You’re plotting your novel or maybe well into the writing process, but still question how you’re going to resolve your hero’s story.
Like beginnings, endings are crucial—crucial to framing your story with meaning and crucial to your success as its writer. When it comes to crafting the story’s emotional landing place, uncertainty plagues the best of the best.
Pressure builds as you approach the end of your novel. Unlike short stories, the chances are not that you will make a sudden wrong move and wreck everything. With novels, the likelihood is more that you won’t get everything in, won’t catch every possible echo and reverberation. I’m always afraid that I won’t, for some reason, squeeze all the juice out of the lemon. So as I hurtle towards closure, I need to slow down at the same time. I desperately want the book to end; I never want the book to end. I’m terrified and ecstatic. When I wrote the end of that closing chapter I literally dropped my pencil, sat up straight, and raised my fists in the air. —Tom Grimes
If I could have written the last line of [Anne Tyler’s] Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I’d be happy for the rest of my life. —Eudora Welty
Memorable. Uplifting. Heartbreaking. Dramatic. Resonant. Chilling. Ballsy. Sublime.
Anti-climactic. Lackluster. Cheesy. Cheap. Ridiculous. Crap.
Which will it be?
An array of possible ways to end a novel is ours to choose from—and yet, not a single way to tell us how to achieve a widely-satisfying, unforgettable ending. We can, though, gain insight from observing the techniques used by our literary predecessors.
Explicit endings end in endings. The story closes with a death, a divorce, a departure, a memory, a moral, a regret or repentance, with falling, with night, with silence, etc. This type of ending is similar to beginnings that open with birth, novelty or début, as with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, where we find the word nouveaulinked to Charles Bovary as he enters his classroom for the first time.
When asked about his novel The Fault in Our Stars, John Green said, “There is no book without death. You cannot meaningfully confront the universe’s indifference to us without seeing the horrific suffering and injustice and awfulness of what really happens to real people who do not deserve to suffer and die.”
The Fault in Our Stars, a story narrated by a sixteen-year-old cancer patient forced to attend a support group opens (appropriately) with winter, depression, death.
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my free time to thinking about death.
It’s only fitting, then, that The Fault in Our Stars should conclude with sixteen year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster dying of cancer. Green, though, hits a magical end note. The novel’s last line is: “I do.” It refers to Hazel’s response to a letter she received from Augustus after his death. With “I do”, Hazel is saying, yes to Augustus, she enjoyed the infinity he gave her within their numbered days.
Green satisfied readers—and himself. Referring to the novel’s ending, he said “Shakespeare’s comedies end in marriage and his tragedies end in death, and I was rather fond of the idea that my book could end (symbolically, at least) in both.”
Happily Ever After
Some people believe good books should end in a climax that resonates like the 40-second finale chord of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, leaving readers giddy and goose-bumped. Those who buy books, we’re told, prefer happily-ever-after, and time and again commercial fiction ends with lovers consummating their love and underdogs proving victorious.
Henry James commented on the endings of nineteenth-century novels, saying they were nothing but a final distribution of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, children, millions, etc. Christopher Allen Walker reinstated the sentiment a generation later—”It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption.”
Hemingway would have agreed them. While considering Mark Twain the sole American writer of note, he hated the ending of Huckleberry Finn, insisting that the story should have ended when Jim is stolen. “The rest is cheating.” Given the cultural setting, he makes a point.
Robert A. Heinlein’s 1962 novel Podkayne of Mars ended with the protagonist’s death, but the publisher coerced him into letting her survive. In a letter to his literary agent published years later, Heinlein wrote that revising the story was “like revising Romeo and Juliet”, that “changing the end isn’t real life, because in real life, not everything ends happily.”
“People love a happy ending,” Joss Whedon says. “So every episode, I will explain once again that I don’t like people. And then Mal will shoot someone. Someone we like. And their puppy.”
A preference for happy endings is seen in film adaptations where the literary originals don’t end as fortunately. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” contrary to the Disney’s rendition, concludes with a sacrifice that requires the Mermaid to see her prince marry another girl. Truman Capote’s novella on which Breakfast at Tiffany’s was based ends with Holly Golightly leaving the protagonist and going off to Brazil, while the film had her accepting his love with a kiss.
Oftentimes, Hollywood’s agenda sabotages a film, as Frank Capra learned in Meet John Doe. The strong story should have ended with John Doe jumping to his death, but Capra decided against landing there. Depressing ending notwithstanding, the film would have lived on in the annals of art. Instead, with happy ending tacked on like Eeyore’s tail, it lives in posts such as this as an example of what not to do.
