Yesterday afternoon I finished the first draft of my work-in-progress. I've been working on the last chapter for about a week, and on the final scene in the book for a couple of days. I admit that I always get nervous and twitchy when writing the last scene. It's the last real opportunity, after all, to panic about the book while drafting it. All that self-doubt I've repressed during the previous six months or whatever comes to a head and I am convinced that not only is the ending I'm writing a weak ending, but the book as a whole is the worst book ever written in the history of written books. You know the drill, I'm sure. But once I get that last word down and put down the pen, I can be a little more objective about the book and the ending.
When I write the endings of my novels, I usually do so with a specific image in mind, something I've kept hold of and written toward for most of the narrative. Sometimes I'm not at all sure how to actually get to that image so the final chapter becomes a kind of battle between where the prose seems to want to go and where I want the prose to go. It's like trying to sculpt a mountain out of a river, maybe. I feel like I'm negotiating with my narrative more than I'm just putting it down on paper. But still, there's that image I want to leave the reader with.
One thing that hadn't really occurred to me until just now is that my books all end with the protagonist in motion, moving into the future. Sometimes that future is really bleak but more often, I think, it's simply a great unknown future that's--if nothing else--sure to be different from the past. None of that sort of character arc stuff has been deliberate and now that I see it I'm not sure how I feel about it. But it's there. Which is fine, because I have consciously tried in my last chapters to do certain things:
1. Avoid summing up. I hate summations, or grand statements of theme.
2. Avoid tying up plot threads. I am bored by denouements that tell you how every character in the book's life will turn out beyond the last pages of the book. (I shake my fist at you, Mr. Tolkien and your Scouring of the Shire!)
3. Avoid cliches and pats on the reader's head.
4. Avoid an ending the reader will expect.
5. Avoid a complete sense of closure.
Which is to say, I want to give my readers something other than the stereotypical ending of a book that wraps everything up in a tidy package and allows you to stop thinking about the story. Which means, in a way, that I try to make my endings surprising and disturbing. Not disturbing-in-a-give-you-nightmares sort of way, but I do want to leave readers in an unsettled state. Victoria Mixon wrote in a comment here a few years ago that she thought an ending should "kick you into space." I'm not exactly sure what Victoria meant, but I like the phrase. I think the reader should find herself in a new and unexpected place when the book is over. I don't know if the ending alone can do that, but if the book leads properly up to the ending, then I think you can kick the reader into space.
Another thing I notice (especially about the ending I just wrote) is that I might ask as many questions during my last pages as I answer. I try, I think, to open doors and introduce possibilities all the way through the narrative, right up to the last word. I'm not sure if people will find the ending of my most recent book particularly satisfying, which I'm trying not to worry about, because I don't think my intention was to satisfy so much. One of the conceits of this book is that you don't know who is telling the truth, including the detectives (it's a philosophical detective story, my book), and in the final chapters you have a lot of people lying to each other, calling each other liars, and I think that where the truth precisely is becomes difficult to pin down and I make no effort on behalf of the reader to lay out what's actually gone on. Some readers might not like that so much. We'll see.
Mostly, and I think this should be completely obvious to everyone, I write this post to brag about having finished the first draft of my latest novel. This is novel number five, and I hope it's a good one.
Anyway, a question because really I do want these answers: Have you/are you trying anything new or different with endings to novels? Are you turning away from traditional endings? Why or why not? Do you think the writer has an obligation to provide anything in particular to a reader in an ending?