On the BART home, as I was half-asleep, I realized something.
It is far easier to describe what a story’s first sentence should do than to describe what a story’s final sentence should do.
This is because a story is like a chess game. The board always starts the same way: a blank page. Anything could happen here. Certain moves are usually strong–such as moving the pawns in front of the king or the queen. That’s why so many people do it. Other moves are weak–unless you have a damn good idea what you’re doing. That’s how you can win even with an apparently stupid set of opening moves. But it takes an expert chess player to deviate from the standard sorts of opening moves and still win the game.
After the opening moves, the game progresses. You capture enemy figures; you make a few sacrifices of your own. Pieces leave the board. Eventually we reach the endgame–and the outcome here depends on which pieces are left. If you played well, you’ll have a king and a queen and maybe some other pieces left to checkmate the opponent. If you played poorly, you’ll have a king and bishop and a rook, which most chess players will tell you makes for a tricky endgame. (If you played really badly, you’ll already have lost or be headed for stalemate.)
The final moves of the story depend on all the decisions you’ve made earlier. So it’s hard to describe what the last sentence of a story should do beyond “checkmate the king,” because so much depends on which pieces you’ve got left. That’s why pages and pages of chess manuals are devoted to each possible subtype of endgame: each one has its own strategies and tactics.
Thoughts? Especially from any writers who love chess.