So that’s the way the story ends.
April 20, 2017
Good endings should never be dull. Or boring. They need to capture the imagination and hold it tightly.
I have always been intrigued and many times mesmerized by the way authors open a novel. Those first critical words, that first critical sentence, can either hook readers or chase them away.
I also have an equally strange fascination for the way authors end a novel. Those final words, those final sentences, can make a difference in the way readers remember the story and think about a story and tuck it away in some corner of their minds. Novels should never simply run out of something to say, fade away, peter out, or quietly drift out of sight.
They should never be dull. Or boring. They need to capture the imagination and hold it tightly.
I often work as hard on my openings and endings as I do the rest of a novel.
In Secrets of the Dead, the first novel in the Ambrose Lincoln series, I ended the story this way:
The door opened, and he was moved to the gurney. The hallway grew darker. This time he would remember, Lincoln vowed to himself. This time he would hold onto a fragment of the past. He whispered her name. Already the girl’s face was beginning to fade.
In the follow up novel, Conspiracy of Lies, I hammered this ending into place:
The doctor cleared his throat. “We’ve come for Mister Lincoln,” he said.
“He’s gone,” Arlene said.
“He didn’t say.”
Dr. Wakefield cleared his throat.
“Didn’t you read the scenario that the government drew up for the mission?” he said. “If he tried to run, you were supposed to stop him.”
“I couldn’t,” Arlene said.
“Haven’t you heard?”
“What should I have heard?”
“If you had read the scenario, you’d know,” she said.
“I’m dead,” she said.
She smiled again, winked to clear the sleep from her eyes, closed the door, and locked it from the inside.
It wasn’t until now that I realized I ended one novel opening the door and the next one closing the door. Obviously I have a thing about doors. Didn’t know it. But I do.
Before he released his grip, Shot Glass looked Schmutzer in the eye. “If I ever see you again, Linus, “I’ll arrest you for the murder of Dr. Richard Davis,” he said. Shot Glass turned and walked to the car. He started the engine, put the vehicle in drive and idled out of the parking lot. When he came to the road, he turned towards Seagrove Beach. As he passed the cemetery, he looked to the left to catch one last glimpse of the final resting places of Woody and Maggie Wilson. Linus Schmutzer was gone.
It has poignancy.
The final impact was just as strong when he wrote the ending to Last One Chosen:
The two men walked back to Dr. Cicero’s house, turned out the lights, locked the doors, placed their rifles in the trunk of Agent Brown’s green Camaro and sped out of the driveway, seeking redemption and the start of new lives because of Joshua Issacharoff. It has a touch of sadness. And regret. And hope.
Some of the great books ever written owe much of their greatness to their last lines.
Who will ever be able to forget these closings?
From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
From The Dead by James Joyce: His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon the living and the dead.
From Molloy by Samuel Beckett: Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.
From Sula by Toni Morrison: It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
From Animal Farm by George Orwell: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.
From The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: I never saw any of them again – except for the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.
From Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor: She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn’t begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther, into the darkness until he was the pin point of light.
From Blood Meredian by Cormac McCarthy: He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
I can’t write like that. But I keep on trying. We all keep on trying.
We know the words, so elusive. And they are always just beyond my grasp.