Authorial Intrusion: Remaining Calm

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.

~Dani Shapiro

 

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! 

 

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23 comments

  1. Hi Jackie. Yes, there is nothing more frustrating than a rushed ending, when it’s clear that the author just wants to tie up loose ends and move on. I just finished The Nightingale late last night…which is a testament in itself to the narrative power of the novel. All the loose ends were tied up in the last few pages. Now that’s satisfying!

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  2. This needed to be said. If the ending isn’t really good, then reading the novel felt like a big waste of time – worse: like a fraud has been perpetrated on the reader! I love both the quotes you chose: remaining calm is all important, because anxiousness just blocks up creativity. For me, with my first novel, the middle was difficult, because I couldn’t let it sag, and was hyper-aware of the necessity of filling it with tension. But by the time I reached the last quarter the book almost wrote itself. What that taught me was this: if we get things right in the beginning, and middle, the end will be easy. So, yes, stay calm, stay focused. Breath.
    Great post, Jackie!

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    1. It’s so interesting how that anxious feeling can crop up at any point. For some people, it happens at the beginning of a new story when facing the blank page. For you, it happened in the middle. The “doldrums,” I think they’re called. 🙂 I’m so glad you persevered.

      The ending is a particular issue for me when I’m writing a short story. It’s often fraught with self-doubt. I never know quite how to close.

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      1. I think short stories are even harder to write than novels, in many respects. They are so distilled and the arc is so steeply curved. Hard to do! But you ended your grave-robber story on the perfect note. The image of the three of them walking together down the road at night pushing the wheelbarrow still lingers.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great topic. I remember strongly hating the end of Gone Girl when I read it and then didn’t mind it as much in the movie. A few years had passed between the reading and the viewing so I can’t remember if they had changed it for the movie. There have been others books with endings that made me angry I had even read the book and now I can’t remember. Will make me crazy all day trying to come up with the titles. I will report back if something comes to mind!

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  4. The last book where I was extraordinarily irked by an unsatisfying ending was Der Schlangenbaum (the snake tree) by Uwe Tim. He is an excellent writer, usually, and knows how to spin a story and engage the reader emotionally. This one was about an engineer who leaves his family in Germany at very short notice to take on a doomed construction project in South America.

    The story is well developed, we find out about the protagonist’s personal problems bit by bit, and we’re sucked into how his new project goes from bad to worse. You suffer with the guy, because he’s a very human mixture of part arsehole, part affable guy who wants to do the right thing. The auxhiliary characters are also well conceived and believable.

    BUT then, a total let down at the end: Instead of anything being resolved, either for good or for bad, there’s a big storm and a military coup and cockroaches in the bathtub. It’s all over in one apocalyptic sweep, loose ends dangling like live wires. What a fucking cop-out! Sorry, I’m still annoyed even though I finished this book a year ago! Grumble, grumble…

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  5. Wow, this is one book I will not be reading. I would hate not knowing what was in that room, just like I hate it when a TV series is canceled before I see how the storylines/characters wind up. (Why an author would choose to do such a thing is beyond me…and I’d be inclined to write to him and find out what he thinks is in the room…even without reading the book I’ll likely look to see if he’s been interviewed about it.) I’m with Nina, GONE GIRL really disappointed me with its ending.

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    1. So frustrating! I kept turning the pages to see if one had been inexplicably torn out. Then I thought maybe there had been a misprint. No such easy explanation. I hope the author’s reason extends beyond the notion of “creating mystery.”

      The unforgivable part was that this section was written in first person, so the character has made the decision to withhold information from the reader. Not okay!

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  6. Great topic, Jackie. I dislike books that create endings where the writer hasn’t earned the unexpected surprise in the conclusion. Gone Girl, as well as The Girl on the Train were two books where the endings limped their way to the finish. On the other hand, I adored the endings in All the Light We Cannot See and Our Souls at Night.

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  7. I love the ambiguous ending in the film Before Sunrise, where the two strangers who’ve fallen in love overnight leave without getting the other’s full name or contact information. You never know if they’ll see each other again. (Although the idea of making a sequel was tossed around at the time, it wasn’t until 9 years later that Before Sunset was developed. Then 9 more years for Before Midnight.) A few of my stories end on open notes like that, because the reader has enough information to decide for themselves what these characters will end up doing. Although it’s undefined, it’s hopeful – or if the person is a glass-half-empty (or glass-half-full-of-backwash) kind of person they can take away a narrow-minded ending that suits them.

    It’s a tough call. Glad you posed the topic. I’m going to think about it more during my revisions!

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    1. Oh that is a great example! Before Sunrise leaves the viewer without knowing what will happen next for the characters. Most stories end with the main story question being answered. We have an idea of what the future will hold for the characters, but we don’t know for sure. Great point about whether the reader is a glass half-full or half-empty sort of person! The writer brings them to that point and them lets them decide.

      I recently finished rereading Pride and Prejudice (more on that in a future post). The end has Elizabeth and Darcy married and conceivably happy, but will their class differences and personality differences allow them to remain so? Will Elizabeth’s overbearing family drain Darcy’s resources? Delicious questions for the reader to ponder! 🙂

      In The Steady Running of the Hour, the first person character knows something (the biggest story question of all — what is in the room) and refuses to tell us.This is something that happens within the framework of the story. The first person narrator purposely withholds important information from us. That left me feeling betrayed by the character (and the author).

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  8. Oh I love this Jackie! I get very upset by unsatisfactory endings. Especially in long novels. I love Dani Shapiro’s advice – so simple but tremendously wise. Stay calm. Yes! That makes so much sense. I’m getting super antsy about my own novel and I can see how authors might want to rush to wrap things up. I’ll try to hold steady!

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    1. When we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we want to run toward it. Actually I have found myself trying to sprint! I can identify with those antsy feelings.
      Dani’s advice makes me take a deep breath and keep putting the next word down on the page. 🙂
      Good luck with your novel!

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