How to End a Novel: Famous Last LinesJul 14, 2019
Story endings are exciting, rewarding and – let’s be honest – sometimes scary. You have to tie together all the loose ends together to somehow form a satisfying ending, whether it be an ambiguous ending, a sad ending or a joyous one (much of which will depend on your genre – romance readers, for example, often expect a rather perfect ending in which the couple finally gets together. In literary fiction, an unresolved ending might be more accepted).
Whatever genre you’re writing in, though, you need to finish your story arc satisfactorily and give all the characters some sort of resolved ending. The final chapter needs to provide some kind of resolution and closure in the reader’s mind.
It’s hard to know for sure when to end a story. You’re battle-weary. You can’t see the wood for the trees. It’s the forty-fifth draft...
So we’re here to help. Whether you’re going for a surprise ending, a cliffhanger ending or a straightforwardly resolved ending, these tips should help give your main story the finale it deserves and ensure you write a satisfying ending for all of your key plot points.
How neat is a good ending?
You come to what you think is the final page, and put down your proverbial pen to survey your work. The story makes sense.
But your worry may now be that the story makes too much sense at the expense of mystery. So you’ll want to go back to a few key moments to make them accurate and translucent – shimmering – to leave room for the reader.
Learning the art of a great ending from Raymond Carver
I like to perform these last checks while reading Raymond Carver on loop during the last week or so before I hit send.
He was the master when it came to making space for the reader.
I forget who passed along a copy of Babel’s Collected Stories to me, but I do remember coming across a line from one of his greatest stories. I copied it into the little notebook I carried around with me everywhere in those days. The narrator, speaking about Maupassant and the writing of fiction, says: “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” When I first read this it came to me with the force of revelation. This is what I wanted to do with my own stories: line up the right words, the precise images, as well as the exact and correct punctuation so that the reader got pulled in and involved in the story and wouldn’t be able to turn away his eyes from the text unless the house caught fire.
—Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From
It’s the key to the mystery of a story, that space. It’s what makes it a living space. There’s a haunted quality to the endings of Carver’s short stories. A triple presence. Writer (or narrator), reader and the sense of being watched by another external presence of such power that sometimes Carver’s unfanciful characters fall to their knees.
Carver writes to arrive at this mountain-top, a place of greater sight.
In ‘A Student’s Wife’, the girl rises early:
...she had seen few sunrises in her life and those when she was little. She knew that none of them had been like this. Not in pictures she had seen nor in any book she had read had she learned a sunrise was so terrible as this. (...)
She wet her lips with a sticking sound and got down on her knees. She put her hands out on the bed.
“God,” she said. “God, will you help us, God?” she said.
—Raymond Carver, ‘A Student’s Wife’
A good story needs great characters
I check through my work to ensure we get up close and personal, inside the main character or characters like this.
It seems to me there are two ways to push them so hard we know them intimately. One is through their own (horrified) realisation of who they are and what they are. (The rocks you throw at them in plot are there for this purpose.) The other is grace. Insight comes to them as a mystery.
When I think about Carver, I tend to think of the imprecations and exhortations people make of each other in their couples in his stories, pithily expressed in even the title of the short story ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ (Note the double please.)
When I read Carver, I notice how often the characters are in the dark, literally, with their thoughts and how often they turn to face the wall. This may reflect the many unhappy years Carver spent drinking heavily, not nearly as productive as when he quit. They’re trying hard to see something they can’t see.
Just as he started to turn off the lamp, he thought he saw something in the hall. He kept staring and thought he saw it again, a pair of small eyes. His heart turned. He blinked and kept staring. He leaned over to look for something to throw. He picked up one of his shoes. He sat up straight and held the shoe with both hands. He heard her snoring and set his teeth. He waited. He waited for it to move once more, to make the slightest noise.
—Raymond Carver, ‘What’s in Alaska?’
It’s the movement, the turning from the difficulty in the world, workplace, home life, to the wall and the dark for help, this tossing and turning one might say that characterises the complexity of existence as individuals.
We try to get help, we don’t know where to get help, we feel powerless.
It seems important to me that the most apparently powerful characters seem the most lost, off stage yet in the reader’s sight.
A good ending for your main character
The ending is a place of insight that affords our hero or heroine a sense of peace, a temporary stay against confusion one might call it.
That’s how I think of it, for my books. I don’t ask for more than that for them, as I don’t ask for more than that for myself. I’ll have asked lots of questions in my story about how to live, and what to live for, but finally, just a little space is cleared for the reader to consider their own answer.
For me, that’s how you want to leave it, like the room was prepared for them all along, and the covers are turned back, and they can rest now.
