In this first post in a series about writing and editing, I’d like to discuss The End. A lot of authors find it difficult to wrap things up in a way that is satisfying to you, the reader, while staying true to the story and its characters. Tips on how to close a story abound, such as here and here. These are good suggestions, but I’ve learned they only address the symptoms.
The symptoms often appear as technique issues. Maybe the metaphors become less sharp. Or deus ex machina rears its ugly head. Or there are small errors in the progression of time within the story. Or the little gems of character insight disappear and we’re left with plot points—A to B to C to let’s-just-get to Z.
I recently read a novel that didn’t deliver at the end. For most of its 500 pages, The Steady Running of the Hour is a journey narrative in which the young main character, Tristan, searches for a link to his great grandmother in order to claim a sizable inheritance. The characters, setting, and action were enough to make me keep turning the pages, but as Tristan’s deadline approaches, near the end of the novel, things fall apart. He makes decisions that seem out of character. We haven’t witnessed his metamorphosis to the point where these decisions would be understandable.
Tristan’s search leads him to a small cabin in Iceland. He moves toward a tiny room which may hold the key to everything—knowledge, wealth, heritage. He (in first person, mind you) slowly approaches the door, reaches for the doorknob, and… that’s all I can tell you, not because of spoilers, because the author decided not to share what was in the room. Jump scene to another city. I imagine the author would argue that, in the end, it was irrelevant to Tristan what was behind that door. Well, it mattered to me, the reader.
Not all endings can be Casablanca –perfect, but we have to try.
I think what plagued The Steady Running of the Hour is the same thing that plagues most unsatisfying endings—the desire to finish. In other words, the author wants to be finished with this @*$)! book already. Imagine: You’ve worked on it for months, maybe years, and you’re tired. (So very tired.) You want to move on. Other ideas and projects are beckoning. As an editor, I can usually spot the moment in a manuscript when that feeling has gripped the writer. (It’s much easier to tell in someone else’s manuscript than my own, of course). And it usually begins about three-quarters of the way to the last page.
What’s a writer to do? Two experienced authors have the same advice:
It means being as fascinated with the sentence I’m writing as I am with the concept of being finished.
~ Martha Beck
There is a conspiring by the universe to help us find just the right words, just the right plot movement, but only if we remain calm. If we continue to be present with the story.
Remaining calm is key. Remaining calm in the face of a contest submission date. Remaining calm in the face of a self-imposed deadline (I’ll finish this book before my 40th birthday if it’s the last thing I do!) Remaining calm in the face of an agent’s R&R request. Easy to say, I know, but I think if we remain calm the endings will be as strong as the beginnings.
What book or movie endings have you loved? Hated? Loved to hate?
Have a great weekend!