Good closings mean reader satisfaction. At the climax, your main character is faced with the most serious challenge of his or her life so far; the character will succeed and fail in terms of what you have built into that character to begin with, and in terms of what that character has experienced during the course of the book.
Phillys A. Whitney wrote an excellent article called, “Stop When You’re Through,” printed in the 1989 edition of WRITERS HANDBOOK. I want to share with you some of the things she had to say.
What Closings Should Do
To begin with, she says that it isn’t enough to satisfy yourself that you’ve said all you want to say, so you can quit. You must bring your story to a climax, in which your main character is faced with the utter destruction of one or more basic need or cherished goal. “In the climax scene,” Whitney says, “The main character must prove what she or he is made of.”
The climax, she says, “brings all elements of a novel together and leads to a logical solution.” Let’s break that statement into two pieces, taking the last part first.
“A logical solution.” Logical in terms of the plot, and logical in terms of what the characters, as you have created them, might be capable of doing. If you’ve made your characters round, and revealed them as much as you need to, “logical” can mean having them clash and resolve their conflict in unexpected and believably surprising ways. You have to be like a magician: all the elements for your resolution have to be in the book from early on, but you have to direct your reader’s attention away from them so they won’t guess the ending in the first ten pages. John Irving says we should invite the readers to anticipate, but compel them to guess wrong.
That brings us to the first half of Whitney’s statement, that the climax “brings all elements of a novel together.” Along with story line and character, the climax includes the manifestation of your theme — what the book was really about: fair play, true love, man’s inhumanity to man, or whatever. Let me say again; the theme should be evident, but it shouldn’t be stated. It shouldn’t need to be.
In the final chapter of LORD OF THE FLIES, Jack has subverted all the boys into his group except Ralph, Piggy, and Simon, and he or his boys have killed Piggy and Simon. The boys are in murderous pursuit of Ralph, and have set fire to the island in order to drive him into the open, when a ship, drawn by sight of the smoke, turns the savages back into little boys. Nature versus civilization, reality versus fantasy, mercy versus ruthlessness, isolation, betrayal, and leadership run throughout the book and smash together in the climax.
Whitney’s last suggestion is that the ending should come as soon after the climax as possible, and that every loose end should have been tied up by the final scene, with that one important loose end maybe reserved for the very end. In THE FACE OF TRESPASS by Ruth Rendell, the final and most important piece of the puzzle is mentioned in passing in the next-to-the-last paragraph.
There are as many closings as there are openings. You can end with the same sort, or end with another sort. I think the most satisfying ending is one that echoes the beginning, while showing that a change has taken place.
What do you think?
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Look at a couple of your favorite books, that really satisfied you. How did the closings mesh with the beginning? Why were the closings satisfactory?
KatFrenchMarch 3, 2014 at 8:38am
This is such a good post. I tend to have strong beginnings in my stories, and I’ve gotten better at the middle thanks to the judicious use of outlining, but “sticking the landing” can still be tough. And like you, I really enjoy an ending that calls back to the opening.
Marian AllenMarch 3, 2014 at 8:47am
Thanks, Kat. I guess that’s why I like your writing so much: You write the way I like writing to be written. 😀