So let the beating begin.
Endings are great things.
I like it when an author packs everything into a box on the last page, but doesn’t lock the lid.
A denouement must be satisfying, tie up loose ends and be plausible, yet at the same time must leave the reader with a sense of wonder. It might be a killer punch the likes of which might finish a fight, a seed to get you thinking or a key with which the whole piece can be understood.
Longer fiction has to end every chapter in the perfect way – part resolution, part impetus and that must be tough, but the writer of a novel can afford to use the whole final section to draw things to a close and that must let them off the hook a little.
Endings are especially important in short fiction as they occupy more of the whole. When I leave a short story I want to feel shaken or stirred in some way or other, to have some kind of emotional kick at the finale.
Here’s an example of a very short story taken from the wonderful ZEN FLESH ZEN BONES:
‘A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!’
That final sentence really hits. It’s what the story was made for. Without it, the rest is stripped of power.
It got me thinking of Haiku.
I’m choosing one from Basho and relying on this as a good interpretation.
Morning and evening
Someone waits at Matsushima!
Again, here’s a conclusion that tells a bigger story. This one leaves me with that tinge of sadness at the image.
To write a great Haiku, the ending will link the first two lines and explain why they were there in the first place.
Here’s another example from a poem:
Wilfred Own comes up with a cracker in his work about the horrors of war ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. In it he manages to encapsulate much of what he is about:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,---
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(which I think translates as ‘It is sweet and noble to die for one’s country’)
It forces one more turn of the vice and explains why he was making the effort in the first place.
The only novel I’m going to refer to is one of my favourite stories ever, The Count Of Monte Cristo.
After such an epic, finding the right tone to rest on must have been a nightmare. There’s been a little of everything and yet it needs to come to a close.
Keeping it at it’s briefest (in case you’re in the middle of it right now):
“all human wisdom is summed up in two words? - Wait and hope.”
It rounds off the immediate situation, but also allows for further rumination, like a digestif at the end of a good meal; after such a good book I want to have it live with me once I close the cover for the final time and that’s what Dumas managed for me there.
Moving on to epitaphs. Bette Davis has a lovely comment on her gravestone – ‘She did it the hard way.’ I’m hoping you’ll leave your favourites in the comments, or maybe the words you’d write for yourself.
I was going to use ‘On the whole I’d rather be in Philadelphia’ until I Googled it; it’s a great line whether it’s on a tombstone or not.
And what about great last words?
We remember them, I guess, because the good ones are the summary of a life.
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) "I have just had eighteen whiskies in a row. I do believe that is a record."
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do!"
Makes me wonder if these folk had worked on their final words. Do you think they said them and then refused to speak until death actually came?
I’d be happy if my last words could be ‘Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz’ or if I could go out singing at the top of my voice – Teenage Kicks, perhaps.
And there’s my writing.
I don’t sweat too much when I’m opening a piece. In fact, because I can’t start until I have a story’s voice and first sentence, there’s not a good deal I can do. Sure, I can rework it later, but it’s not a huge burden.
The ending, on the other hand, can often cause me real problems.
My favourite to date is the close of Beat On The Brat. It was a line that appeared in mid flow and as soon as it was in my head I knew it was the ending to aim for – all I needed were a few sentences to build to it and there it was. You can still see that one for free either at http://drowningmachine.blogspot.com/2010/06/wgi-1st-place-beat-on-brat-by-nigel.html, or in the Needle Summer Collection from last year.
Which is where I’m bringing the curtain down.
It would be nice to finish with a punch-line, which is what got me thinking all this in the first place.
“What did the snowman say to the other snowman?”
If I were to stop there, no doubt you’d leave feeling dissatisfied.
Here, to make sure that’s not the case, are my final words.
“Do you smell carrots?"