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. Here are some of the I questions ask myself:
- 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?
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?
I try to think about the story with only the lightest touch, usually while doing something else, like taking a walk or a drive or a shower. Definitely not at my desk! 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.
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 endings. Suddenly the puzzle pieces shifted, and it all came together. The relief was enormous.
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 so that it all looks graceful and effortless. And the biggest challenge is knowing that even if I get all the moves right, 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 well, you won’t even know I’m there. Hopefully you’ll be carried off by those last lines as if they created themselves.