Saturday, July 10, 2010

All things must end


Got endings on my mind. Saw this sunset while crossing an old stone bridge yesterday. The thing about sunsets is we say goodbye to the day and know another will come tomorrow.
When we come to the end of a novel, we want to feel that way, too. There should be a sense of satisfaction but not finality to the lives and world we entered. I stumbled across an article online today in The Irish Times that I found helpful as I approach writing the conclusion of my YA novel, Sea Daughters.
Several authors were asked about how they write endings and if they had any favorites. To read the whole article, click. I've pulled out a few highpoints that resonated with me.
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"The best last line should be like a stone dropped in the pond, settling off ripples." That is from Jon McGregor (IF NOBODY SPEAKS OF REMARKABLE THINGS) .
I like the quiet reflection in that quote. Sometimes when I close a good book, I feel as if the story is rippling through me and I need to be still and let it finish reverberating. Have you ever heard a Tibetan singing bowl? It's like that.
McGregor chose a favorite last line from Per Petterson's OUT STEALING HORSES. "You do decide when it hurts."
I've never read that book, but the final sentence is not one you'd turn your back on. It has such power and depth.
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Tana French (IN THE WOODS) made an analogy to nature when discussing last lines. "It does need to bring the book to rest, like you're bringing a bird in to land after a long flight."
Once again, I like the sense of reflection, not closure, in this approach.
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Gerbrand Bakker (THE TWIN) pointed out a similarity between ending a novel and finishing a poem that speaks to me as a sometimes writer of both. "An ending is very hard, I find; one tends to want to write too much in the end. I always strike the last two to four last lines when I write a poem, something that usually makes the poem much stronger."
Sometimes we don't trust ourselves or our readers to "get" it, I think, so we go on, burying our killer line in verbosity.
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Hugo Hamilton (DISGUISE) brought up advice I'd heard before that there is a connection between the opening and ending of a good novel. "The walk-away line at the end of a novel is just as important as any opening line. It's like closing the door on the story but also leaving it ajar--"
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In October, I wrote another post on last lines, including some picked by editors at the American Book Review and some favorites of mine. Please check it out if you're interested. Do you have books that left you wowed by the way the author wrapped up the story?

39 comments:

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I loved the ending to Dust of 100 Dogs. It was everything I hoped. Also loved I Am The Messenger. Very satisfying.

Suzanne Casamento said...

Endings are so hard! You're totally right. It's so difficult to make sure it's not wrapped up too perfectly or too quickly or too slowly. They're really tough.

But when I finally get there the last line just comes. Thank god.

I'll have to think about some great endings. Nothing readily comes to mind.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I like the idea of reflection in an endings. The best endings are the ones that make me think long after I've closed the book. (Like Life of Pi.)

Char said...

to kill a mockingbird

Yvonne Osborne said...

Beautifully written post, Tricia. Endings are hard. The tendency to overwrite is there, as it always is. That line from McGregor is great and I'm going to check the rest of the links you've given us when I have more time. And you're so right...I have a tendency to think my readers won't "get it." Forgetting that that is okay... people often take something different away from a book. Hence all these book discussions and reviews! I like the idea of leaving the door slightly ajar. That is what I ended up doing. I'll give you one of my favorite endings, which is from The Sound and The Fury.

"The broken flower drooped over Ben's fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place."

Thanks for putting this post together.

Piedmont Writer said...

Endings are so hard. You've spent so much time in the book, when you close it, if feels like you're saying good-bye to a good friend. (Well, the good books do)

Of course, writing romance, all my endings need to be happily ever after. Which is nice.

storyqueen said...

Blogger is eating my post again...going to have to report it this time....hear that, blogger?

Anyway, I posted wishing you luck as you near the end, but then I realized that you don't need luck. You'll do just fine. Just have a box of kleenex handy. Saying goodbye to characters who have been with you through a year of your life is always hard.

Shelley

Liza said...

Off topic, but...I struggle with endings when an interview with the author is included at the back of the book and I don't know it. I read and read and read, and, thinking I have another chapter to get through before the book resolves itself, am mentally unprepared when I turn the page and reach the last line, because I thought I had several more pages to go.

That said, Tricia, you'll appreciate this. The last line of the book I just finished, Self Storage by Gail Brandeis (Thank you for introducing me to her via Tailspinning) goes like this: "His poem was the flashlight I'd use to peer inward, the flashlight I'd use to usher forth my own dark pencil marks. I knew he wouldn't mind if I borrowed his opening line." Loved that the last line made me rush back and re-read the first...

