In Harry Bingham’s latest email, he discusses the importance of the ending of a novel.
“I just realised that I write quite often about beginning a novel, and not all that often about ending it.
And yes: beginnings are important. If you don’t get your reader onto the story-train in that opening chapter, you’ve basically lost the game before it’s really started.
Endings matter at least as much as beginnings and the reason I don’t talk about them much is simply that endings mostly write themselves.
I don’t know about your experience, but my endings generally pass in a rush. It’s as though the entirety of the preceding novel is there to allow me to write the final chunk in a blaze of understanding and joy.
The understanding is: I know my characters. I know how all my little plot intricacies need to play out. I know what the grand finale needs to deliver. The prior 90,000 words involved me figuring those things out. The last 20,000 are my reward.
The joy is partly the ease of writing. But it’s also the joy of completing the arc. It’s like writing one long punchline, where you already know that the joke is going to land. I’ve certainly had some spectacularly happy writing sessions that haven’t involved endings. (Giving Fiona hypothermia in the snows of Love Story, with Murders was joyous. And I did enjoy burying her underground in The Dead House.) But mostly – the writing sessions I remember with most pleasure involve endings. Words flowing and the text satisfying.
So maybe you don’t need help with the endings. I think there’s an argument that if the preceding story has worked properly, the ending should just fall into place. But here, for what it’s worth, is a checklist to keep at hand …
Have you properly completed your exterior drama? In the kind of books I write, that’ll typically involve some good splash of violence – a sinking boat, a fight, a burning building. But that’s not necessary. In Pride and Prejudice, the exterior ‘drama’ involves a naïve girl eloping with Mr Wrong and the Romantic Hero doing (off-screen) what Romantic Heroes are there to do. The off-screen quality of that drama is probably a little underweight for a modern audience, but so long as you have some dramatic action that’s well suited to your genre and readership, you’re fine.
The flipside of the exterior action needs to be some serious internal pressure. In a standalone novel, that pressure needs to have the sense of being pivotal – life-altering, life-defining. In a series novel, you can’t quite get away with a new life-defining moment with every instalment, but the stakes still need to be high. Series characters take a bit of a battering as a result. (I once did an ‘interview’ with Fiona, in which she grumped at me for giving her a rough time. Reading it back, I have to say that she’s in the right. I’ll never tell her that though.)
Most books, not all, will involve a romantic relationship. And – of course – the pressures of your grand finale are also pressures that test and define that relationship. You definitely don’t have to kiss and get married at the end of every book. I’ve ended a book with my protagonist ending what had seemed like a strong and constructive relationship. But when your character enters the furnaces of your ending, everything is tested, everything will either prove itself durable or fallible. The relationship can’t simply be as it was before. (Again, series characters need to play those things differently, but ‘differently’ doesn’t mean you can just ignore the issue.)
Other key friendships / relationships
Of course, there are a ton of other relationships that build up over the course of a book. Those might be best-friend type relationships, or children, or parents. They can (importantly) be office colleagues, which sounds dull but they can matter too. My detective’s relationship with her boss and other colleagues is just quite central to the architecture of her life and the books. These relationships too don’t need profound alteration necessarily, but they need some token of ending. A boss hugging your character (when he/she never normally would), or talking about a promotion, or offering a holiday – those things sound trivial, but they can define something important about everyone’s relationship to what has just happened. You don’t necessarily need much here. Half a page? A page? That might be ample. But if you book misses that page, it’ll never quite satisfy as it ought to.
Most books – not just crime novels – will often have some kind of mystery at the heart. That mystery will probably be unfolded in your grand action-climax, but that won’t always be true. Modern fiction has (rightly) moved away from that moustache-twirling final chapter where the Great Detective reveals the mystery to a completely static audience. But it’ll often be the case that little questions and niggles remain. Those things need to be addressed. It’s even OK if they’re addressed by saying, “We’ll never know exactly how / why / who X.” But you need to resolve your mysteries or acknowledge that you haven’t.
And, since we’ve just dissed static and moustache-twirling final chapters, I’d add that maintaining some kind of motion still matters at the end. Just as you’ll want to move settings fairly frequently in your middle chapters, I think you’ll want to do the same at the end. Physical motion is still a good way to convey story motion.
The closing shot
There’s a theory in film-structure that the opening shot should show the ‘Before’ state of a character and the closing shot should show the ‘After’ – where the before/after vignettes somehow encapsulate the alteration brought about by the story. So to take the (vastly excellent) Miss Congeniality movie, the opening shot shows Sandra Bullock as goofy, unkempt, and without close female friends. The closing shot shows her kempt, still her, but now with close female friends. That’s the key transition in the movie.
I don’t quite like the mechanical nature of these movie plotting guides, but I do think it’s worth reflecting on the closing shot. What are you wanting to show? What’s the image of your character that you want to leave with your reader? In one of my books, a girl had been long separated from her father. Fiona’s last act in the book is to rejoin the two. She’s not physically present when the two meet – she’s set up the meeting, but remains in a car outside, watching. And that maybe is just the right tone for the book. Fiona plays this almost Christ-like role – suffering for others, undoing wrongs – but nevertheless remains on the outside of ordinary human society. That point isn’t made in any direct way, but it doesn’t have to be. An indirect point lingers longer than one made more crudely.