The Importance of a Book’s Finale

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.

***Warning: SPOILERS***

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.”

Dear Readers,
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.

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22 Comments

Filed under Be Still My Heart (retitled: Fall of the Sparrows), Book & Film, Writing

22 responses to “The Importance of a Book’s Finale

  1. Great post, June–you’re so right. There are books that I loved in the beginning but ended disappointed with because the ending didn’t quite fit. One big piece for me is realism–if it’s impossible to get a true happy ending (or a true tragedy) I want something in between, something bittersweet and relatable but still beautiful and satisfying (wow, I’m not demanding at all).

    One of my favorite endings is Atonement–probably the saddest of my favorite endings, but I love how it manages to be an emotional twist more than a plot twist. Love it.

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  2. James Joyce’s Ulysse’s ending! i honestly can’t remember the rest of the book… just the ending…

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  3. oh! and i want want want to read the third chapter!!!!!

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  4. A great post, June–and for me, it always comes back to Life of Pi. Ending (and the whole book) stuck with me, and still does.

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  5. Aaahhh. Swan Lake is my favourite ever.
    So jealous you got to see it!! ❤

    I agree with Rowenna. A good ending is about understanding your own story, and not over-reaching to provide a finish you really, really WANT. Seeing what the story NEEDS instead is way more important.

    I don't know that I've ever read a book that felt really, really complete at the end to me. Maaaybe the Time Traveler's Wife, I loved the very end to the story, even though the part BEFORE the end dragged a lot.

    And probably A Tale of Two Cities. Because Dickens is my pimp. And that book is my favourite book of all time.

    : P

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    • I bought A Tale of Two Cities after hearing all the good stuff about it from you. I really, really need to read it, don’t I? I had no idea it was your favourite book of all time, though!!

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  6. Sharmon Gazaway

    Man, endings. Ethan Frome was bitter and tragic but I love it. I read it every winter. I tend to like bittersweet or tragic endings. Happily ever after is so, well, forgettable.
    Which brings me to my ending, my novel’s ending. It’s happily ever after, sort of. Because of genre it must wrap up the story questions and have a satisfying ending. Now I’m totally rethinking it–the ending is what the reader will take with them and remember most when someone mentions the title–hmmm, no pressure there, huh? Thanks for posting on something I really needed–I’m on the last 1/4 of the novel edit now.

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    • I remember reading Ethan Frome…I always wondered why it wasn’t made into a BBC miniseries. I always loved that book. And the ending…oh…I think it has got to be one of the most realistic ones I encountered

      I’m glad this entry influenced you in some way. The ending is the last thing the readers will take away with them. So when you’re rereading your work and you reach the end–ask yourself what kind of impression you want to end with. I, personally, want to end my story with a bang. A bang so loud it’ll echoe in their head long after they shut the book 😀

      I write genre as well so must make it a happily ever after. However, it’s possible to do it in a bitter sweet way, I believe!

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  7. Sharmon Gazaway

    Oo, good point! Happily ever after w/ a bang–yes. That helps.

    Girl, there is a movie of Ethan Frome, though I don’t know if it’s BBC. It stars Liam Neeson (sigh–I’d watch him paint his basement)and is good. But I like the book better. The book is poetryartliterature. Can you tell I like it? How many different ways can you say “It’s cold and snowy”? E.W. finds a way to say it over and over again but always different, always fresh. Amazing.
    ‘Nuff already. If you have Netflix, you gotta check it out.

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  8. Sharmon Gazaway

    Gotta let me know if you liked!!

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    • I watched the first 20 min of the movie and could no longer watch anymore. 1)I was watching it very late at night and had an early start on the morrow 2) I found the entire movie to be a wee too depressing for me. Well, that and the I didn’t feel sympathetic towards the characters. In the book I connected. But in the movie…yah, not crazy about the actress who played…Maddy (sp?)

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  9. When I DON’T have to say, “The book was pretty good, but the ending stunk” I know the book was a winner.

    In “Edible Woman” when she eats the cake, I felt, aaaahhhh, satisfaction.

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  10. Well, it’s hard sometimes with the classics. There are some that have a great climax, which technically can be seen at the end, but then the denouement is kind of lacking. I just finish Les Miserables and it was a grand book and its really a masterpiece, but I thought the kind of wrap up in the end seemed so rushed and flimsy compared with the entire book, which was so rich and over the top with like ginourmous high stakes you know? But, either way, I was still left with the best of impressions about the book. I don’t hold it against writers if their final pages are just okay. But I do hold it against them if their climax is not that great, even if their build up is really awesome.

    So I guess you are obsessed with endings, and I am obsessed with climaxes, lol. Good luck moving forward!

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    • I actually loved the ending of Les Miserable!

      But yes, like I agreed with Amanda, I agree with you too. The story before the ending, the climax, is so important. I guess if it’s a really, really great climax…the brilliance of it lingers in your head even until after you read a bad ending and close the bbook.

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  11. Endings are SO important! Laura’s Letters currently has three different possible endings … oh dear. I’ve got to pick the right one

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