Odds on Ends
Molly Giles | February 2010
There are hundreds of books on How To Start Your Story, with energetic suggestions for timed exercises and jump starts and prompts and memory triggers and group games, but there are very few books if any on How to Stop Writing. Most writers' guide books have nothing in their indexes under End, Conclusion, Resolution, Termination, Narrow Escapes or Getting Out With (or even without) Dignity, and the few instructions I did check out were daunting: "The end must be inevitable," Joan Didion announces airily, "it should lead us back to the beginning." This is true. The perfect book really is the one we finish, turn over, and start to read again. I did that with Housekeeping and with So Long, See You Tomorrow and with, come to think of it, very few others. We all want to write the book the reader revolves in her palm and returns to. But how to write it? How to discover what is "inevitable" and what is not? "Endings have to make a statement," John Dufresne advises in his book on writing, The Lie That Tells The Truth, and other good books on writing give other good advice, all of them using the imperial words "must" and "should." "A good ending must resolve everything that has gone before it... must rise above the story... must stand as an emblem of the story... must complete the entire arc of a character's life... must reveal the hidden secret buried in the plot..."
These instructions contain more rules than most writers—who have, I assume, been led to believe by the Natalie Goldberg crowd that "there are no rules in writing"—can stand. But most of us agree that a good ending to a good book should let us know what has finally happened to the characters we've come to care about, should be conclusive, satisfying, and tidy.
Two writers who made their own rules, Henry James and Anton Chekhov, shared a dislike for this kind of tidy ending. Henry James, up to his chin whiskers in Victorian literature, was sour about ends that relied on "a distribution of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions...and cheerful remarks." James sidestepped this by practically inventing the "open" ending that is common today, leaving his characters in the middle of a conversation, slip-sliding away from the narrative, his precious ambiguity intact. Chekhov too was annoyed by the fiction of his day, which he felt contained far too many impoverished noblemen, foreign musicians, unrecognized heroes and "red-haired foes," and he especially disliked plots which revolved on "inadvertently overhearing words that suddenly made everything clear." Most Chekhov stories as a result do not end; they simply stop. They stop on a dime of course and they leave you fully satisfied, knowing as much as you care to know about the characters. Chekhov, a doctor, maintained that a writer's job was not to fix a problem but only to reveal it. He believed in diagnosis, not in cure. I've always thought he must have been a terrible doctor and this is reinforced by the advice he did give on writing an end, sort of the literary equivalent for being told to take two aspirins and go to bed: "At the end of a story or novel you must artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work, and therefore must casually mention something about those whom you have already presented..."
More musts. Plus admonitions to be both artful and casual. Tall order.
The paucity of practical professional advice helps me understand why so many books end badly. I am of the school that believes most novels should be left on the airplane right next to the puke bag about two thirds through. I'm not talking about mysteries, which usually satisfy, and which I never read; I'm talking about literary novels. The end of Ian McEwan's novels are all dreadful but Saturday takes the cake: a thug is so moved by Matthew Arnold's poetry that he decides not to rape the protagonist's beautiful daughter after all, and instead orders her to put her clothes back on as he bursts into tears. J.M. Coetzee's wonderful Disgrace segues into a polemic for animal rights. Michael Ondaatje's endings leave most readers hanging, No Country for Old Men felt like the first part of a two-part serial, and as for the last paragraph of The Road? Ridiculous.
Most of the newer novels I've read recently went on way too long, didn't add up, or took a terrible wrong turn. The end of Daniel Mason's A Far Country felt thrown away. Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide To The Writers Homes In New England was a delightful comedy until the narrator's own father burns to death. Nicholas Christopher's The Bestiary is all pose and padding after a wonderful beginning.
Of course authors get tired and have deadlines. But so do readers. I think one of the enduring and endearing charms of books like Rembembrance of Things Past and Finnegan's Wake is that few of us ever finish them. For readers, they are chronic works in progress. The best thing about Finnegan's Wake of course is that you can pretend to have finished it because the last line snakes so craftily into the first. It is a beautiful last line: "a way a lone a last a loved a long the..." and it made me think of other last lines that I have admired over the years.