Julie Dao said...

I love endings in books and I hate writing them because I feel they should be very meaningful. It's what the reader gets left with and if the conclusion isn't satisfying, the memory of the whole book gets warped. I hope the ending to my story will be as peaceful and satisfying as that gorgeous sunset :) I love the title of your book and cannot wait to buy it when it gets published.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

TerryLynn: Ha! I notice both of those books feature dogs. I haven't read either but heard the buzz. I'm glad to hear the endings satisfy. (Put them on the TBR)

Suzanne: I imagine when the story has come to its rightful full circle the end is waiting where it should be.

Stephanie: I agree. Feeling the book in my bones later is the best. And you keep mentioning Life of Pi recently, which I have put off, so now I must read it.

Char: Haven't read it in ages. I must go hunt. Thanks for stopping by.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Yvonne: Thank you! I love when I stumble across something at just the right time. I can't even remember why I googled the Irish Times. I think I was in the mood for seeing how things were on the isle, and there was the perfect article for me at the moment.

Anne: You're right. We are invested after reading a novel. We want to feel the journey has been worthwhile.

Shelley: Blogger has been a greedy gut lately.
I hope I need a box of tissues--I hope I make the end powerful. I guess that's why I wrote this post--wondering.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Liza: That's interesting about the author interview. I do know what you're saying. I also find it unsettling to have a teaser chapter for the next book--because I can't help but read it, and then it dilutes the ending of the first book, takes away that resonance.
Oh, I'm so excited that you're reading Gayle Brandeis' books! Self-Storage weaves in the Whitman poem so wonderfully. Please read The Book of Dead Birds, if you haven't--so powerful.

Julie: You're so sweet, thank you!
I know what you mean about an unsatisfying ending ruining the book. Here's a funny story: I had the opposite happen recently. I made myself keep reading a book by an author I like, even though the beginning and middle didn't sweep me away. But when I got into the last third of the book and the ending it was incredibly good. I couldn't stop thinking about it for days.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love your photo!

Endings are hard. I like the reflection ones and the ones that flow back to the beginning.

LotR always bothered me becuase to me the ending was many many pages before the actual ending. I love the series - but I don't always reread the last part. The Hobbit too.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Interesting. I sat here for awhile and tried to think of a favorite last line and couldn't think of any. I guess I pay way more attention to first lines.

I will start really looking at last lines now. Congrats on coming to the end! :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Jemi: Thanks! I like the way you describe--flow back to the beginning. That's excellent.
I haven't read LOTR in years and didn't realize that. I'll have to take a peek. I think today's fiction has become tighter than some of the classics.

Karen: I'm still working my way towards it. I had a plot point to iron out first.
I don't remember first or last lines that well unless I make a note of them. I love the first line of Libyrinth and the last line of the Golden Compass.

Donna said...

Alas, as I survey favorite books on my shelves, I find only one last line that I like: Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters (1980). "No need of Minnie's hands now so the healer withdraws them, drops them in her lap just as Velma, rising on steady legs, throws off the shawl that drops down on the stool a burst cocoon."

I'm scared of writing endings, since I'm so often disappointed in reading them.

Davin Malasarn said...

Good luck with your ending. I love the quote you have here about the bird coming to land. I think that's my philosophy on endings lately. It takes some pressure off to think that it doesn't have to be some huge event, but just the natural conclusion to the flight.

gayle said...

Thank you so much for mentioning my book Self Storage, Liza! :)

The last line that has stayed with me the most has been from Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams (which is also one of my favorite novels of all times.) I don't have it at my fingertips, and don't remember the actual sentence, but know that it ends with a helicopter that "rises like a soul."

Good luck with your own ending, Tricia!
xoxo
gayle

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Donna: Wow, that is a powerful last line from the Salt Eaters.
When it comes to fear, I've been trying to live by these words from Nelson Mandela: "Your playing small does not serve the world."
I don't know where that will take me, but hopefully beyond fear.

Davin: Oooo, yes. I love thinking of it as natural, as a conclusion to flight.

Gayle: Hi! I do happen to have a copy of ANIMAL DREAMS at my fingertips, so I looked up the line, which comes as people duck, afraid, of the helicopter above a field of alfalfa. "For an instant it hangs above us, empty and bright, and then it rises like a soul."
That's a great last line.
And thanks for the wishes. :D

Lydia Kang said...

I agree with Jemi, I like endings that tie the beginning in and make you think of the book from start to finish again.
:)

Elana Johnson said...

