On November 6, 2010, Marissa wrote, I have a question about endings... I decide if I like a book mostly based on how it ends and how it leaves me feeling, but I can never get that sense of closure in my stories.
Often when I approach the end of a book I’m writing, I want to have a bomb land on everybody. Problem solved.
But not satisfying.
A great story for satisfaction, in my opinion, is an anecdote in my friend Joan Abelove’s young adult novel, Go and Come Back (middle school and up). Joan was an anthropologist in the Peruvian jungle, and her book, which is told from the POV of a young tribal woman, is based on her experiences. Every incident in the book is essentially true.
In this one, Margarita, one of the two anthropologists is sick late one night. The narrator, Alicia, discovers this by hearing voices from their house. She asks what’s wrong and is told by Joanna, the healthy one, that Margarita has been vomiting for hours and nothing in their first aid kit has helped. Alicia asks Joanna if she has sent for Papaisi. Joanna snaps that she hasn’t, so Alicia gets him. He leads the sick woman out to the porch. By then everyone in the village has gathered to watch. Papaisi has his patient lie down. First he blows smoke from his pipe across her stomach. Then he seems to bite something off and immediately throws up over the side of the porch. As soon as he does, everyone in the village sighs with relief. Margarita sits up perfectly fine, cured.
Joanna gives Papaisi a pack of cigarettes to show her gratitude (this was the early 1970's when smoking was much more prevalent). He accepts but then says that what he really would like is four aspirin.
End of incident. It’s just right. We have high stakes: the sick woman, the whole village as witnesses, the bizarre treatment from a Western perspective, the recovery. We start to wonder what else smoke blown across a belly will cure. Then, boom!, the request for a gift that’s almost a symbol of modern medicine.
That’s the ending with a twist. O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is a well-known twist story.
Another pleasing shape comes in the circular story. I wrote about this kind in my blog post of July 9th, 2009. A circular tale ends where it began. The Lord of the Rings, for example, starts in the calm, peaceful Shire and ends there, but Frodo will never be the same. Two of my books are circular: The Wish and Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. Of course, a circular ending may not be any easier to achieve than a more linear one. We still have to figure out how to return to that point of origin.
Often the key to the ending lies in the story problem. In The Lord of the Rings again, the issue is danger to Middle Earth. By returning to the Shire, Tolkien demonstrates that order has been restored.
In Ella Enchanted, which isn’t circular, the problem is the curse of obedience, and the ending has to resolve it. Either Ella will be cursed for the rest of her life or she’ll escape for the rest of her life. In my Dave at Night, as another example, the problem is finding a home. Dave lives at an orphanage, which doesn’t feel like one. By the end he has to be where he believes he should be - or know that he will be rootless at least until he grows up.
Figuring out your ending may take some thinking about the problem at the heart of your story. We can get too involved in the showing and the telling to ponder what it’s all about. I had that difficulty with Dave at Night and figured it out at a book signing for Ella Enchanted. Nobody came, and I sat there at a little desk in the book store and thought about Dave. By the time I gave up hoping for customers, I had my ending worked out.
Once you know the problem, reaching the solution may still be hard. In the case of Ella, I couldn’t work out how she could break the curse. At first I thought she could do it through rebellion against the tyranny of Hattie, but that wasn’t strong enough. You’d think it would have been clear right away that her love for Char was the crux of it, but I took a long time to get there.
Delaying the solution can keep a story going through a series of books. If Tolkien had gotten the ring to Mordor in The Fellowship of the Ring, that would have been it.
Sometimes I know my ending from the beginning, and I write toward it, but provisionally, knowing that my conception may change. Or, more often, I foresee the ending in a general way, but no specifics. In The Wish, for example, I knew that Wilma’s wish had to end, and the reader understands this too by the middle of the book, but I wasn’t sure what shape Wilma would be in after it ended. This isn’t bad, just having a general notion. Security and insecurity mixed together are good for writing, I think.
When I follow a traditional fairy tale, I have the fairy tale ending glimmering ahead of me. What I have to figure out is how to get there. Marissa, and others who have trouble with endings, you might try expanding a common story, which doesn’t have to be a fairy tale. Could be a myth, a religious story, a family anecdote that has a satisfying shape and a settled ending. Consider this a prompt.
In Go and Come Back, Joan uses the simplest of devices to end the book. The anthropologists are in the village for a year, and the entire story revolves around their time there. When the year ends so does the book. There is no bang, but no whimper either. Much has happened, and Alicia, the narrator, has changed. What makes the reader really happy, though, is that she’s left a deep impression on the visitors. They’ll never be the same.
Any time period will work for this technique - last year of high school, a summer, an internship, whatever. Naturally, you need to create action during the time you’ve allotted yourself, and characters have to evolve, but you don’t have to invent a climax of high drama for the reader to feel closure.
I’ve used an epilogue in several books to tie things up and make the whole feel complete. As a child I liked epilogues, because I wanted to know what became of this character and that. If I loved the book, an epilogue never told enough. I wanted to follow the characters into the sunset and watch their happy futures unfold - which would have been boring.
But prompts aren’t boring. Here’s one. You may know the story, “The Lady and the Tiger.” If you don’t, it’s basically this: A princess, whose nature is jealous, falls in love with a man below her station. The king finds out and arranges a punishment for him. The man is thrown into an arena with two doors. Behind one is a beautiful maiden and behind the other a tiger. If he picks the maiden door, he lives, but he has to marry her. If he chooses the tiger door, he gets eaten. In the arena he looks to the princess, who knows what’s behind each door, for a signal. She has to decide whether to endure his marriage to someone else or condemn him to death. The story has no ending; the reader is asked to decide what the princess will do. So the prompt is to write the ending.
Have fun, and save what you write!