Monday, March 12, 2012

THE ART OF ENDING, a guest post by Ariel Allison Lawhon from She Reads

"Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending."
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning I wrote “The End” to a novel that has consumed my mind for over two years. This book, more than anything I’ve ever written,  has tested me as a writer. The premise, though compelling, was ambitious—almost impossible. And the structure a balancing act so precarious that the manuscript constantly threatened to tip over into chaos. It was no easy task to braid the narratives of three diverse, complex women while simultaneously staying true to the historical context of the story itself. Harder still was weaving those threads into a satisfying ending.

And this is what you need to know: I have failed to do so. I realized this upon waking the next morning, after sending the manuscript to a few trusted author-friends. My mind settled into that sense of dread known only to the writer who realizes she’s gotten the ending to her novel wrong.

In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby has this to say about endings:

A great story lives forever. This is not a platitude or a tautology. A great story keeps on affecting the audience long after the first telling is over. It literally keeps on telling itself.”

Three endings come to mind as I consider Truby’s words: Aibileen’s final reminder to Mae Mobley in The Help: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important;” Henry visiting Clare one last time, at the end of her life in The Travelers Wife; and Amir running to catch the kite for Hassan’s son in The Kite Runner. Each ending expertly built upon an adept weaving of structure, character development, theme, story world, plot, and scene construction. A good ending is the sum of its parts. More important than the opening, by far, it is what a reader takes away from a novel. And creating stunning endings is nothing less than an art form.

An art form I have yet to master.

Again, Truby has great insight into why some endings don’t work (mine included):

The reverse of a never-ending story [is one] whose life and power are cut short by a false ending.”

My current ending is false. It is too small.

But the good news is that I know where I have gone wrong. And I know how to resolve the problem. That is the beauty of emptying the full story onto paper. It allows us to see the thing with fresh eyes and a renewed mind. It is part of the writing process—though a part only seen in places like this, where the bones of Story development are spread out and discussed.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go knit the ending of my novel back together. But this time it won’t take me two years.

Questions for you: how do you feel about the current ending to your novel? What novel have you read recently that had the perfect ending?


BK said...

Novel endings are very hard to write.

But I love it when you read a novel that really hits you in the gut at the end. In my current WIP, I'm not at the end yet, but should be by month's end (I hope). I don't think I will be satisfied with my first draft ending because it hasn't had enough time to cook in my brain. And, just as I struggle with which direction to go throughout the book, I struggle as I try to decide on which of a couple endings to use.

A novel has to begin and end on precisely the right note. That takes a lot of skill (and a lot of stewing).

Wendy Paine Miller said...

May you knit and knit well.

I still love The Outside Boy and it's been months since I read it. Maybe even a year.
~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

What a great and honest post, Ariel. I love the quoted material you included. And I love the examples of great endings you cited. I'm praying that it all comes together for you in a great and perfect way.

Laura S. said...

I'm not quite sure how to end my current story. This post gives me something to think about. Good luck with your novel's new ending, Ariel!

Anonymous said...

Many novels don't end the way I like them. Often I don't like ones that feel contrived, or that they're wrapped up neatly with a nice dash of hope and redemption. Reading this, I think it's because my own personal journey has still been unresolved.
As I say that I should also add that much of it is being resolved right now, in these weeks. I wonder if, reading the same books in the future I will enjoy them more because I've experienced that hope and resolution in an ending.
~ M.J.~

Bonnie Grove said...

Ending are every bit as tricky as beginnings, I agree. There's a balance to be struck between ending the story and yet allowing the lives of the characters to stretch beyond the ending.

Easy enough to say, very difficult to pull off. I've found, too, no one ending satisfies every reader.

Lots to think about, Ariel. You know I'm rooting for you and your ending! (and as soon as I'm done with this migraine, I'll finish reading your current work, including the ending!)

Pegg Thomas said...

Nothing is worse, for me as a reader, than to find a book that doesn't end... it quits. I've read a couple like that recently and - grrr! - they drive me crazy.

That said, nothing is harder for me, as a writer, do to than craft the type of ending I want to read. *sigh*

Ariel Lawhon said...

Thanks for your kind comments, ladies! I am knee deep in little boys today (Spring Break for my kiddos) but still I've thought about novel endings all day--mine and others.

I finished a book last night that left me frustrated and disappointed. And it was a book I'd hoped to love. It's easy to know what I don't like but much harder to accomplish what I do.

Thanks for letting me spend the day with you!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I thought I had an ending then the characters, who know the story where I don't, ran in another direction. They are smashing things up in every way possible and it all makes sense, ties loose ends that I didn't remember. I didn't want to bring out the big guns but sometimes that is very satisfying.