I love, love the moment when, after months of typing out the first draft of a story, I am able to type out the words: The End. It’s like you’ve come to the finale of a long journey. And then you realize the journey is far from being over. It’s now time to revise.
For the sake of motivating myself to be diligent with the revising, I’m letting Cristina and my long-time editor Val read each chapter that I revise. (This forces me to try and get a chapter done every week). But as I revise for them, the dread in me grows heavier and heavier—because I know that with each chapter I send them, I’ll be nearing “the end” of my novel. And the end was written in such a rush that it’s no ending at all! Unlike The Runaway Courtesan, which I started to write with the grand finale in mind, I began writing Be Still, My Heart with no idea as to how to end it. I still do not know. The ending I have now, I’m not pleased with.
And I need the perfect ending to feel good about a manuscript. I’m a strong advocate of the notion that the ending of a book breaks or makes a story. The book can have a fabulous, mind-blowing, beautiful first half, but if the latter half spirals down to a bad ending, the whole book is ruined for me. Or if the book has a not-too-great beginning, but in the latter half, builds up to a brilliant ending—I am left with that final impression.
It’s like going to a restaurant. You’re welcomed in by the hostess with such amiability that you think the place is the best restaurant in the world. And the food is pretty decent too. But then, while you’re finishing up your meal, a waitress arrives to tell you: You’ve been eating too long. Get going. Like, right now. Suddenly the food you’ve been chewing on tastes bitter and dry. You swallow it down with water, throw aside your napkin, and march right out after paying the bill. And this last impression—is the final impression. You’re determined to never return again.
It’s the same with books. The last impression is (usually) the final impression.
So, as you guys might have guessed, I am obsessed with endings. To show you an example of how obsessed I am: I noticed that LTWF blog was mentioning the Hunger Games series often. It’s a YA novel, which I’m not widely read in, but I was curious anyway. So when I was shopping in a grocery store one day and saw this book, I picked it up and read its ending. A few days later the contributor Biljana was telling me over coffee that I MUST read the Hunger Games series. I answered: “Oh, I read it already—well, the ending of it anyway.” Yes, I read the ending of the last book in the series, and Biljana went NUTS.
This is a habit. I’ll pick up random books and read the ending of it. Of course, the entire story must be read in order to rightfully judge the brilliance of the final chapter. But still, I’m curious. As a writer, I want to know what makes a good ending…GOOD or bad…without always spending my time to read every single novel I pick up.
Here are some examples of brilliant endings that left me thinking of the story long after I had shut the book:
TRACKS, by Louise Erdrich, has a bitter-sweet ending. It begins with a male protagonist retelling to his daughter Lulu the story of her mother—to explain why Lulu should not despise her mother for having sent her away to a residential school. And it ends with the male protagonist finally seeing his daughter arrive in the vehicle sent by the government. She emerges, all grown up, with the ill-treatment of her past marked upon her. She appears all prim and proper. But then…
“halfway across, you could not contain yourself and sprang forth. Lulu. We gave against your rush like creaking oaks, held on, braced ourselves together in the fierce dry wind.”
BLINDNESS, by José Saramago, has an ending that left me in a reflective mood. It made me feel at the bottom of my stomach that the ending paragraph contained some great truth about humanity.
“She looked down at the street full of refuse, at the shouting, singing people. Then she lifted her head up to the sky and saw everything white, It is my turn, she thought. Fear made her quickly lower her eyes. The city was still there.”
LOLITA, by Vladimir Nabokov, has a masterful ending. And I call it masterful when an author is successfully able to leave some readers convinced that the pedophilic relationship within LOLITA was a tragic love story to be sympathized.
“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immorality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
INSIDE, by Kenneth J. Harvey, has a heart-breaking finale. It is an ending that allows the readers to feel so much, because the author chooses to be economical with his words, not restricting the readers’ emotions within the boundaries of too many words.
Anyway, my heart shattered into tiny little pieces by the end of this book. It’s about a man unable to adjust to the life outside of prison, and so he returns “inside” the prison, his story ending with the lines:
“Three female faces turned to see. A memory of him. A good memory of him. Please.
Then he went back inside.”
What makes a good ending to you?
Listening obsessively to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the final act. The ending of this piece left me in tears.