Saturday, 19 November 2011

END GAME - Dianne Hofmeyr

So what is so hard about endings?
I’ve just written the last word on my first draft of a Work in Progress and have employed all the brain strain I can muster to get it right. There's no easy answer. The ending is what the reader walks away with – the resonance of the entire story. Wrap up the novel well – deepen the reading experience – and you’ll knock your readers out! But how?
Opening lines grab attention but it’s that final sentence that leaves the reader with a lasting impression. I flipped through a few last sentences of recent novels and found brilliant ending sentences harder to find than brilliant opening sentences. Maybe this sums it up. Most authors struggle.
What is it about endings? At its simplest there are only three options.
  • Positive ending. Protagonist gets what he wants.
  • Negative ending. Protagonist doesn’t get what he wants.
  • Ambiguous ending. We don’t know if the protagonist will get what he wants.
Slight twists can turn each option into something more complex. In the positive ending the protagonist may get what he wants, but with a negative result i.o.w. at moral cost. In the negative ending he might have to give up what he wants, but gains by doing what’s right. This is often used in a ‘battle’ ending. At the end of my Egyptian novel Eye of the Moon, my hero had to give up what he’d hoped for throughout the novel… to regain the crown of Egypt… because the battle was at too great a cost. Too many lives were being lost. Not to give the protagonist his goal, is a risk for an author because readers want success but sacrifice can also be very powerful.
The ambiguous ending is sometimes the only choice. But don’t think of it as being weak. Sometimes it just ‘feels’ right and its power lies in it being able to generate discussion. What now? A good example of a powerful ambiguous ending is The Road. I won’t do the spoiler thing here.
What worked for me this time around (I’m a non plotter) – somewhere in the middle of writing the first draft I brainstormed all possible endings, however feasible or silly. Then with a list in hand I reduced them to the three strongest possibilities. And finally I found the one that felt right.
Once I had the right option there was still the business of needing to write it well. What makes an ending resonate? In my struggles, I came up with this:
  • feels right for this type of story
  • is not predictable and still has an element of surprise (hard one that)
  • maintains tension until the last
  • has some flourish
  • calls not just for physical courage but moral courage as well
  • has emotional appeal
  • ties up most but not necessarily all loose ends in as little space as possible (the reader wants to reach the end)
  • has a last sentence/ paragraph that leaves you feeling wow! like that moment of silence at the end of listening to a great piece of music.
For the first time ever on writing a first draft ending, I felt I wasn’t floundering like a drowning person. As to that final sentence… I think it can be dialogue or description. I’m not sure I’ve found mine yet. But make it ‘zing’ and if you’ve come across any great last sentences/paragraphs please share them.


Gorilla Bananas said...

Here's the last sentence of
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant by Yu Hua

"That's why people say pubic hair doesn't come out till after you eyebrows do, but gets even longer in the end."

Gorilla Bananas said...

I like endings with a hirsute theme.

catdownunder said...

The ultimate ending has to be "Only connect." I wish I had written that.

madwippitt said...

Don't forget the cliffhanger ending!
However good they may be, those are REALLY annoying when you weren't expecting them, and assumed it was a standalone book ...

Carole Anne Carr said...

With my children's books I sometimes copy Walter de la Mare and use the beginning paragraph as the ending. It's also easy, finding an ending, as I write sequels. :0)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

yes... forgot cliff-hangers! And before I unpack every book on my bookshelves, where is 'Only connect' from Cat? Is it Howards End? Or am I way off the mark? And beginning as endings... that's one to test out.

adele said...

Fascinating, Dianne! MY favourite last line and I'm too lazy to go downstairs, climb on a chair and get The Great Gatsby off the top shelf but it's the one about us being carried like boats beating against the stream etc. One to google if you don't know it and if you do, you'll know what I mean. Apologies for laziness.

Abi Burlingham said...

You're so right about endings being so important and hard to get right. As a reader, they quite often influence whether I'll read another book by the author. As a writer, I know myself when the ending is inadequate - but how to get it right is another matter. The master of endings, for me is Markus Zuzak. The ending for 'The Messenger' (SPOILER ALERT) is: "I am not the messenger at all. I am the message." It is stunning and, having read the rest of the book, makes you gasp with realisation.

catdownunder said...

Yes, Howard's End.

Liz Kessler said...

Di, this is a great post, and so true. I very often feel let down by the end of a book. So many seem inadequate to me, and I've often wondered how so many authors seem to write great books with weak endings.

Interestingly, we watched 'Limitless' (hi-concept thriller) on DVD yesterday, and in the extras, there was an 'alternate ending' which we watched - and I actually preferred to the original one. But the idea of having an alternate ending in itself was interesting. I wonder if our editors would ever let us get away with that with a book if we can't decide between two endings!

Good luck finding your perfect ending! xx

Sue Purkiss said...

Very thought provoking. John Irving is very good at providing astonishing endings that make you feel like clapping because he wraps everything up with such style and in a totally unexpected way. He did that in A Prayer For Owen Meany - I can't remember the details, but I know I was lost in admiration. Terry Pratchett sometimes does it too - I just re-read Lords and Ladies, and that was a kind of hang-onto-the-reins-and-try-to-keep-up kind of ending, too.In fact I think TP is the reverse of the usual - he's better at endings than beginnings. Thanks, Di, and congratulations on finishing the first draft!

madwippitt said...

I'd forgotten about Owen Meany! I got to the end and lay on the sofa gasping at it ...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Oh yes... Owen Meany! Gosh how I loved John Irving. What an interesting idea, Liz. Like one of those write your own adventure stories. And Adele here it is... 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.' –F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
I found this site with the 100 best last lines a moment ago and your one was 3rd on the list!!! Its a fascinating list. Worth looking at.
(you'll have to copy and paste as it doesn't want to underline)

Gray Woodland said...

A slight variant on your ambiguous and complex endings, to which I'm partial: the ambivalent ending, in which the reader is left with powerfully conflicting feelings about whatever the protagonist got. Tolkien's Frodo succeeds beyond hope when he destroys the Ring and saves the Shire; but he loses the Shire for himself; but but he gets to go Bilbo to the Blessed Lands for healing.... Le Guin's Ged succeeds beyond hope when he stops the Dry Spring and restores the Kingship; but he loses the art he's built his life around; but but he gets to have done with doing, and see Tenar again, and walk in the pine-woods of Gont Mountain...

For me, suchlike ends to a tale are the most haunting and unforgettable of all. They don't close off everything, but end still alive, still moving, still mattering beyond the last white of the page. For that, I love them the best.