Saturday, June 9, 2012

Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 6: Endings

On what note do you end a book of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction? With a crescendo, like a classical symphony? One famous example of that is the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, where Molly Bloom’s soliloquy goes on in an eight-page, nonstop sentence and ends in breathless affirmations.
Or do you finish with a quiet image that lingers, leaving the reader to ponder:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies    
When a new planet swims into his ken;  
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes    
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men 
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—    
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
—John Keats, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”

Ending with a stunning image—“Silent, upon a peak in Darien”—can sometimes be more effective than a crescendo, since it’s understated and allows the reader to measure and experience the full impact of the ending.
But how you end a book depends entirely on what comes before the finale, and how the last act fits organically with the rest of the book. A book is a living organism. You can’t change one thing without affecting each morsel of the text. The ending has to fit with the rest of the book or it will feel manipulative or tacked on.
I once made an attempt to write a young adult novel. I was having real problems with the ending, but I couldn’t identify the problem. I showed my draft to one of the experts in the field, Marilyn Sachs, award-winning author of more than 30 books, including Veronica Ganz and The Bear’s House. One thing Marilyn told me is that you should never try to tie up all the loose ends when you conclude a book. Life is messy. Any denouement that neatly packages all the unsolved questions feels artificial.
In general, the ending has to be different from the rest of the book. If everything is the same at the end of a book, the reader feels as if there is no story, nothing learned or gained. If the middle of the book is wracked with doubt, the ending could well be calm and/or resolved. If the world the book depicts is full of certainty and self-assurance, the ending might involve questioning. If the book is about pain and loss and mourning, the ending often conveys a sense of grounding and renewal. If the story involves childhood innocence, then experience and maturity and wisdom could be the gateway at the end.
In thinking about books that consist of shorter pieces—poems, short stories, or essays—the impact of the last piece is not as important as that of the best piece. The nature of a collection of shorter pieces is that they tend to stand alone. For that reason, the most enduring thing about a book of that sort is not the closing note, but the most memorable note. The exception would be the collection where the final piece is the best piece. Does anyone remember what the last story is in Raymond Carver’s book Cathedral? But you probably do remember the title story, because it’s such an amazing piece. Do you remember the last poem of Mary Oliver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive? Most likely no, but you might remember “In Blackwater Woods,” the poem in the collection that lives on, retyped by countless fans on their websites and shared from person to person, with its stunning final lines.

Other recent posts on writing topics:
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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