"They lived happily ever after"—who can knock that? Certainly not Henry Green, who used it as the last line in his lovely novella, Loving. Another childhood favorite of mine is: "And it was still hot!"—Max, returning from his rumpus with the Wild Things, finds supper waiting-I find this very satisfying; I like to end a book with a good meal. Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline ends like many children's books do with a sort of lullaby: the twelve little girls are tucked into their beds by the old nun: "And now goodnight, said Miss Clavell. And she turned out the light. And closed the door. And that's all there is, there isn't any more."
Most childrens' books close like this, on a sense of safety—the adventures are over, danger is dashed, peace is secured. The trouble has been resolved. When I think how many books and student stories especially start with a character waking up, the idea of ending with a character going safely to sleep is not unappealing. Be careful if you do this not to end with a dream though. Readers tend to skip them. If you must have a dream, keep it short and to the point. I'm guilty of this myself so I know. And oh, please don't ever open a story with a dream...
You may want to end your narrative with your character safe, but not necessarily safe in bed. Many books crash land their heroes—I'm thinking of Moby Dick, when Ishmael is picked up from the wreckage of the Pequod. Or the delightful end of Joseph Heller's Catch-22: "The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off."
Some writers go ahead and stick the knife in. The death of a main character is terminal closure for most pieces of fiction, though many books, like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary soldier on long after their heroines have disappeared, to their detriment I might add. When I think of books that end with an actual death, I remember the gorgeously grisly "And then they were upon her," from Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." The Delicate Prey, by Paul Bowles ends with a nomad buried up to his neck in the sand, singing "through the cold hours for the sun that would bring first warmth, then heat, thirst, fire, visions. The next night he did not know where he was, did not feel the cold. The wind blew dust along the ground into his mouth as he sang." The young traveler dying of dysentery in the middle of the Indian Ocean in Jeffrey Eugenides's story "AIRMAIL" wants to send a final letter to his family "but soon he realized that there was nothing left of him to do it—nothing at all—no person left to hold a pen or to send word to the people he loved, who would never understand."
Flannery O'Connor and Annie Proulx are ruthless character assassins, and there is no doubt they enjoy it; there is girlish laughter in many of their ends. Margaret Atwood's short story "Happy Endings" features two characters, John and Mary, who meet and marry, or don't, in version after version. "You'll have to face it," Atwood writes finally, "the endings are the same however you slice it...The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die." My own favorite death line comes from a story my daughter wrote when she was eight: "And Jenny never got out of that attic alive."
Death by itself of course does not do the trick. We want our evil characters to be punished before they go and our good guys to be redeemed before they go. Sidney Carton's famous speech from the gallows in Tale of Two Cities manages to rise above his own demise: "It is a far far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Some authors stop short of killing their characters and settle for doing as much damage as they can, presumably for the character's own good. Flannery O'Connor again shines at this sadistic technique. Here is little snob Julian after his fat despised mother has dropped dead on the street in "Everything That Rises Must Converge." "'Help, help!' he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow."
One of my favorite ends—well, one of my favorite stories—Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation"—again ushers a fairly innocent character into the world of guilt and sorrow from which he will never recover. A young Irish soldier has just executed the two English prisoners he had befriended, and after their deaths, he stands outside and looks up at the sky: "....and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened me afterwards, I never felt the same about again." This last line, which O'Connor wrote and rewrote, is a blunt telling, almost a diagram of epiphany, and it has been echoed in stories since. You will hear it clearly if less elegantly in the last line of John Updike's "A&P"; after the young grocery clerk has quit his job he says,"My stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."