And even Hemingway succumbed to Hollywood’s persuasion. Regarding the film version of his novel, The Snows of Kilamanjaro, William S. Burroughs said: “So he wrote this story—and certainly it was the best thing that he’d ever wrote—this story about death that is his specialty, and he lets Hollywood put a happy ending on it—a real live pilot comes in with Penicillin. Even the vultures flap away in disgust at that sell-out! So he had a unique opportunity. It could have been a great film about death and it isn’t about death at all—it isn’t about shit.”
On publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold John le Carré was criticized for neglecting to give his readers a happy ending. “The hero must triumph over his enemies, as surely as Jack must kill the giant in the nursery tale,” read the Times’ review. “If the giant kills Jack, we have missed the whole point of the story.”
Despite examples like Capra’s, a good portion of the reading public subscribes to this philosophy. And numerous first-rate novels end on the upswing. Odysseus lands on the shores of Ithaca and slays his wife’s suitors. Alice returns from Wonderland and will “remember the happy days of summer.” The Prisoner of Zenda escapes. Tom Jones ends up with the girl and the cash. The list runs through present-day bookshelves.
Happy endings sometimes skirt reality. In the skirting, though—in their diversions from life’s unsavory outcomes—their popularity sometimes acquires authenticity through demand. They don’t necessarily portray reality, but they meet it. Happy endings address the very real cry for something to keep hope alive.
In choosing whether or not to grant your hero the final success comes down to one thing—truth, according to the story. According to the story’s genre, theme, tone, and style. The ending must fit. The ending must make sense, must matter. How and where your story ends should elicit from you and your readers an involuntary, “Aha, yes, of course.”
In Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek”, condemned soldier Peyton Farquhar searches for the means to escape. His eye turns to the architecture of his impending death—the soldiers, the way they hold their guns, the minutiae of military conduct, the beams and ropes from which he’ll hang. Bierce keeps the story’s structural design close to his chest while grounding readers in Farquhar’s narration. Here’s how the story ends—
He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of his neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—the all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timber of the Owl Creek Bridge.
Surprised readers thought Farquhar had acted on his desire to escape, but no. Home is merely the last images he sees before death. The success of Bierce’s ending relies on the credibility of the world he established at the story’s beginning. Fantasy then overtakes reality in a transition made seamless by the congruence of detail. Without it, the outcome would have been transparent and contrived.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card showcases perhaps the most shocking twist ending when its hero destroys the Buggers in what he believed was another simulated battle. The victory devastates Ender, who wasn’t equipped to live with the consequences, and so stuns readers that many turn back to reread the book and see how the author pulled it off.
The surprise or twist ending overturns expectations. Readers don’t see it coming, though the writer has provided plausibility for the outcome. It takes planning and precision, and again, depends on—relies on—consistency with the story thus far.
Writers occasionally decide to begin their stories with an Act II plot point or even with the story’s climax and work their way around to the circumstances that set the confrontation in motion—hence, their stories are said to come full circle. In Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the ending takes place before the beginning. Circular endings can also revolve around theme (versus events) and circle back to an image or clue planted early in the story.
When readers of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina arrive at the heroine’s suicide, some assume that turning the page will lead to the novel’s last lines—after all, the heroine’s death signifies the plot’s end. The novel, however, continues. Tolstoy had yet to unite the story’s internal threads.
Anna Karenina begins with the well-known sentence—
All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.
Tolstoy ends in a circular fashion, with Levin’s found happiness—
I shall lose my temper with Ivan the coachman, I shall still embark on useless discussion and express my opinions inopportunely; there will still be the same wall between the sanctuary of my inmost soul and other people, even my wife; I shall probably go on scolding her in my anxiety repenting of it afterwards; I shall still go on praying, but my life now, my whole life, independently of anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no longer meaningless as it was before, but has a positive meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness opens on the Thames and ends, in the passage below, on the Thames—
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
In this stellar narrative diminuendo of the nightmare that is the Heart of Darkness, Marlowe, one of its two narrators, confesses his complicity in the events he began describing at the story’s onset.
George Orwell’s nightmare, Nineteen Eighty Four, concludes with a disturbing return to the status quo—”He loved Big Brother.”
