The Final Words

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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.

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15 comments to The Final Words

  • Hey Stuart, nice post. I like the image you painted from CAST AWAY. It was a good movie with a good ending 😀

    I think that we not only have to focus on the end word, leaving the reader with that warm fuzzy feeling. But the last line of each chapter is important as well, it keeps the reader in suspense, makes them want to keep moving forward with the book, has them wondering what will come next.

    Ending’s in books are important for lots of things. Thanks for the reminder!

    Happy writing
    Hinny

  • Thanks Stuart. I’m a big fan of final sentences. One my favorites is in William Golding’s (of Lord of the Flies) Pincher Martin, in which the very last sentence explains the entire book. The sheer craftsmanship required to pull soemthing like that off boggles my mind! In my own stuff I like to leave the reader with something dense, something that packs together some of the book’s core ideas, but does so–hopefully–with a light, allusive touch, so the final lines resonate but don’t…er… clang. You know what I mean :)

  • First lines and last lines — I struggle with both far more than I do with anything that comes in between. One of my favorite endings is in Guy Gavriel Kay’s TIGANA. In a traditional sense, it’s probably not a good ending at all. It raises far more questions than it answers, leaves the reader somewhat unsettled, wondering what is going to happen next. But it also reinforces that there is magic in the world Kay created, and it deepens the mystery and richness of the book. I won’t say more than that; those who have read TIGANA know exactly what I mean. Those who haven’t read it yet should go get a copy.

    I like books that leave me thinking, that force me to imagine what might be in store for the characters I’ve come to care about. And yet, I also like an ending that satisfies, that ties together the threads of the story. Talk about a fine balance….

  • Hinny — You are 100% right that the endings of chapters are equally important. The purpose of those endings is quite different, of course, and that might be an entire post of its own. Thanks for the idea!

    AJ — I’ve not read Pincher Martin. I’ll be sure to add it to the TBR pile. And, yes, clanging is bad. In some ways, I find the final sentence in a short story has to do the job to an even greater extent (perhaps because there are so fewer words to hide behind) and so I’ve had my share of resonating ends and clanging ones. The former is far better. 😉

  • David — Beginnings for me have always been easy, but endings are the hardest. I’ve not read TIGANA and I see now that the comments in this post are going to give me many titles to add to the TBR pile. One thing I look for in a good ending, if it is the kind meant to make me think about what is to come next for the characters, is character creation so strong that I KNOW what those characters would do, that there are only a few possibilities (or maybe even just one) because Character X would never do anything else.

  • Deb S

    Great post, Stuart. When reading, my favorite endings are those that leave me wanting more. Not necessarily more answers—although that’s great when handled well—but more time with the characters, more time in that world.

  • Stuart> great post and it got me thinking… One that does stay with me is from the short story “the Dead” by Joyce. I’m not a fan of Joyce, and this is the only thing I’ve read by him (I know, I know, Ulysses is the classic and Portrait of the Artist is supposed to be great, too–I just don’t like modernism). But the last line gives the image of snow covering everything, and it is both peaceful and a bit sad, and I found it touching.

    The ending to Ibsen’s A Doll House, in which Torvald is hoping that Nora will come back someday and that they can be together and be “real” people. The response the sound of the door slamming shut (Nora leaving for good). I’ve not seen the play, only read it, but even on paper it has quite a heavy finality to it.

    My favorite, that I can think of offhand, is the ending of the LotR (oft mentioned here), with Samwise saying “I’m home.” Everything is closed, he’s happy, the evil is passed, the world isn’t perfect, but he’s got more than he ever dreamed, and, even more important, he’s alive and living well and home–the epitome of what the series values most, I think.

    In terms of endings that didn’t work for me (and resulted in far flung books): Kafka’s “The Trial,” which I read in college. I like closure and the ending gave none of that. The guy died and he didn’t know why, and I didn’t know why, and it bugged me. Also, King’s “The Stand” (abridged version). Read it in Jr. high, and it was the first long book I’d invested in. So when, two pages before the end, the bad guys just blew themselves up, I was pretty upset. Now that I’m older, I understand the ending more and am less hostile to it. But both bugged me for their lack of bringing stuff together for me.

  • Deb — Anyway you can get the reader wanting more of some aspect of your writing, you’re doing something right.

    Pea — I’ve never liked Joyce as a storyteller but specific images of his can be very powerful. I am, however, a big Kafka fan and while I understand your dissatisfaction with “The Trial,” I personally found it to be a great ending in that it brought together what the whole book was about. Frustrating? Absolutely. But that’s kind of the point. I suppose that’s another aspect of endings I should have mentioned in the post — just like the story as a whole, you can’t please everybody all the time. No matter what kind of ending you put in, somebody’s not going to like it. Oh, and if you ever get a chance to see Ibsen’s play, do so. The ending is far more powerful on stage (if done right).

  • Stuart,
    you don’t like Joyce! Dude! Dubliners rocks. Seriously.

  • What this largely boils down to is that as writers we must pay close attention to the effects created by our word choices. As Barry Lopez said, “The word is like a vessel that carries something ineffable. And you must be the caretaker for that. You must be careful when you use language to look at every part of the word and make sure that you’re showing respect for it in the place that you’ve given it to live in the sentence.” It is far too clear to me when a writer has stopped paying attention and is just trying to get the damned thing finished. But we owe it to ourselves, to our readers, and to the work itself to maintain focus – or to re-establish it once it has drifted (as it will inevitably do).

  • Susan

    You’re making me think about Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October which I must now re-read. *laugh* Greatest, funniest, and worst ending of all time. Whatever you may think of it, it *has* stuck with me since I first read the book in 1994 and that was thousands of books ago.

  • Stuart> I should have been more clear re: Kafka: The ending was perfect for the book. It did bring it all together. I just hated what he had to say. I think now, about (dear lord!) 12 years later, I’d appreciate it more. I was in college, very resistant to modernism and post-modernism and the lack of meaning, lack of closure they often had. So, I responded with hostility to the book. I remember now my emotional response to the ending more than I remember the content, so that says a lot about the power of the ending. Like I said, perfect ending, it just irritated me (as did the whole project). I’ve never been able to get into Kafka–I recognize his talent (and I like “the hunger artist”), but I wouldn’t read him for pleasure.

    Are there any good film versions of “a doll house,” btw? I don’t know that I’ll be able to see the play anytime soon. I teach it, and would love to know a good version to show to my students (in full or in part).

    I’ve always been rather partial to Porky Pig’s “That’s all folks!” too. 😀

  • PF Emily said:
    >>I’ve always been rather partial to Porky Pig’s “That’s all folks!” too.

    Me too!

  • AJ — Actually, Dubliners is the one I was thinking of when I said he had powerful images (the old man/pervert on the beach always stuck with me), but sorry to disappoint you, I just never cared for Joyce.

    Wolf — I feel your pain! I hate when you the second half of a novel lacks the passion of the first half.

    Susan — Never read that one. Yet another to add to the list!

    Pea — There are many film versions of A Doll’s House including one from 1973 with Anthony Hopkins, another ’73 with Jane Fonda, as well as several others. I suggest checking out IMDB for some general info and then try out a few. I can’t recommend any one in particular as I’ve never watched the show on film. Good luck.

  • Alan Kellogg

    In this onslaught of final words from classical literature I thought I’d quote from a parody. From Bored of the Rings, “Maybe he’d take up scrabble.”