"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?