Excellent post. I liked Elizabeth Scott's ending like (I am free.) of Dead Girl Walking.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lydia: Agreed--that is the most satisfying of all, when the whole story resonates.
Thanks for another great Medical Mondays on your blog!

Elana: Mmm, that sounds good. I have yet to read that one. So many good books!

VR Barkowski said...

Beautiful photographs.

I happen to like the ending of my first novel. "He turned, pulled open the door and didn't look back."

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

VR: Thanks, and I like your line, too. It has a similar feel to one of my favorite lines, from Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass: So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun and walked into the sky.

Claire Dawn said...

I agree, endings are hard. After building this whole world, weaving all those threads, how can you tie up in a way that's worthy.

Endings are the scariest thing.

Like a punchline to a joke, a bad ending can make or break a story.

Phoenix said...

Endings are so difficult! I think there are two main endings to stories, one where the ending has a finality to it and you feel the story has concluded naturally and there's no longer any reason to keep reading; and endings where it's simply a chapter in the characters' lives coming to a close but damn do you want to read more!

I think the ending to The Time Traveler's Wife was brilliant, beautiful, heart-breaking, and heart-warming, all at the same time. It was hard not to grieve but also difficult not to rejoice at the conclusion of these two characters' stories. I thought it was perfect.

KarenG said...

Nice post on endings! I am so picky about endings. If I get to the end of a book and don't like the ending, it makes me want to throw it across the room! These quotes about endings are lovely, thank you for sharing them.

Terresa said...

Nothing specific comes to mind. I blame overexposure to the sun's summer rays.

But this post is absolutely brilliant. Jam packed with fine quotes, illustrating again and again, from different angles, how to finish a book. Thank you for this!!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Claire: You're so right--it can make or break a story. Oddly, I recently read a book that didn't really engage me until the last third of the book and then it packed such a punch I thought about it for days.

Phoenix: I love the stories where I want more. It hurts that it's over but in a good way. And I agree the Time Traveler's Wife ends brilliantly (well, the whole thing is a brilliant dance with time)

Karen: If it ends unsatisfactorily, it is a sense of losing the reader's trust, isn't it? And thank you, and you're welcome!

Terresa: Hi, I'm glad you're enjoying summer and thank you for enjoying the post. :D

VICTORIA SAAVEDRA said...

Hi Tricia!

Endings are bitter sweet little things aren't they?

They're that last burning flame your piece casts out to readers.

Great post :)

Jennifer Shirk said...

I think a good ending is more important than a good beginning. An ending is what will last with you long after you close the book.
It doesn't need to WOW me but i do need to be satisfied and not think that I missed something. :)

Jackee said...

This is exactly what I needed today, Pat. Thank you! I'm finishing up my latest WIP and I want to end it this way, with the door slightly ajar. I especially love that image--a door closed but slightly ajar.

Thanks for sharing!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Victoria! You're back, and you were missed. I'm so glad your ending turned into a great beginning.

Jennifer: I believe you're right. If a story sticks with you after coming to a satisfactory end that will encourage you to talk about it to others and look for more books by the author.

Jackee: Isn't that a great way to visualize it? I'm excited you are coming to the end, too!

Robyn Campbell said...

I remember that post, Pat. I have books that I hated, because of the way the author left it too. The walk-away line is just as important. That's a great way to put it and I hadn't read that before.

Heading over to the super link you gave us on how the writers end their books. But before I head out, I must mention that glorious sunset. Simply lovely, and I wish with all of my heart that I could have been there with you on that old stone bridge.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Wow, we were talking about endings in my critique group today, how we want things tied up, not too tidy, but it has to resonate and bring everything full circle.

Sadly, at the moment, I'm having an easier time thinking of ending that I didn't like than ones that I did...

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Robyn: Wish you could have been there, too--it was perfection. I hope you're getting better day-by-day. It's so awful to be sick that long. Thanks for all the kind words. :)

Sherrie: Resonate is the word I really like for this. That reverberation that stays with you. Maybe we all need Tibetan singing bowls on our writing desks. :D

Stephanie Faris said...

It's a tough one...I think I have a harder time ending a book than I do beginning one! Maybe I just have problems letting go of the characters.

Lydia Kang said...

Last lines are so hard! I am often more disappointed with last lines than with first lines. I think sometimes they are more important. The ending helps you remember the book more, leaves a lasting impression with how you enjoyed it. IMHO!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Stephanie: True. Of course in this writing market filled with series you may not be letting go, just traveling on...

Lydia: I guess we should remember it is that lasting impression.