through the ground, its energy and determination carrying readers toward the light at the end of the story.
To find the seed in a story, you might want to compare the first page with the last page.
Look for the seed that was planted on the first page and see if you can find it fully grown on the last, casting its shadow back on each page as the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion.
In The Bamboo Flute, for instance, Gary Disher, an Australian writer, explores the intimate interior of a 12 year-old boy's heart.
The story, set in Australia in the 1930's, begins with Paul remembering the days before his family suffered from poverty... before his father's bitterness and exasperation over lack of money distanced him from the family.
From the opening passage, Disher shows us Paul struggling with the way his father's despair has sapped the joy out of his life and swept the family's love of music--his mom's and his own--out of their home.
Here's how Disher begins:
"There was once music in our lives, but I can feel it slipping away. Men are tramping the dusty roads, asking for work, a sandwich, a cup of tea. My father is bitter and my mother is sad. I have no brothers, no sisters, no after-school friends. The days are long. No one has time for music."
Now, ask yourself what you learn immediately in this passage?
In the first sentence--the first clause--you already sense Paul's loss, don't you? "There was once music in our lives." And now it's gone.
His life once contained something beautiful, something that he loved... and it's been torn from his fingers by the Depression... and by his father's bitterness.
What else do you hear rippling beneath the surface in this opening passage?
Perhaps Paul's painful sense of solitude without music?
No one besides Paul has "time for music." He's alone... in his daydreams, in which he dreams of music... of violins (which he imagines his father's huge hands might break)... and flutes.
But Paul's not alone for long. One day one of the men tramping the dusty road in front of his house stops to ask for a cup of tea.
That's how Paul meets Eric the Red, a penniless tramp looking for work and hand-outs. He's one of the many drifters who Paul and his fellow classmates at school are warned to stay away from.
But when Eric the Red surprises Paul by playing a flute, Paul is irresistably drawn to the man and his music despite all the warnings. He trusts the man because of the music, though he knows his father would forbid him from meeting with Eric if he knew.
With Eric the Red's help, Paul carves his own flute from a stalk of bamboo growing near an old house where Eric's hiding out. And little by little, as he teaches himself to play, music returns to Paul's life again.
But how can he share share this discovery and new-found pleasure with his father, who grows day by day more bitter over the family's poverty and the lengthening line of men asking for hand-outs?
Not until Paul summons the courage to show his father the flute (and the gift of a letter-opener that Eric the Red carved and gave him) does Paul reveal his friendship with Eric.
And in this culminating moment of intimacy, Paul's father shares his own secrets. He pulls out of the closet the small pieces of wood and metal that he carved while, like Eric the Red, he served at the front during the last war.
This moment of recognition softens Paul's father's heart and brings new-found understanding to both father and son. And it's this new understanding that seems to melt away the bitterness in his father's heart and bring the two close again.
Here's how Disher ends the story:
"We sit like that for a while, touching everything--my flute, his carvings.
Then he stands in his decisive way and packs everything away again.
As he's going out the door, he turns and points at Eric the Red's letter opener. 'In the future, you be a bit more careful who you talk to, hear?'
It's almost the old voice and manner, but this time he can't quite keep the music out."
At the end of the story is the seed that Disher planted early on. Finally we understand what has been at stake for Paul all along.
Not only did Paul need to bring music back into his life, but, more importantly, he needed to regain the close relationship that he had lost with his father.
Now try this: look at the ending of a story. Take a look at the last few paragraphs; then turn to the opening.
See if you can trace the arc of the story--the arc of the character's journey--from the opening sentence to the final paragraph.
Look for the seed of the ending in the beginning.
And watch how that seed grows into a fully leafed plant by the end, straining toward the light to illuminate the main character's innermost yearning.