We’re all familiar with the need for a great opening that grabs the reader and draws them into the story, and the need for a cliff hanger at the end of a chapter to encourage the reader to keep turning the page. But what about the ending?
I was recently complimented on the final sentence in my novel, Breaking News and it got me thinking about how we finish our novels and short stories and what we are trying to achieve with that concluding sentence. Whilst the beginning of a book might get all the glory, it’s the powerful ending that stays with you. A book’s last line should square the circle.
Some endings come as a complete surprise, others set up the next part of the saga, or another story entirely. Some give us a proper sense of closure while others leave us at a crossroads. Some are the appropriate and expected endings to complicated plots while others reveal hitherto unseen elements of the story or characters. Some last lines come as such a shock that they disrupt the rest of the story. We are left wondering if this was the author’s intention, or if we have misunderstood something along the way.
I dragged some of my favourites from the bookshelves and studied the last lines. It’s neither a surprise nor a coincidence that I still have these books in my possession, despite having, in the course of several house moves and life changes over the years, gifted hundreds of paperbacks to charity shops, friends and jumble sales.
‘My personal rollercoaster. Not so much a rollercoaster – a rollercoaster’s too smooth – a yo-yo rather – a jerking, spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child, more like, trying too hard, too impatiently eager to learn how to operate his new yo-yo.’ Any Human Heart, William Boyd
‘I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’ Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
‘Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.’
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
‘He loved Big Brother.’
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald
‘He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.’ To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’ Animal Farm, George Orwell
‘He is coming, and I am here.’ The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
‘I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever.’ The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’ Animal Farm, George Orwell
‘Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.’
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Endings can fulfill our expectations or turn them upside down. There has to be a satisfying resolution of sorts, be it a prediction of things to come, a solution to a problem, a clarification or an intention. The main characters will probably undergo some sort of change or redemption and arrive at a degree of self-knowledge and acceptance.
A quick scan of the first page might determine whether or not you buy the book, but it’s the ending that will stick in your memory. Did you put the book down with relief that it was finally over, or in eager anticipation of the next installment? Was your world turned upside down or were you satisfied with the way things turned out? Did you get the resolution you expected, or was the ending too vague? Was it so powerful it made you angry, or did it make you weep?
Your opinion of what has gone before will depend, to a large extent, on that final sentence or two.
All very true Maggie. I have to confess that less thought and angst filled rewriting goes into my own endings. They fly in – pretty much out of the blue – and I suddenly KNOW that this the end. With TORN I made some readers angry and I obviously left them feeling frustrated. Thankfully the great majority seemed to “get it”. You can’t please everyone!
I like to tie up all the ends but this is difficult to do in one sentence, and I do like to ramble on. In my writing group we often advise each other to ‘lose the last sentence’ and it’s remarkable how many times this has a dramatic effect on the ending.
I think I must be quite a generous reader, because I will give the writer a few pages, or even chapters, before I decide a novel might not be for me. (I try not to give up on a book.) But I hate an unsatisfactory ending. I don’t necessarily need everything tied up, but I do like to feel as if the ending ‘fits’ with the rest of the novel. Great to shine a spotlight on this issue, Maggie.
The older I get the less likely I am to soldier on with a book I’m not enjoying, or isn’t moving quickly enough. But I also really dislike being let down badly by the ending. As you say, everything doesn’t need to be tied up neatly, but it does have to be a satisfactory conclusion the characters and the reader. I remember throwing Tess of the D’Urbevilles across the room when I got to the end. At the time (I was a teenager) the ending seemed completely unacceptable, but now… I think it fits.