By Ann Bauer
I’m thinking of finding a therapist who can help me work through my novel completion issues. Because every time I write one, here’s how it goes.
I get to what I know should be the end of the book. I have my characters all assembled and in the right places. I feel a low sense of dread about finishing the project I’ve been working on for months or years and my mind gets fuzzy. I forget what the story is really about. Everything falls into a jumble of possibilities. I poke around fearfully and come up with an ending that seems OK. It’s plausible, at least, if not artful. So I slap it on and I send the damn manuscript off (to my reader/agent/editor) just to be rid of it, to have the pain of separation done.
Every time, I get a letter back from the reader, agent, editor (or all three) that says, “Pitch perfect until page 317 then it all falls apart. The ending is all wrong. Try again.”
To which I respond, “You’re right! Thank you.” Then I discipline myself severely, sit in my chair, and write the ending the book was meant to have.
I’m not the only author who struggles with endings. Readers habitually complain about the last few pages or lines of a book, getting less profundity than they expected and saying they felt let down.
“We want a novel to swell with a sense of limitless possibility at the start and in the middle,” wrote the book critic Laura Miller in a 2011 article on Salon. “But we also want it to zero in to a point of inevitability as it ends. For this reason, last lines, like first ones, often suffer from a bad case of Trying Too Hard.”
The key is that inevitability Miller talks about, but mixed with a bit of freshness or surprise. Readers who have stuck with a novel for many hundreds of pages deserve an ending that makes them think and question, but also one that “fits” with the story they’ve just read. The goal is to be inventive but in such way that the closing section feel seamless and organic, as if it’s the only way this particular tale could possibly end.
During my last bout of ending angst (which was, by the way, just last month), I spent one agonizing writing morning reading the endings of famous books.
From The Sun Also Rises:
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
(Ernest Hemingway, 1926)
In a wry voice that’s true to Jake, the novel’s narrator, Hemingway summarizes the nature of the relationship between Jack and Brett. Her careless, unrealistic yet beautiful view. His war-weathered, cynical one. And the dream they’re both letting go.
From The Great Gatsby:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
(F. Scott Fitzgerald,1925)
This line is so famous that it’s made its way into parody. The original message however baroque, seems to be that we cannot fight destiny and are forever doomed to move forward while remaining anchored in our history.
From The Catcher in the Rye:
Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
(J.D. Salinger, 1951)
This is one of my favorites because it captures perfectly the sweet, lonesome, almost unearthly quality of Holden Caulfield’s thoughts. And it both contradicts and bears out the theme of the novel, which he has just told to everyone.
From Mrs. Dalloway:
“‘I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.
(Virginia Woolf, 1925)
An answer to the novel’s opening line (“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”) and a synecdoche of the novel’s primary conceit: a day in the life of a woman, Clarissa Dalloway, who is changed by a few extraordinary events and yet remains the same. Contradictory. Ambivalent. On the cusp of a new Modern era. There she was.
I reviewed all of these and others, by Dickens, Steinbeck, Atwood and Stegner. But it wasn’t until I re-read the last chapter of William Styron’s masterpiece Sophie’s Choice that I could envision my own book’s end. (Spoiler alert…)
The dramatic action of Styron’s novel occurs midway through the book—when Sophie discloses what happened to her at the hands of the Nazis and the terrible choice she was forced to make— and in the last chapter, when she makes love to Stingo then goes back to her beautiful, broken-minded Nathan and commits joint suicide. It was a brave thing for Styron to raise the stakes so high right before the end of this novel, breaking the reader’s heart as he did Stingo’s. But then, masterfully, he got quiet at the end.
His final section of this chapter is short. Stingo reads Emily Dickinson’s Ample Make This Bed at Sophie and Nathan’s funeral then leaves and wanders the abandoned beach at Coney Island. Deep in the night he falls asleep only to wake up the next morning “covered” by children in a protective layer of sand. And he observes, in a haunting echo of Dickinson’s poem: “This was not judgment day—only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.”
There is hope at daybreak. Stingo will go on and so will the reader, even with the knowledge that life can be cruel and terrible and dark. There is morning. It’s an opening, a new chance, even as the novel ends.
What are your favorite book endings and why?