Sometimes the hardness of the world is a relief. In William Trevor's story "The Room," a wife realizes she is going to leave a husband she loves but can no longer live with. Trevor's wording, as always, is quiet, elegiac, and perfect: "Katherine turned to walk back the way she'd come. It wouldn't be a shock, nor even a surprise. He expected no more of her than what she'd given him, and she would choose her moment to say that she must go. He would understand; she would not have to tell him. The best that love could do was not enough, and he would know that also."
Stories like the above torque the character into change in the very last lines. A famous example is Joyce's "Araby," and this is a line I do not love. After a boy's dreams of chivalrous romance are shattered, he says: "... I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger." My dislike of this line stems not from Joyce but from the English Lit teachers whom I hold responsible for the hundreds of undergraduate stories I have since read which end with a young man or woman howling over heartbreak at midnight, usually drunk, before throwing up.
I prefer endings that go out with a whimper, not a bang. "Ah Bartleby. Ah Humanity," is a big soulful sigh that embraces the whole world and that works for me. So does "The horror. The horror." So does the end of The Great Gatsby with all those little boats beating out to sea. But these are tricky ends for us to emulate, tipped toward the disaster of satire, and I'd advise against aiming for any of them in your own work. Don't worry. You have lots to choose from.
There are so many kinds of endings! There are joke endings, which of course work better for short stories than for novels, as the story form itself is close to the joke: "A woman is sitting in her old shuttered house. She knows that she is alone in the whole world; every other thing is dead. The doorbell rings" (Thomas Bailey Aldrich) and surprise endings—"The Gift of the Magi"—and ironical endings like "Hills Like White Elephants": "I feel fine," she said. "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine"—and lyrical endings, like the last lines of "The Dead": "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe, and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead." (We would tear that apart in a workshop-too many adverbs, too much alliteration.) There are surreal endings—John Cheever does these superbly, when his narrative simply takes leave of the world of everyday and with no fanfare enters the world of ancient myth; I especially love the end of "Goodbye, My Brother," when the narrator sits on the beach looking out at the ocean: "The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming—Diana and Helen—and I saw their uncovered heads black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched naked women walk out of the sea." There are seeded endings, like the marvelous implosion of Tobias Wolff's "Bullet In the Brain," when the narrator dies to the memory of a childhood softball game and his wonder at the overheard words: "Short's the best position there is." There are pitch-perfect character endings, as in The Age of Innocence, when Edith Wharton's hero cannot, for the life of him, get off the bench to meet the love of his life, much as we want him to, or when Evan Connell's Mrs. Bridge finds herself wedged in her garage. There are symmetrical endings, like John LeCarre's Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a book which begins and ends with a death at the Berlin Wall. There are endings which resolve the character's present dilemma and give them a shove toward their future. Huck Finn lights out for the Territory. The stoic widow in Bharti Mukherjee's "The Management of Grief" lights out for a different kind of territory. "I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know which direction I will take. I dropped the package on a park bench and started walking."
Just getting your character up and out the door is often enough, and stories that end with an action that steps toward the future almost always work. Many stories do end with walking, the overused word "home," and the word tomorrow. Perhaps the most famous last line, in American fiction at least, comes at the end of Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett O'Hara, having lost Rhett Butler, decides that "tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."
So thinking of our own work, let's try and take some other tips from these writers: Margaret Mitchell actually wrote the last scene of Gone with the Wind first, and "Tomorrow Is Another Day" was one of her original choices for the title. Of course, "Tote the Weary Load" was too. But if you can do what she did, and write your last scene first, the rest of your book or story should flow toward it with—Joan Didion's daunting word—inevitability. You will be a lucky writer if you know your story's end. If you don't know it specifically, you do probably know from the start whether you are writing a comedy or a tragedy, whether your piece is going to end with a marriage and a party or a death and a funeral, but you may not have actually visualized it. If you can, do so. Write it down. If you can't, take comfort from these words from Ernest Gaines; he said that every time he sits down to write a book all he knows is that he's on a train and he's "going to Georgia." He doesn't know who is going to sit next to him or what route the train is going to take but he is sure of his destination. Who knows what Georgia means to Ernest Gaines! He doesn't live there. He lives in Louisiana. But if you can fix your own Georgia On Your Mind you'll at least be headed in the right direction. Take your time. Enjoy the trip.
