He stands at the beach, looking at the ocean heaving in front of him like a giant cauldron, the waves crashing relentlessly on the rocks. In his right hand, he gently caresses an old watch that glints in the afternoon sun.
Are those opening lines enough to create a picture for you, dear reader? Perhaps you want more details. The clear horizon speckled by a single sailboat, the water shimmering in the sunlight, bunched-up seaweed forming little dark clouds in the water. And then perhaps, more about the beach itself: the young couple in the distance, and nearer, a tiny shop, the shopkeeper not surprisingly absent at this time when the beach is mostly empty. Next to us is a sand castle that’s beautiful but too close to the shore. As we watch, a large wave washes up over it, leaving a million formless sand particles in its wake.
I sat down today to write a story for you, and so naturally, I am anxious to listen to you so I can make the story best serve your needs. Are you reading this after a long day’s work, slumped in your chair, hoping to relax yourself into sleep? Or perhaps you are reading this on a vacation, cuddled in your bed, a steaming cup of coffee besides you, having decided to have a lazy start of the day. It might be even possible that you are on a beach right now—your feet dipping into the sand, your hair waving in the damp air—in which case those opening lines will work especially well. I have no way of telling; your participation is important.
Let’s get back to the beach where our main character, Jon, stands. His dark hair is strewn carelessly across his forehead. His sad brown eyes look far in the distance, and you can notice a few wrinkles on his face. He grew up in a city, but has just moved to a small town near the ocean. He is aged forty-seven. An investment banker all his life, he has now saved up enough to retire in this quiet beach town. He lives alone, his wife having died five years ago in a road accident; the watch he holds in his hand is her last remaining memory.
I trust that this is enough for you to create a picture of Jon. I see you already imagining him: either tall or short, his feet bare or wearing sandals, with an air of maturity about him or a hint of childishness. Perhaps you’ve dressed him in a loose shirt and shorts, with a charming little hat. Such imagination is the mark of a good reader; I knew I chose you well. After all, how can an author capture all the little details that make any story in a few words? I am here to merely provide a fuel to your imagination, the initial twigs to kindle the fire: you are the one that makes it rage.
Today is an important day in Jon’s life because as he leaves the beach and drives back to his home, a young woman called Ria—ten years his junior—would ask him for a lift. Having nothing urgent on his hands to do, he would drive her for about fifteen miles. They would connect over a shared love for old classic movies, talking about the climax scene from “Twelve angry men”, or the opening of “The good, the bad, and the ugly”. They would laugh together, first hesitantly, and then, more freely and frequently. She would give him her number as he drops her off.
And here, we have pushed the boat into the stream. Our story can now move on its own, following the currents of life. He would call Ria a few days later. She would pick up the phone and they would talk. They would meet a few more times, and Jon would find himself falling in love again.
All of this you have seen before. Through experience and reading, you have seen numerous lives being lived, and you can fill in the rest of the story without much help from me. You can make it a romance, with Jon having to fight another suitor, having to woo Ria slowly over time, eventually winning her heart. You can also make it a tragedy, with Ria dying a few years later in another accident, Jon surviving, but now twice bereft, driven to depression.
Life provides enough material for these stories and many more and you can choose the one you want. And yet, all these stories will end the same way. Whether he becomes a happy family man, or a depressed alcoholic, our main character, Jon, must eventually die. How shall we make it happen? We can make him die in some spectacular way, trying to save a child from being hit by a car, for example, giving some meaning to his life. But then perhaps, all lives acquire meaning, just by being lived. We could let Jon go quietly. Perhaps these would suffice as our closing lines.
Lying on his hospital bed, Jon is suddenly aware that he is breathing his last few breaths. He looks at the last rays of the sun illuminating the tree leaves outside his window, and takes a deep sigh. Now he is slowly closing his eyes, and aware of having lived through laughter and sadness, fear and courage, little disappointments, the exhilaration of running into old friends, the painful goodbyes on leaving them, surprises bad and pleasant, tears of joy and pangs of grief: all the pieces, in short, that have to fit together to makes a life—he dies. Far away, back on the shore where we first met him, even now another castle is being made from the sands of the one we saw destroyed by the inevitable ocean waves. And so it goes.