The other day I finished a book and wanted to throw it out of the window. I had largely enjoyed it up to the very end but then I felt the writer had chosen the most depressing ending possible and I wasn’t in the mood. I really did feel completely infuriated by the nihilism. It’s not that I need rainbows and tweeting birdies, but on the whole I prefer a pinch of hope, a sprinkling of the stuff, with my ending.
Oscar Wilde would have had no problem with the ending. This is what he had to say on the matter:
“I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.”
So, Oscar would have been fine. But setting his paradox to one side, the truth is, it’s extremely hard to end a book well. How often have you thought to yourself. Yup, it was fine but the ending was a bit dodgy or weird or stuck on. Or perhaps you’ve thought, ‘What happened there? Did I miss something?’ I do that all the time.
E.M. Forster had this to say on the matter in his classic book Aspects of the Novel.
“In the losing battle that the plot fights with the characters, it often takes a cowardly revenge. Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.”
Some writers are impressively ruthless over endings. I am absolutely not. If a reader has done me the honour of buying my book and taken the trouble to read it to the end I want them to leave with something that is not completely pessimistic. The ending doesn’t have to be redemptive as such but I do feel a responsibility. I do think about the reader. And so do publishers of course. The reason why there is not the convention that Forster argues for is that the book wouldn’t get accepted for publication. So the rounding off thing is part and parcel of being a professional writer, it’s expected with certain sorts of fiction. You can’t quit when you’re bored or muddled if you want to be published.
Unless you’re French.
Then you can write tiny books of auto fiction which are completely incomprehensible and still win the Nobel Prize for Literature. A cheap shot but I’ve been struggling with Patrick Modiano for way too long and need to vent.
Google How to end a novel and you will find all kinds of advice. You will be told to build tension, evoke emotions and my favourite, make sure your ending makes sense. You will be advised to keep your end in sight the whole way. Don’t do that it’ll give you a crick in the neck. You will be told how to end a novel quickly and how to end your novel with a twist. What are we now? Gymnasts?It’s exhausting all the things you will be told. You will be told to read the successful endings of famous novels, like the Great Gatsby for example. Don’t do that either, it’ll just depress you and it won’t help. You are probably not Scott Fitzgerald and you haven’t written The Great Gatsby. The trouble is you have written your book and only you can finish it. Oh, the horror, the horror.
In his book Writing a Novel, Nigel Watts likens the finishing of a novel to tightening the laces of a tall boot.
“You start at the toe and then loosely lace up to the top. Then you return to the toe and tighten up to the top again, making minor adjustments. So, how many tightenings is enough?”
Regrettably there’s no one who can help you.
Now if I had ended this piece with the above line you would feel exactly as I felt when I finished the book I mentioned at the beginning.
But I wouldn’t do that to you, so here is Watts again.
“There is no point of arrival, no point of perfection. You just do your best with what you’ve got and send your creation out into the world.”
There, you see? A softer, kinder ending. You do the best you can. Simples.