Probably their greatest initial problem or truest concern finds a moment’s reprieve, but I try not to dare to suggest there is more than that. My stories are, perhaps sadly, for adults not children and maybe this is what defines them. The temporary peace and space.
I write my novels with people all around me, wanting this, wanting that, talking at me. It’s called being a single working mother. I am surprised I don’t have a hunched back from flinching away to try to get something down straight, in seconds sometimes.
So the gift I give my main character is very valuable to me. Sure we dream of hours, days, time to work. But in reality, we make do with the dark, the wall, the tossing and turning, the snatching of a few moments’ peace to see.
Each of us has a private world, and the only difference between the reader and the writer is that the writer has the ability to describe and dramatize that private world. As a writer, I write to see. If I knew how it would end, I wouldn’t write. It’s a process of discovery.
How a great story ends can leave a lasting impression
Is it good? This story of mine? I don’t know. I don’t even know what that means, but if it means how many and who will think it’s good, I don’t know that I care.
Of course, I have cared, en route, very much, but not now. For this is mine, my way of seeing things. I have chosen to show these things. The moment when you have to put it down, you say to yourself that it’s whole, and it says what you wanted to say in this season, but the season is ending.
If I meant for this phantom twin of mine – the heroine – to find tenderness or conviction did they find it? And are the others on the battlefield left as they should have been, either at the campfire or limping away? Did we fight the good fight?
Was there a moment of sense caused by sorrow? Did we pity the nasty piece of work? Did we embrace the dark to find the light?
Have I been honest where I needed to be and clean where I was able? Not completely clean – a story is a contrivance – but clean enough? If ever one of my children picks it up, will they know from it that I loved them? And that I was happy doing what I loved, and I didn’t want more than what I needed... And will that encourage them to find their way through too?
Finally, does it offer hope, does it say: we are more alike than we know?
How to know when you’ve reached the end of a story
Am I done? The ideas that come to you during your day, on the dog walk, in the shower, at the fridge door start to thin out, and you’re even starting to rule some out. When I say no, I don’t think I’ll use that, I know the tide has turned on the writing. When another voice or another idea starts coming to me, I think, yes the season of this novel has passed and a new one is beginning.
Then one morning, I wake with some crazy, bold, broad idea in my head, a whole new world, and I know it’s time to say goodbye to the old novel, and hello gorgeous!
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On ending novels
E.M. Forster said:
Ends always give me trouble. Characters run away with you and so won’t fit in to what is coming.
In Aspects of the Novel, he wrote that nearly every novel’s ending is a letdown:
This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work.
Graham Greene found beginning more unnerving than ending a story: “After living with a book for a year or two, he” – the author, and ideally the reader too – “has come to terms with his unconsciousness – the end will be imposed.”
That surely is right. The end is imposed. It is no longer a matter of choice.
Writing an ending isn’t just tying up plot threads
As you start writing the end of your story, and you’re fretting about happy endings or whether you’re en route to a bad ending, think about what you want to make your reader feel. The same way as they felt when they began your first chapter? Probably not. The last impressions in your reader’s mind will be powerful, so it’s worth thinking about these final moments carefully – not just in how you tie up loose ends for your main characters, or whether you deliver an unexpected ending for your main plot, or whether your ending needs more detail. Rather, it’s worth considering the very words you choose as you end a story.
To give you some inspiration on how to end a story, let’s look at how some of the great novels have concluded. Even if you haven’t read it, seeing how the book ends will generally give you a nice example of the tone of the whole book and the journey which is reaching its conclusion. Ideally, they’ll leave you feeling something.
Famous last sentences
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
After all, tomorrow is another day.
—Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
—Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
The eyes and faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
—George Orwell, Animal Farm
He loved Big Brother.
—George Orwell, 1984
The old man was dreaming about the lions.
—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever
—Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
But that is the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.
—Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Are there any questions?
—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Curley and Carlson looked after them. And Carlson said, ‘Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?’
—John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.
—Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.
—Joseph Heller, Catch-22
It begins like this: Barrabás came to us by sea…
—Isabel Allende, The House Of The Spirits
He now has more patients than the devil himself could handle; the authorities treat him with deference and public opinion supports him. He has just been awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
—Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.
—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.
—William Golding, Lord of the Flies
She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
This stone is entirely blank. The only thought in cutting it was of the essentials of the grave, and there was no other care than to make this stone long enough and narrow enough to cover a man. No name can be read there.
—Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.
—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the utmost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there.’
—E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. ‘I thought you would save him for another week,’ says Bev Shaw. ‘Are you giving him up?’
‘Yes. I am giving him up.’
—J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace