My Books

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Writing Bits: Endings

““Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.[1]

The ending of your book leaves the last taste of you. A good ending stays with a reader like the finishing notes of a beautiful symphony or the last taste of a delightful dinner. It gives off a sensation of pleasure and a sense of having ‘gotten there;’ as if the journey is over, and was well worth it. A good ending should make the reader want to turn to the beginning and start all over again.

“So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.[2]

The last line is important, and fun to write and speculate on, but the ending of your book starts when you begin your last chapter. Or, you can argue, the ending really begins in the first chapter. You have characters and a story now, and they are headed to some final stopping point. How are you going to end it? Do they all die off? Do they live happily ever after, or does the bad guy die a gruesome death first? Or is it a kind of existential thing where it all turned out to be a dream? However it ends, make it taste good to the reader. Take your time. Mould the ending and shape it until it is strong and firm, tying up all loose ends in your book. Try and give it the sensation of doneness. You want people talking about your book, recommending it to others, and ready to read it again. Your ending can spoil that; or help ensure it.

““I’ll have a jolly good stab at it, governor,” said the Hon. Freddie.[3]

I don’t think the ending is the most important part of your book. After all, the reader liked the rest of it enough to get them there. But I do think ending strong is one more thing that will push your book above the sea of mediocre reading material into something worth telling a friend about. If you love a book all the way through, and then it sort of fizzles into a weak ending, it leaves you feeling a little cheated. As if a five course meal left you with a burnt taste in your mouth, or a lovely symphony ended with a minute of discordant chaos. It is a disappointment and can spoil all the rest of it.

“Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate – and among the merits and happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.[4]

How many of you felt disappointed at the way such a wonderful, classic story ended? It was abrupt. I had the sudden idea Jane Austen got tired of the story and said, “Let’s end this thing!” Yes, I was glad both the girls got their men-folk and lived happily ever after, but I wanted to know more about it. Especially as all the rest of the book had been leading up to that point, their marriages and settling down. I was looking forward to finding out about it. Instead it was over in a few swipes of her pen, just when I was ready to savor the happy moment. Write like Jane Austen, by all means, but don’t end your book like she ended Sense and Sensibility. Abruptness can kill the mood gruesomely, and not just in an Austen style book.

““Ah!” A rare, a very rare smile touched Alex’s lips. “An oxyacetylene welder.[5]””

Alistair MacLean is one of my favorite suspense/espionage authors; but his books always end so abruptly. The whole way through the main character is just barely surviving, while trying to save the world, and of course keep the girl alive. Then finally, just at the last minute, he wins! He smiles. She smiles. And then the book is over. And you are left wondering what they did with the bomb after they just barely managed to stop the timer, or some other random little thing that you really would very much like to have known. You can’t please everyone. But I think an abrupt ending on an otherwise good book annoys just about everyone. If you liked the characters and loved the story, you want to know what happens to them at the end! And if you the author go to all the trouble of making your characters and story likable, then take the time to add in those few extra details at the end. But don’t make the other mistake.

“In the present case, it is as essential to surmount a consciousness of an unreal freedom and to recognize a dependence not perceived by our senses.[6]

I read War and Peace. And I liked it. I liked it very much, it is an excellent story, and I encourage you to slog through it and enjoy it. But don’t end your story with an entire book of philosophical ramblings. There are abrupt endings, and then there are endings that never end. You don’t have to give your reader every single detail and fill out all the corners in their minds. They can figure out a lot of what happens in the end on their own. Watch out for both errors when ending your book, try not to give too much, or too little at the end. Use your own judgment on how to finish strong. If you want tips, go find your favorite books and see how that author crafted the end of their story. Dissect it mercilessly. You might be surprised by how easy it is. Some of my favorite books end with a simple recapping of everything we already read.

“There, to conclude, all were happy, united in the present as they had been in the past; but never could they forget that island upon which they had arrived poor and friendless, that island which, during four years, had supplied all their wants, and of which there remained but a fragment of granite washed by the waves of the Pacific, the tomb of him who had borne the name of Captain Nemo.[7]

It is an efficient and easy manner to give the reader a kind of friendly glance back. If they liked the book, chances are they will enjoy being reminded of some of the best parts. Or if you have a point to your book, you can leave them with a parting thought. Something for them to mull over and chew on a little after those last words are read.

““We have been sitting with a ghost. Dr. Herbert Warner died years ago.[8]””

Ending with a parting thought is a beautiful way to leave your reader. It will make the book stick longer, and the longer it sticks, and the more they think about it, and the more likely they are to talk about it to someone else. And the more likely they are to get the point you were trying to make. If you are smart enough to write a book with a good point, end strongly on that point. Give it beauty and weight, and it will linger on in the reader's mind. Have you ever thought about that old phrase, “a pearl of wisdom?” A pearl is made by a little bit of something getting inside an oyster and sticking around, getting turned over and over, until it solidifies into something truly beautiful. A thought can be the start of something beautiful.

“But if the Professor was right it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.[9]”  

Ah, the tried and true sequel idea. If the reader really loved your work, they are going to be very excited and happy if you hint at more coming soon. It leaves a pleased excitement behind. And after all, isn’t that how the best book in the world ends? Something else is coming soon, something even better. Be ready for it! And oh boy, I never cease to be excited at the idea of that sequel! But look again. Here, at the end of the Bible, you see it all. It is a filled in ending, but not too long. Much of the major points and promises are recapped. We are left with great thoughts to mull over (how many countless sermons could you preach from these two verses alone!). And we are left with excited hope stinging our minds and hearts with expectation. It makes me want to go read the whole book again, just to be able to understand and delight in the truths contained in this beautiful ending!

“He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.[10]

[1] The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien
[2] Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan
[3] Something Fresh, by P.G. Wodehouse
[4] Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
[5] Partisans, by Alistair MacLean
[6] War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
[7] The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne
[8] Manalive, by G.K. Chesterton
[9] The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
[10] Revelations 22:20-21

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