Though I’m nearing the cusp of the climactic sequence in my current WIP, I’m thinking about the end, about what happens after the big battle. David already touched on endings in a recent “Writing Your Book” post. What I want to focus on today, is the last sentences — the actual, 100%, no denying it, there’s nothing left, end to your story.
In terms of getting the eye of an agent or editor, writers are often told that the first sentence is the most important. That agents and editors will give you a few pages beyond and if you haven’t grabbed hold of them, then they aren’t going to ask for more — after all, if you can’t interest them from the beginning, then they figure you can’t interest a larger audience either.
But the last sentences of your tale are vital as well. This is the final word you leave with your reader. This has the potential to impact the entire novel and the entire reading experience. These words won’t get your work into an agent’s or a publisher’s hands and they won’t sell a book to a browser at a bookstore. But in highly-technical business terms, these words have the potential of bringing them back for more.
Think about the books that have really stayed with you. Not just the ones that you remember fondly or recall a great scene from, but the ones that when you finished, you sat there holding the book, breathing in those final words, and thinking about the entire journey you just completed. For me, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is such a book.
(To quickly tap into the earlier discussion this week — the movie starring James Dean is wonderful but only comprises a small portion of the book. The book follows the entire family through several generations and thus, the characters in the movie are only mere shadows compared to the depth Steinbeck provides in the book.)
The final sentences of the book comprise a dying man’s one spoken word in Yiddish (temshel) and then he closes his eyes and sleeps. That’s it. But the seeds for that moment, that word, are carefully planted throughout the novel, so when the reader hits that finale, the word connects all the threads of the tale. For me, it was one of those awe-inspiring moments, where I just hoped that maybe I’ll be able to scratch the surface of such artistry someday — if I’m lucky. Steinbeck did what perfect final sentences should do — tie together plot, character, and theme in a way that provokes the reader to think about the experience and makes the reader want to read more by the author. The question, I imagine many of you are thinking: Great, so how do I do that?
Endings work best when they create a lasting image or comment that points the reader in a thoughtful/emotional direction. They can provide closure to the tale or open new doors for further tales or even both. Here’s a film example: Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. The final image of the film is of Hanks standing at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. The final scene showed him what was down one road (a woman) and he knows what is down the road he came from. Beyond that nobody knows. After the whole journey he has been on, this moment ties together the character he has changed into (from a typical Type-A American to a man who is freed from the bonds of society) with the themes of the movie (the overly-time-managed society vs the slower world of the wild, seizing the day, getting in touch with the important things in life, etc) and leaves us wanting to come back for more. All from a single image. In writing, we can strive for the same final impact.
Naturally there is a balance that must be found. The Tom Hanks scene works on film, but even just reading the description above shows how heavy-handed it could end up being on paper. You can overdo it and end up being didactic instead of enlightening. In effect, you can undercut or even undo all that you had accomplished up to that point. Finding that balance is a matter of trial and error. It helps to think about what the point of your tale is or who your main character has become and then see if there is a way to utilize that idea. Another approach is to look back at the opening and see if there is an image you can repeat or slightly alter to tie the piece together. Still another possibility is to think of a physical act the character can do to express the story. The list of approaches is endless. You just have to experiment.
So, tread carefully. It is not a requirement that the final sentences blow away the reader. But if you can pull it off, it is one of the most satisfying bits of “icing on the cake” a writer can ever feel.