Similar in capacity is the ending of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. “…then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Moby Dick, of course, begins with the famous line, “Call me Ishmael.” Eons before Melville’s day, Ishmael had come to symbolize orphans and exiles, and in the opening paragraph, Ishmael tells the reader he has turned to the sea out of a feeling of alienation. In the book’s final line, Ishmael again refers to himself as an orphan—“It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”—thereby preserving unbroken the Biblical thread in a timeless (endless) continuum.
Another function of circular endings includes “the ending as new beginning”, commonly used by Balzac and Zola.
Nonlinear narratives, or anachronical endings, refer to stories where events are portrayed out of time and causality sequence. This device is sometimes used to reflect plot, as in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, whose protagonist John Yossarian is believed insane and who also is trapped in a system (the army) that lacks sanity’s rational operations. In novels such as Catch-22, the structure places readers in the hero’s disorienting world. In other instances, it seats readers in a character’s head by emulating the way random tangents of thought and memories take over. Sometimes an anachronical approach best relates the story. Many writers have chosen it for its overall effect, not to mention that it avails any event contained within as a possible ending point. Occasionally the time-ordered options can’t match a pivotal moment earlier in the hero’s journey.
In Umberto Eco’s murder mystery The Name of the Rose, Franciscan friar William of Baskerville is tasked with investigating the deaths of several Benedictine monks. Readers follow as he pursues a trail of clues as tortuous as the monastery’s medieval corridors. All the while, Eco repeatedly promises and denies closure to the case. Clues are noted and understood for their implications, yet the crime remains unsolved.
And in truth, in the end, we see and know in part. Conventional literature attempts to make sense of our lives, but at times, answers are nonexistent or can’t be found. We move on to new stories before the old stories have been understood.
As Peter Miller tells it, Hemingway’s six-word story came about in a wager—
Ernest Hemingway was lunching at the Algonquin, sitting at the famous “round table” with several writers, claiming he could write a six-word-long short story. The other writers balked. Hemingway told them to ante up ten dollars each. If he was wrong, he would match it; if he was right, he would keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The words were: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
The sense of tragedy delivered in the last two words steals the breath, as it did then. Hemingway succeeded in summoning emotion—the objective of all fiction—from seasoned professionals. In six words.
But wait. If you give those six words time to rummage through your brain, you’ll see there are a number of ways to read the story’s ending. Unused shoes? Miscarriage, infant death, abduction, wrongly presumed gender, parental sense of fashion, a sudden move to Tahiti? Hemingway’s six word story is open for interpretation.
Ambiguous endings hint at what characters have concluded or will do next, leaving interpretation to the reader. We never discover, for example, if Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a tragic hero or a human devil. Nor do we learn which of the alternative endings of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the “true” one.
As the novel aims to represent the whole of life, rather than a slice, ambiguity captures the complexities of reality in a way definitives can compromise. In the lineup of possible responses to a hero’s dramatic question, maybe, in some cases, is the honest conclusion.
John le Carre is the master of ambiguous endings, as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Constant Gardener. Robert Ludlum’s The Scarlatti Inheritance makes readers nervous and uncomfortable, but with a sense of hope for the future.
Walter Kirn’s “Hoaxer” is a coming-of-age story in which a boy’s relationship with his father reaches a climax. On an outing with him, the boy commits an act that could be interpreted as rejection or a claim on intimacy. Either interpretation is both moving and disturbing in light of the story’s characterizations.
Crowning unforgettable endings of all time is—“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy…” from Hemingway’s “A moveable Feast”. He explained how he arrived at it, saying that “I had omitted the real ending of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
Ambiguity, he proved, can be powerful. Considering that words merely serve to innervate the imagination, it’s no wonder.
“That’s all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”
“See Naples and die is a fine idea: You will live to hate its guts if you live there. Perhaps there is no luck in a Peninsula.”
“After people die you have to bury them but you do not have to write about it. You do not have to write about an undertaker. Nor the business of burial in a foreign country. Nor do you have to write about that day and the next night nor the day after nor the night after nor all the days after and all the nights after while numbness turns to snow and snow blunts with use. In writing you have a certain choice that you do not have in life.”
Can you place these alternate endings with their writer? The answer—all belonged to Papa. The novel, A Farewell to Arms.
In a 1958 interview in The Paris Review, Hemingway owned up to writing 39 different endings for his first best-selling novel. Writers since have clung to that buoy of hope when drowning in ending woes—If Papa wrestled to that extent, surely wrestling is inherent to the task. And it is.
Wrestling is inherent to writing a novel’s ending, whichever ending type you choose. It’s especially incumbent if the end note focuses on the hero’s emotion, rather than the concluding events that cause the emotion. In tragic endings, when the emotion is life-altering despair, the challenge becomes showing the humanity without toppling the balance, which could come up short or pass as hokey.
