"Once upon a time..." words that enthralled us as children. A new adventure; to be swept away on the wings of imagination; how we enjoyed those words.
"And so they lived happily ever after." While the ending at least resolved the story without tears, it had a sadness that meant there was no more, that it was time to do something else. Ways were parted. Whilst we crave the ending, we also wish it wouldn't arrive. It only means another start and more to resolve. Is it possible never to end? Not really.
I was reading the conclusion of a friend's paper the other day. To be frank it was limp. It mentioned a few things that had occurred during the research, but it raised no great issues, there was no controversy. It didn't resolve anything, nor did it raise questions for the future.
Even the implied halt in "living happily ever after" is deceptive. We are left wondering what did happent to them? This is why Hollywood has cottoned on to sequels. It's why Tolkien himself discovered the joy of the prequel--The Silmarillion--after having run out of sequels.
This is why endings are so hard to do. What is the purpose of an ending? Sometimes it is imposed. An academic journal may state that we only accept articles of 8,000 words. One might feel that the topic justifies 12,000 words. Tough: they won't accept it. One has to find a way of stopping on cue. Other endings come because they have to. Because the story is over. Our problem is we don't always know when that point arrives. So we guess, we estimate our ETA for the paper and hope it's satisfactory.
I find endings difficult. Are they summaries--rather dull that? Are they provocative statements designed to arouse? Are they the fin de siecle in so far as we have said all there is to say? I have a research student with this problem. His examiners said the conclusion must be rewritten. It must connect with the body of the thesis. In that way it has to be more than an appendix (see below for when we lose them); it's got to be substantial.
As writers we often don't want to finish because that means we can't change anything anymore. And as most writers will say: rewriting is what writing is all about. Finishing means no more rewriting. The tentative must become the absolute, which is a giant step to take. This is probably why endings can be weak. The futility of the grand gesture is recognised, so rather than take risks and stir controversy, let's disappear without a sound, a mere whimper so no one notices.