Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Endings

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?


  1. First of all, I'm highly intrigued by your novel's ending, now, so the ending of your post would seem to be a success.

    I like an ending where hope is dangled before me, but I'm not quite sure. The very best ending, in that regard, for me, is found in Hillary Jordan's Mudbound. God, I want it to go the right way so badly. But I just don't know.

    I think that kind of ending sticks with you. The best reaction I've had with my own work is people who want to know what happens after the novel, who want to talk to me about that, repeatedly, who are looking for some reassurance that it went the way they wished.

    Congrats on finishing this draft!

  2. j a: Yeah, that sounds like a good ending, one that leaves the reader wanting something more from the characters without being disappointed in the story itself. That's awfully cool. Mudbound is on my TBR list. Oh, that list grows longer by the day.

  3. First off, congrats on finishing the draft!

    Have you/are you trying anything new or different with endings to novels?

    Not necessarily. I may try to end the story in a clever or unexpected way, but that's more a component of plotting because it involves the story as a whole, not just the ending. Putting in a twist is almost about everything preceding the twist more than the twist itself, because you're trying to set an expectation for what will happen (and then do something else).

    I just try to make the book good to the last line. It's like writing for Maxwell House.

    Are you turning away from traditional endings? Why or why not?

    It depends on the book. For my children's books, I'm shooting for happy endings and resolution for the main character(s). I do think it's OK to leave the reader wanting more, and providing a framework where the reader could guess what could come next.

    I also like leaving the reader thinking that all is fine and resolved, and then writing a sequel with a twist that shows otherwise.

    One of my WsIP is a satire about the end of the earth, and it will end with the Big Bang.

    Do you think the writer has an obligation to provide anything in particular to a reader in an ending?

    This changes based on the genre. For a work of literary fiction that features a detective as its protagonist, no, there is no obligation. For a novel written to be a mystery and directed to a mystery-loving audience, it is necessary to resolve the mystery.

    It's all about knowing the expectations of your reading audience, and your ability as a writer to meet those expectations.

  4. Congratulations on finishing the first draft of your work-in-progress novel. I reached that same milestone a couple weeks ago with my own WIP so I know how great it feels to get to this point. As for endings, you and I seem to have similar approaches and philosophies. I always prefer endings that, though they provide some resolution, also leave room for important unresolved questions. Indeed, in my current project, the ending chapter I had envisioned for about a week didn't happen. I reached the end of the chapter before it, and an inner voice said, This is it. It's done. Nothing more needs to be said. Whether the next draft will honor that I don't know.

  5. Leaving some unanswered questions is fine. If nothing else it allows you to have a follow on.

    What I object to is leaving unanswered books (step forward Arthur C Clarke). In The Deep Range we never find out what is down there, and in Songs Of Distant Earth he tells of an incident with an alien species that he never answers. Grrr.

    Leaving things undone can work for or against, depending on how big the questions are and what relevance they have to the story that has just been told.

  6. I've always seen endings as the most difficult part of my stories. At least I have the hardest time with them, most likely because I didn't view them as important in the past and didn't put enough effort into them. Now--and I'm serious, even though it sounds stupid--I trick myself into writing the end by convincing myself that I have several more pages to write. Then, I just stop. Then, I look back to see if I feel satisfied at where I stopped. I try to be sensitive to an emotional satisfaction rather than a logical one.

  7. Rick: This is likely just another example of my immense arrogance, but I never think about the expectations of my reader except for moments like today when I wrote this post. I can think about that in the abstract, but when I'm actually writing something, I only really deal with myself as a reader. I am trying hard to be the ideal writer for me, to write books I'd love to read. We'll see how that works out long-term.

    Judith: I've written a couple of chapters of various books where I came to the end before I thought I was going to, but clearly that was all I needed to say. And one of my books ended unexpectedly on me as well. Just as you say, nothing more needed to be said.

    Martin: Where you went wrong was reading Clarke.

    I have about a dozen big life questions for various characters that will go unanswered. I leave them as exercises for the reader.

  8. Davin: You know I complained about your original ending for Rooster, but I love the way your stories (and the two novellas of yours I've read) end. I can see how it's an emotional rather than plot satisfaction. I'm working a lot these days on that side of the writing. I have the plot stuff figured out already and it's less interesting than the emotional/character stuff.

  9. I don't even remember how I ended Rooster at the moment. Rooster's ending was an example of me trying to fit what I originally was working on into my misconception of a story framework. I always have that worry now, and I realize what I thought would be the end of Cyberlama would have fallen into that same category. So, I've been stepping back and trying to trick myself again.

  10. At that time, Rooster had a weird happy-family ending that came out of nowhere; you abandoned the trajectory of the character arcs you had going and had something like "Jaroen knew things were going to be better now, somehow" or something. I wanted to hit you, it was so wrong.

    I have to keep reminding myself that my job is not to craft tidy 3-act stories. I'm not going to think about structure at all in my next book. Not on any conscious level of plot points or rising/falling action or any of that. I'm going to write it the way you write short stories. See if I don't.

  11. "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."

    That's me too. Usually it is an ending I start the novel with :)

    My endings rarely wrap everything up in a tidy ball for the reader. I want them to imagine what the rest of the story is for themselves. I do this because life is like that. No matter how tidy the ending to any situation, life goes on . .

    Two thumps up on finishing the Novel. That is an accomplishment.


