I wrote the end of my story in a bit of a rush, delighted to have got the job done. One of my readers, who hasn’t yet got to that part, recently commented that the penultimate segment is a bit “traumatic“, and he queried: “does the story just drift to a heartbreaking close or is there a great reveal?“
Neither – I had thought, although I had hoped for some … hope. But my reader’s remark has caused me to reconsider what I’ve written and think about what makes a story end well.
I’ve been looking at endings in all sorts of places: books and podcasts; speeches and films. Even in recipes and lists.
Experts suggest a cliffhanger, or a play with ambiguity, or to dare to try a twist of some sort. However, the ending should be believable and not too drawn out. An epilogue can tidy things up – but not if it’s done in an obvious way. Above all, don’t rush and do avoid clichés.
The options seem to be endless. A twist could be good, but I like ambiguity. And yet, as I wander around the local park on an icy-cold day, plugged into a podcast and crunching leaves, I hear writer Jane Gardman tell Mariella Frostrup that she loves lawyers (her favourite is ‘Old Filth‘) and she hates stories that “drift off into nothing” because they are “too easy.”
I walk on, crunch more leaves and circle the park again. I feel like I’m getting nowhere.
In the same podcast, two very different translations of War and Peace, both published in 2007, are discussed. One has provoked critism for its relative brevity as well as for concluding with a ‘Happy Ending‘. Tolstoy’s own last lines have not met with universal approval either, but people are still talking about (if not reading) the 587,287 word-long book.
None of which is helpful in providing a solution for my story. And what about that crucial element – the very last line?
Google churns up a fantastic selection, and I re-read the last words of Milan Kundera’s Jerusalem Address. I also flick through books I’ve not yet read, skipping straight to the end whilst spoiler alerting myself.
As I do all this I realise that I might, without being aware, conflate all these significant thoughts and memorable last lines into a single, very long, multi-plagiarised last line which means absolutely nothing.
I slump at my desk, overwhelmed by the question of how to execute a great ending, and I stare at the blank screen of my phone. There’s a familiar ping, the screen lights up, and I grab this welcome distraction. And there in a message are two simple phrases which speak of acceptance and hope. Together they form the perfect last line.
It seems too good to be true, and I wonder if this magpied line really can become mine.
I turn to the last page of a book right in front of me: How to Write like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen. His final words are borrowed from an old schoolteacher, a Benedictine monk, whose advice to his essay-writing students was:
“When you have said what you want to say, Stop.”