Here’s what Hemingway went with—
“Good-night,” he said.
“I cannot take you to your hotel?”
“No, thank you.”
“It was the only thing to do,” he said. “The operation proved—
“I do not want to talk about it,” I said.
“I would like to take you to your hotel.”
“No, thank you.”
He went down the hall. I went to the door of the room.
“You can’t come in now,” one of the nurses said.
“Yes I can,” I said.
“You can’t come in yet.”
“You get out,” I said. “The other one too.”
But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
With trademark scarcity, he nails the desperate, angry, disbelieving grief (and without using one of those chintzy dime-store words).
In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Pecola, who would prefer to disappear, begins to fixate on Shirley Temple’s whiteness and her blue eyes as a way to free herself from her circumstances. Pecola believes that having blue eyes will make her happy and beautiful and cause her parents stop fighting. The novel ends with the hero, unable to bear the cruelty she’s suffered, confined to a fantasy world where she has blue eyes and an imaginary friend who tells her how pretty they are.
The last pages of Morrison’s novel are uncomfortable to say the least—
The soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. At least on the edge of my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers of my town, it’s much, much, much too late.
Many schools and libraries banned The Bluest Eye, but it succeeded to launch a career that would lead to the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis fails to rouse the courage to abandon his false self. Rose fromTitanic, on the other hand, experiences loss but discovers the freedom to live without masks. Both stories are tragedies, but Titanic follows the prevalent structure where, even minutes from dying (as seen in Hamlet), the hero learns a life-changing lesson. Rose’s story could be viewed as, “even when the hero looses, she wins”.
Maybe the tragic hero wins large, as seen in Greed. The climax plays out in the Mojave Desert with temperatures over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The hero and villain grapple in the dust until the villain grabs a rock and smashes in the hero’s skull. But as the hero lays dying, he manages to reach up and handcuff himself to his killer. In the final image the villain collapses, sentenced to death by the man he murdered.
True-to-Life endings gives readers a glimpse of the characters’ futures in subtle strokes that feel true to life.
Jhumpa Lahiri uses the true-to-life ending in her story “A Temporary Matter.” After the still birth of their first child, Shoba and Shukumar have drifted apart. When a power outage persists for several evenings, they eventually reveal hurtful things they’ve been harboring. The story ends with Shoba announcing that she plans to leave Shukumar, who responds by disclosing the ultimate secret.
“A Temporary Matter” thus ends—
Shukumar stood up and stacked his plate on top of hers. He carried the plates to the sink, but instead of running the tap he looked out the window. Outside the evening was still warm, and the Bradfords were still walking arm in arm. As he watched the couple the room went dark and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off. She came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They wept together, for things they now knew.
With seemingly mundane details that neither undo nor impact the story’s events, Lahiri shows real life—the empty, automated acts that possess us when our hearts break apart.
Self-referring endings are characterized by elements stressing the burden of the narrator. The close becomes a place of retrospective query on the deepest meaning of the text. From this point of view, the ending can center on ingredient lacking at the beginning, a realization of the search that ensued in the course of the story, or a restitution that corrects a contradiction stated early on.
Long View Endings
These endings tell what happens to the characters in the future. J.K. Rowling gives us an example in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which reveals events beyond the story’s timeframe, such as who married whom, who had kids, etc.
An epilogue is removed from the story in time or space. Labeled as such, it tells us that the story is over and we now flash forward to see how the story’s effects have impacted the characters. Since the epilogue usually follows a denouement, it could be said that the novel has two endings.
Which will it be?
Memorable. Uplifting. Heartbreaking. Dramatic… or crap?
Here’s the thing. The writer must work toward a conclusion unforeseen by readers, yet having been reached, strikes the chord of inevitability. In this, beyond the power of the story, the final experience contains elements of knowing and unknowing—of mystery’s delight and comprehension’s affirmation. Readers are satisfied.
The ending is your novel’s last and weightiest appeal. Good endings lift mediocre books from mediocrity, and bad endings sink good books below recollection of what had been engaging. And while endings present you with an opportunity to persuade readers to buy your next book, don’t stress.
Stress mires creativity in something akin to wet cement. Remember—writing isn’t a race. There’s no need to panic. Writing is a product of time, which is what makes it superior to verbal expression. So relax. If you find yourself stuck, stop thinking. Take time to live the story, and the ending will write itself.