Endings are my nemesis. The first indication came during The Call. After my agent-to-be went on at length about how much she loved my debut—hey, I wasn’t going to stop her—she asked if I might reconsider the ending.
“Of course.” At that moment I would’ve changed my gender, if she’d asked.
“It needs to be a little less tidy.”
“Rookie mistake. I’m embarrassed.”
I rewrote the ending and she was happy. A year later, we spoke on the phone after she’d read my second novel.
“It’s wonderful,” she said, “but I’m wondering if you’ll reconsider the ending.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Sigh. Why did I make the same mistake again? In both instances, I’d created an ending reminiscent of the closing scene in a Hollywood film where the ensemble cast gathers around a table. Everyone is smiling, but there is a hint of sadness, because unfortunate things did happen. Perhaps someone died. The person known for joking tells a joke, the couple you wanted to be together is together. It’s a Heartwarming Moment. That’s the ending I wrote. Twice. With an actual table.
Here’s another thing: overly tidy endings are a pet peeve of mine.
I know why I fell into the trap. I’d spent 300 pages putting my characters through all the trouble I could dream up, one cartload of unmitigated misery and misfortune after another. My poor characters. I love them so. By the end of the book I had to make it up to them. I’d been cruel for so long and now it was time to say goodbye. I got soft.
When it’s time to wrap things up, you strive to let the air out of the balloon slowly and it comes out all at once. Pfffttt. The characters go flat. You want to get the reader out of the story, push them out of the airplane, and the ending is the parachute. It’s easy to make a mistake. Let them drift down too slowly and they’ll hang slack in their straps, napping. Or if the parachute fails, or you neglected to supply one, and the reader is in freefall to stony ground. I recently read a book that ended like this:
Endings, by their nature, are let-downs. A few chapters left, 85% on an e-reader, and if the writer has done a good job so far, the reader is wishing it weren’t so. But it has to end. It’s time to leave the playground and go home, where there are chores, where life is waiting. A successful ending eases this transition, but if it eases too successfully, the end of the book is as ordinary as life itself, and that’s not right either. The beginning of a book should feel like leaping onto a moving train; the ending is the opposite. Off is harder than on and it’s going to hurt. Some choices are better than others, but no one is going to approve of everything you have to do to get out of your story.
When I’m stuck for how to finish the damn thing, I look to the first chapters. I’m not suggesting you loop the story back to the beginning, rather that you might find a moment, a symbol, a snippet of dialogue that picks up a central theme, and that you can use as the final note.
If you’ve built conflict through the entire narrative, with luck there’s bit left as you near the end. Leave it there. Allow a secret to remain hidden. Let the door slam on someone’s ass. If you don’t, if you round off all the corners, the reader will turn the last page and eagerly rejoin the real world instead of lingering in her chair, wondering what has transpired and what might happen next. Even squirrels like to linger a bit.
That last line isn’t perfect but, like I said, endings are my nemesis.