It’s that last glimpse back as he runs for the train, or the sigh as the hot sun sets into the water with an all-but-audible sizzle, or the relief of confirming the killer.
The closing words of any novel will either satisfy or they won’t. They’ll leave the reader thinking about the story and the characters, drifting in a semi-trance of remembrance … or making a grocery list and wondering if it’s time for a haircut.
The pressure is intense. For me it’s the part I worry about the most, because when I begin a story I never have a clear sense of the final page. I have a general idea of where the characters could end up, but not exactly how they’ll get there, and certainly not that all-important last paragraph.
To my mind, there are two ways to go after it. The first is organized and rational. Ask yourself these questions:
- How much do I want the reader to actually know about how it ended? Should the reader be left with things to guess about? Which things?
- How neatly do I want it all tied up? Which aspects of the story should reach a full conclusion and which should be left as an ongoing issue?
- Where will each of the characters end up geographically? Emotionally? Professionally? Who will be happy and who will be unfulfilled?
- What’s the theme of this story? What’s the last thing I want the reader to consider about this theme?
- Do I want a dramatic trumpet blare of an ending or a quiet sigh?
This is just a starting point, of course, but if you can answers these questions fully, and think up some questions of your own, an ending should begin to take shape.
The second way is not to go after it at all—to let it come after you. I’m a firm believer that our subconscious minds are doing an enormous amount of work, picking up details, making connections, squirreling away information that our conscious minds are barely aware of. Who hasn’t had the experience of trying desperately to remember something, only to have the answer come when we stop thinking about it?
Take a walk or a drive or a shower. Think about the story with only the lightest touch. Let your mind wander off its leash into meadows and swamps and forests you barely even know about. Let it come back to you covered in mud and thistles, with an odd-shaped stick in its mouth. I get a lot of ideas just as I’m waking up in the morning, when my mind is still in that dreamy state of receptivity. It’s a little strange to realize that what I’m “receiving” is something I created myself. But there it is.
Probably the best strategy is to employ all of the above. One way to do that would be to set your mind to work answering the questions at night, writing down answers until you’ve wrung out every last piece of conscious information. Then sleep. In the morning lie in bed and see what comes to you. Plan to lie there for at least twenty minutes. Then get up and jot it down. (Do not check email, Facebook, Twitter, or any other evil distractonator in between! Don’t even talk to live people, if you can possibly avoid them.)
I remember the moments when I figured out endings for Shelter Me and Deep Down True very well. Each time the anxiety had been building, and I’d been starting to think I just might come up empty. And each time I eventually realized I’d been carrying the ideas around in my head almost from the beginning, but hadn’t seen them as vehicles for the endings. Suddenly the puzzle pieces shifted, and it all came together. The relief was enormous.
We’ve all read books in which the author seemed to struggle with the ending. Sometimes he or she rambles past the natural point of departure, and you find yourself wondering if it will ever end. Or suddenly everything gets tied up so neatly, it’s as if the writer had gotten bored and decided on a whim to move on.
That may be what it looks like to the reader, but I can guarantee what was happening in the authors’ mind wasn’t rambling or boredom. It was panic. And in that state we don’t always recognize a good-idea life preserver when our mind throws it to us. Try to stay calm and trust yourself.
Telling the story I want to tell makes me feel like a gymnast attempting a difficult routine. I love the challenge of it; I love leaping into the empty page and hoping I can get my words to spin and turn with such precision that it all looks graceful and effortless. And the biggest challenge is knowing I could get all the moves right, but if I don’t “stick the landing,” as they say, I’ll lose important points. It’s the last thing you’ll see me do, and if I do it right, you won’t even know I’m there. You’ll be carried off by those last lines as if they created themselves.