Selling It

I had a friend comment on one of the other entries here (one of the writing exercises) and he liked what I did there. I think it was Exercise #2. Anyway, I looked at what he liked, and realized it was all about the last line of the exercise and that it was kind of a shaggy dog (for those who do not know, a shaggy dog is a style of joke where the punch line comes out of left field, but is well set up by the joke).

But it got me thinking. I recently read a book in which I enjoyed the writing style, the authors voice, and so forth, but didn’t end up liking the book that much (names withheld because the author is actually quite skilled). And the reason I didn’t like it: the ending was not a sell for me.

We see this in various things we do. Think of a vacation you really liked. Now think of one you really didn’t. Was it the last couple of days (or even the last day) of the vacation that set the tone? For many people, the answer will be yes.

And that is part of what I see in what I wrote. The ending of the writing exercise is a surprise, even though essentially unsupported by the prose, but it hammers home the idea in a visceral way. The “tag line” sells the whole bit.

I think many things in stories are like this. There can be (with apologies to Buffy/Xander, and Joss Whedon) “big overture, little show” (from BTVS episode Fear Itself) in what authors do. If you don’t sell the story in the closing, people may not think much about how excellent the writing is, how much they like the author’s voice, how well plotted the theme is, how novel the idea is, or whatever else is cool. They will merely remember that the ending didn’t sell it. We, as human beings, tend to remember more the last thing we saw rather than the whole. The “tag line” rather than the substance.

Doubt me? Let me do an experiment. “Adrien! Adrien!”. Know the movie? Was it a great movie? Or how about “I’ll be back.” Recognize it? Or even “Where’s the Beef?” Seem familiar? Tag lines, or closings, are central to what we remember. Even though we have not always been a six second sound bite culture, we are always caught by catchy things (probably why they are called catchy). Don’t believe it? Long before we had six second sound bites we had “Stella! Stella!” or even (misquoted) “Play it again, Sam.”

Small ideas, pithily stated, often hold our attention and memory. That is not to say our writing should always be all about that. But never underestimate the power of a small, witty sentence that brings the whole piece together.

That’s all folks.

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