  12. Now I think about it all my novels end the same way. Yes, they conclude, but we also know there’s more in store for these poor sods I get my hands on. That said I’m not big on sequels. I know they’re becoming increasingly popular, especially in the booming YA market, but unless you kill of your protagonist there’s always going to be scope for more and even then, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Leonard Nimoy found out, that doesn’t always solve the problem. Ironically I have actually written one sequel. At the end of Living with the Truth I do exactly that, I kill off my protagonist only to set the sequel in his afterlife and that book ends with him waking up as a child – ‘reincarnated’ for want of a better word – realising that he had it all to go through again. Several people have asked about a third novel but I simply don’t have it in me.

    Sounds like your book has a very grownup ending. Too often we feel we need to tie up all the loose ends and do our readers’ thinking for them. My last novel is essentially a mystery and although I provide a solution we never know – because the protagonist doesn’t really care – if it is the solution because the only person with all the answers is dead. Lovers of traditional mysteries will probably hate it but then I hate all those formulaic mysteries where everything is resolved neatly in the drawing room at the end.

    The only book of mine that has a predictable ending is Milligan and Murphy and it’s not so much predictable as inevitable and that’s the whole point of the book, a metafiction, where two fictional characters have no control over what happens to them and I go out of my way to open every door and make their escape easy.

    I finished my fifth novel in January so my smugness has all gone now and I’m faced with that terrible task of deciding what to commit to next knowing it’s going to preoccupy me for the next three years of my life at least; quick I am not. Now stick that book away for a few months before you look at it again and maybe then you’ll have something approaching objectivity.

  13. Now that's an interesting question.

    I'm afraid that I'm nowhere near as conscious of my endings as you are. I have no explanation for them except that 'this is the way the story ends... that's what happened.' End of discussion.

    A story's ending is often the first thing that comes to mind. It's like the spectre of my character just pops into my head one day and says, "This is what happened. Let me tell you how it came to be."

    Mind you, I don't write thrillers. Perhaps the genre dictates the kinds of endings you can have that work?

  14. I think if the writer posits a question early in the work, it's then the author's responsibility to answer it by the end. Will X get Y? What is the mysterious Z?

    As for wrapping things up, my creative writing instructor puts it this way: A great story always ends on a sense of mystery.

  15. I make things up as I write along so endings are generally a surprise to me.

    An ending for me needs to be inexorable. I like to finish the book and think to myself "that's the only possible ending for this story."

  16. Donna: Yeah, I become increasingly interested in more lifelike endings the older I get. But still, I have that image of the ending that I write toward, though that image isn't necessarily the picture of something finished. If that makes sense.

    Jim: Sequels bother me. The book I just finished is a mystery with a detective, so the door is left open, I suppose, for more books with that character, but I have no idea what I'd write about in a sequel. The mystery story was the least interesting thing about the writing. I also admit that the idea of having some sort of definition of a general well-formed ending is a foolish idea. Though I do strongly agree that a grown up book for grown up readers forces the reader to do some thinking. The more the merrier, I say.

    S.M.: Yes, I get that entirely. I have an image/moment and I have to write about how that image/moment came to be. My next book will not be written that way, though. I'm going to try to write blindly forward.

    I also have no idea about genre conventions. I've sort of written my idea of a mystery-as-excuse-to-write-literary-fiction. I don't think the target market (if such things as target markets really exist) for it is going to be people who usually read a lot of mysteries.

    Michael: I think the job of art is to ask questions, but I disagree that the audience is owed an answer. Giving the reader something interesting to think about is a much higher calling than showing how the puzzle is solved or whatever.

    Cynthia: I like to present the reader with the idea that the story can end in any number of ways.

  17. Congratulations on finishing your draft! That's a big milestone.

    I like endings that leave some rough edges. The main arc has to be wrapped up, but other issues (including larger issues) can and should stick around. If done well, the "what if" questions continue to percolate in my mind for a long time. It makes the story feel more real--like the characters will go on living.

  18. Congrats on finishing your first draft. I'm writing my first novella at the moment with the intention of publishing digitally.

    I think it's a writers duty to entertain the reader and for me the more exotic you can make an ending the better.

    Whether I can pull it off is another story. Anyway good luck with your novel.

  19. I prefer a little mystery in the conclusion. It leaves room for a Part II. Seriously though…while I dislike an abrupt finish to a story, sometimes I completely skip the epilogue and leave the ending to my imagination.

  20. Yay for you! Finishing a novel is cause for celebration!

    As far as endings go, when I'm reading, I don't like everything spelled out. I do appreciate when the author has defined the characters and plot-goals (for lack of better term) well enough for me to have a good sense of how they will end up. Hopefully that' what I've done in my own novels.
    ...and what a feeling to type--THE END!

  21. I'm like Donna--I usually start a book with the ending in mind. Often long before I think of the opening--which usually comes after I'm half way into the book.

    But I've got to say that as a reader, I feel cheated when an author leaves me hanging, with whole storylines left dangling. I often don't buy another book by that author. But I do know satisfying endings are considered old fashioned.

    When I had my novel Food of Love published in England, my editor tried to get me to eliminate the last two chapters and chop it off immediately after the big climax. I refused, but later after reading lots and lots of how to write books, I figured he was probably right. So when I submitted it to my US publisher, I left them out.

    My new editor wrote that he didn't find one thing he wanted to change--except, would I please write two more chapters to follow the storylines of the other characters I left hanging?

    So...Ifired them off within minutes. I'm sure he thinks I'm the fastest writer alive.

    I guess we're both old fashioned. But I'm happy I got my ending back.

    Congrats on reaching yours. I think finishing the first draft is one of the great highs of a writer's life


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