All's Well That Ends Well?
I’m on the verge of completing the first draft of my first novel. This may not sound like much of an achievement but I've been working on this novel intermittently for around four years and have always found plenty of reasons not to dig in and get to the last page. In hindsight I’ve spent far too much time tinkering with problem chapters or worrying at unwieldy sentences, when in fact I should have parked those and struggled onwards. Ah, isn’t hindsight a marvellous thing?
I’m approaching the end of this part of the writing process with mixed feelings. The relief is compounded by an inevitable sense of anti-climax, as well as a familiar mourning feeling I always have as a reader when I’m coming towards the end of a book I’ve enjoyed.
I’ve always found endings a challenge. When writing short stories I expend a huge amount of effort drafting and redrafting the opening lines, while the ending, if I’m not careful, can resemble the desperate, stumbling dash an amateur runner makes at the end of a particularly gruelling half-marathon.
I wonder if it’s because beginnings have always resonated with me much more than endings. Like many people I can dredge up numerous openings to novels, from ‘124 was spiteful’ (Toni Morrison’s Beloved) to ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ (L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between) and ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ (Iain Banks’s The Crow Road).
But it’s much harder to recall endings. Some are memorable for their overwhelming lyricism. ‘The old man was dreaming about the lions’, from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is one that springs to mind. And the daunting impenetrability of Ulysses is perfectly offset by the simplicity of its ending, Molly Bloom’s affirmation of life: ‘and yes I said yes I will Yes.’
Perhaps my ambiguous feelings about endings is down to the fact that I’m clearer in my mind about the purpose of a good beginning – to hook the reader’s attention – whereas the ending can serve a range of purposes. It can be either conclusive or ambiguous; it can provide a solution or raise further questions; it can arrive with a bang or be a gradual decrescendo. It can seem momentous or trivial. It can make a complete nonsense of everything that’s gone before. I suppose above all a successful ending must leave the reader haunted by what he or she has just witnessed.
I’m looking forward to the moment when I finally write the last line of my novel. I will breathe a huge sigh of relief and then, as this is only the first draft, the real work will begin. I suspect I’ll be spending a lot more time in the company of these characters.
Jeanette Winterson has said that there are only three possible endings to any story: death, revenge and forgiveness. Is she right? What’s the best way to end a story? And what are the best ever literary endings?