Is it just me, or do we spend an inordinate amount of time in workshops worrying about crafting the perfect opening? Of course openings are important–a reader or editor wants to be drawn into the story immediately. But, to leave a lasting impression, we should work just as hard at crafting the perfect ending. By “perfect ending” I don’t necessarily mean one in which everything is neatly resolved, every problem is solved, every wrong forgiven. On the contrary; wrapping up everything too neatly can result in the dreaded “pat” resolution.
What, then, is a perfect ending? To me, it’s one that leaves the reader closing the book with a deep sense of satisfaction, a sense of “rightness” about the outcome of the story. One that seems both believable and logical given what the author has told them about the story and the characters. A perfect ending gives the reader another way to think about what has transpired, a way to put the story into perspective.
As you are crafting your ending, decide upon a final image, or final thought you wish the reader to carry with them as they close your book. John LeCarre, the master of the spy thrillers, says to close with a spectacular image. In his book, The Tailor of Panama, it’s a huge fire. In Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, it’s the scene that slowly expands to emphasize the isolation of the main characters in a deserted wood. My own preference is for some striking visual image, as opposed to philosophical musings. But much depends upon the overall tone and mood of the story.
I love reading and writing circular endings, in which the beginning and the ending tie together, and/or mirror each other. In the opening shot of the classic western movie, Shane, the gunfighter rides toward the camera, toward a settler’s cabin. He stays to help the pioneer family, including a boy who comes to look up to him, only to be drawn again into a world of violence he’d hoped to leave behind. Shane is wounded, but because he doesn’t want the boy to follow in his footsteps, he hides his wound. In the final scene, he rides away from the camera and the cabin, a perfect mirror of the opening shot, while the young boy calls after him, “Shane! Come back!” Memorable.
I tried to adopt this technique in Beyond All Measure. In the opening scene, my heroine, Ada, afraid and alone, arrives at the train station where she is surprised by Wyatt Caldwell, a substitute for the person Ada was expecting. In the final scene, she hurries back to the station hoping to intercept Wyatt before he leaves her life forever.
Another type of ending might be called a” matching ending”. In her short story, “A Country Love Story” Jean Stafford begins this way: “An antique sleigh stood in the yard, snow after snow banked up against its eroded runners. ” Then she ends it with her disillusioned protagonist climbing into the sleigh. She writes: “…like an orphan in solitary confinement, she went outdoors and got into the sleigh…idly wondering over and over again how she would live the rest of her life.”
While surprise endings, often called O Henry endings are most often used in short stories such as O Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”, they can work for certain types of novels, too.
Take as much care with your endings as with your beginnings and make your novels unforgettable.