Some other suggestions:
Mirror-image your scenes, so instead of writing your last scene first try turning your first scene upside down and making it your last. This seems to me a neat little trick when it works, as it does so beautifully in the LeCarre book.
Think circularly. We are told that plot is linear—conflict leading to crisis leading to resolution—but the perfect geometry for plot is actually the circle. When you think about it, no closure is as satisfying as that which comes full circle. I have just finished reading a friend's novel manuscript; the book starts out strong, with a boy seeing the same monster his delusional father hallucinates; it goes on to describe the next thirty years of the boy's life but never mentions the monster or the boy's uncanny ability to see as others do again. As a result, the end peters out, needlessly, because with just a touch here and there woven through and with a final twist of vision—he either sees the monster again, or, better, can see the world his own way now and so sees nothing—the entire book will work.
And on work, why not let real life do the work for you? As a judge for the PEN/Faulkner fiction contest two years ago, I read almost 400 books published in 2007 and one of the things that struck me was how many of the novels were based on real people. I read about Frank Lloyd Wright, William Blake, Edward Curtis, Edward Steichen, Woody Guthrie, Isaac Babel, Commodore Perry, Florence Nightingale, and Hitler, among others, and in fact one of the winners of the contest, David Leavitt's The Indian Clerk, was a richly imagined account of an uneducated real-life mathematical genius, who came from poverty in Madras to dazzle the established dons at Cambridge in 1913.
These historical novels all had exhaustive pages of acknowledgements, and were as well-researched as biographies. It was clear the authors had worked like beavers. But I was puzzled. Why use an—already—lived-life for your novel instead of a made-up one? And then it occurred to me. It was because the authors knew the end. They knew how Frank Lloyd Wright's love affair panned out and how Steichen's divorce had ended and how Woody Guthrie had died. One of the biggest problems every writer faces in story telling—THE END—had been solved, not by imagination, but by history.
If you don't like history, try poetry. Aim for a beautiful ending. Don't fear beauty. We want to be moved when we finish a book. Beauty—remember the end of The Dead—moves us, so does loss, so does love, so does any genuine emotion. Because we recoil from sentimentality (or think we do, I'm not sure that's ever been true) we also sometimes recoil from feeling. I like an end that makes me feel-—makes me laugh or breaks my heart or just makes me put the book down and stare out the window. I like a little burst of lyricism. When you have come to your end, read your final passage out loud. Do you sniffle, pat your heart, and think, God, I am brilliant? Good. If your end has come from genuine gratitude or genuine grief, keep it. If you feel even a twitch of shame, get rid of the part that shames you, the lie that's somewhere buried in the words. You know it's there. Be ruthless.
This, by the way, is why I think we say that writing can't be taught. So much of it is based on the body's physical response. If you don't feel that sick twitch of shame, even when the sentimental or manipulative is pointed out to you, no one can teach it to you. This doesn't mean your work won't sell or be popular. It just means it won't be any good. If you don't hear that little "click" when the end snaps into place no one can teach that to you either. You have to listen with the patience of a safecracker, turning the words over and over in every sentence until—and there is no other way for me to describe it—you hear "click" and the treasure box opens.
If you remain unimpressed with yourself, don't be discouraged, just rewrite. I mentioned that "Guests of the Nation" was one of my favorite stories—Frank O'Connor rewrote the last line many many times. John Fowles was an obsessive rewriter, even after his books were published. You may have to struggle with a truckload of revisions. Do it. What else do you have to do with your life?
If after countless revisions of the final scene, you still don't have it, there's something wrong in the middle. You may have written past your end. Go back a few pages. Have you said too much? Gone on too long? You may have the right last line on page twelve of a fifteen page story but not the last scene; pull the line out and hold on to it. Another good bet is to go back to about the ¾ mark of your manuscript. This is where most books bog down. You may have taken a wrong turn in there somewhere. Maybe added an extra character or plot twist, or, more likely, left out something important.
Ask yourself: Did you leave the key scene out? This is the single most common problem of unpublished novels. The author may have that key scene in his or her head but it's not on the page yet.
Another idea is to scuffle around in the scenes of your book or story and look for some little object that can carry the ending, the orphan's locket, the deed to the ruby mine, some thing, preferably not a gun—the minute a gun comes into most student stories, characterization goes out the window—but something tangible to point toward the end. "The appropriate object is always at hand," foxy old Ezra Pound said, and if you look in your story you will see that he is right. There is something in there you haven't used yet. Ann Beattie centered her much anthologized story "Janus" around a decorative bowl, and she ends with her character gazing at it: "....Alone in the living room at night, she often looked at the bowl sitting on the table still and safe, unilluminated. In its way, it was perfect: the world cut in half, deep and smoothly empty. Near the rim, even in dim light, the eye moved toward one small flash of blue, a vanishing point on the horizon."
Some stories, like the Tobias Wolff story mentioned above, end with a set-in step back; the character regresses to a happier time. The end of Pulp Fiction uses this technique; after all the bloodshed we are allowed to enjoy the characters in action once more. If your character is stuck in some tragic situation and you want to extricate him, try using a jump forward; project him or her into the future. You will have to change tense to do this. Raymond Carver shows you how in "Where I'm Calling From": He leaves his character at the payphone at the rehab center about to call first his wife and then his girlfriend: To his wife: "I won't bring up business," he says. I won't raise my voice." And to his girlfriend: "Hello sugar," I'll say when she answers. "It's me."
Another suggestion: Meditate. Sounds like old new age, but it works. If you've been banging your head against a wall and there still is no hole in that wall, take twenty minutes, hunker down somewhere, preferably low to the ground with your back to your desk, and go gratefully receptively blank. See what comes to you. It may not be the right thing. That's okay. Write it down and meditate again tomorrow.
Keep a dream journal. Ask for guidance while you sleep.
Be attentive to any ideas that come to you in the shower, driving over bridges, climbing stairs, walking, running, or swimming. Ideas like to come when we're on the move, far from pen and paper. As we work on our work, ideas and phrases come by themselves; you'll overhear the checker in the market say the one perfect thing you need. Stay open. Find a stick and write on the sand. Jam out forty different endings, each one crazier than the rest. Don't throw any of them away. Well, throw a few of them away. Throw away "And then I woke up." Throw away "Somewhere a dog barked. Another dog answered." Throw away anything in italics. Don't be deliberately ambiguous in the hopes that your readers will understand something you do not. But don't lose faith. Remember that you do not have to solve the entire world. Just this one little piece of stupid prose. You don't have to figure everything out. Who could? We are not all that smart, we writers, you know. Most of us don't know that much more at the end of our lives than we did at the beginning. Often, thanks to various forms of senile dementia, we know less. Most people's last words are probably, "Oh shit." I can't think of a single book that ends with that.
Fiction is supposed to be, forgive me, less shitty than life. Better than life. It is supposed to make more sense than life. That's one of the reasons we read, one of the reasons we write. We want to feel we are forgiven and that there is hope, and the ending of choice in today's fiction is the ending that offers both. Redemption is and always has been a staple of American fiction and—not to sound too cynical—it is oh-so marketable. A good end—in my family, we've always said, "No one comes to a good end"—is supposed to be spiritually uplifting. When it works—when it transcends the material, literally leaves the page, transfers to the reader, and then expands, embracing the universe, as in "The Dead," then it is a very good end—and when it fails, well, give it another shot and if it continues to fail, the hell with it. As Beckett famously said, just "Fail Better." Invent the best sunset you can and sail straight into it, head high.