I picked up The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman. I glanced at the bookmark tucked in towards the end. I had less than a chapter to go. I had spent many hours in the world of the book with characters that had touched, repelled and changed me and now it was almost time to say goodbye. I couldn’t bear to read the last lines, but read them I did. Slowly, I opened the book and I savoured every word, caressed every gesture, for who knows when a book as beautiful and as mysterious as this would enter my heart and hold me in its thrall again.

This and all novels offer some answers to the question: what is human existence and wherein does its poetry lie? Read these last lines from this book:

“There are still more days to travel in this life. And he knows that the man who makes the journey has been shaped by every day and every person along the way. Scars are just another kind of memory. Isabel is part of him, wherever she is, just like the war and the light and the ocean. Soon enough the days will close over their lives, the grass will grow over their graves, until their story is just an unvisited headstone.

He watches the ocean surrender to night, knowing that the light will reappear.”

And here are the last lines of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. Ishmael Chambers, the local reporter, writing the story of a fisherman’s mysterious death, weighed down by his secret love for the presumed murderer’s wife, comes to his own quietly lyrical and haunting conclusion about the universality of the human condition.

“Well, thought Ishmael, bending over his typewriter, his fingertips poised just above the keys; the palpitations of Kabuo Miyamoto’s heart were unknowable finally. And Hatsue’s heart wasn’t knowable, either, nor was Carl Heine’s. The heart of any other, because it had a will, would remain forever mysterious.

Ishmael gave himself to the writing of it, and as he did so he understood this, too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.”

How to get there

You’re at the end of writing the story. Put it away for a month or so. Rereading your novel after this cooling off period will be a strange, exhilarating experience. The less you recognise your own words, the better you’ll be equipped to judge them. Of course, you’ll recognise it as your own story, but parts of it will be like reading someone else’s work. Then you can begin to kill the parts that don’t work. As Stephen King says, “It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”

Only when your words are clammy cold can you begin to weed and prune and trim and cut and tweak, to tuck all the “octopus’s arms under the covers,” as Anne Lamott puts it. You’ve resolved the conflict between the main characters; you’ve tinkered with the voices until they are pitch-perfect. When those tentacles are firmly under the sheet, you notice two more flailing around. You deal with those and some more and finally (and sometimes this takes a very long time) you tiptoe to the switchboard and turn out the lights.

The English poet Philip Larkin described a story as consisting of three parts: a beginning, a muddle, and an end, a take-off from Aristotle’s somewhat more famous formula. With endings, although we may aim straight for a point on the horizon, it’s better if we don’t reach it like an arrow.

It’s likely that we won’t, since our highly motivated characters will find their own solutions to their goals and frustrations, and these in turn will have their own dramatic repercussions. For the climax to be not only persuasive but interesting, it must come about in a way that seems inevitable and surprising, unpredictable both for the reader as well as for the writer. The reader’s first response should be Oh my God! followed by But of course! – since a good, satisfying ending is a result of everything that has gone before.

Satisfying, not happy

John Gardner compares a novel to a Beethoven symphony in that the closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before. When a novel’s denouement has been properly set up, it falls like an avalanche, and the writer’s chief job is to describe stone by stone how it falls.

You don’t have to have a “and they lived happily ever after” ending for the story to be memorable. You do not have to raise the volume of the background music and show the gloriously happy couple sailing into the sunset. It may seem strange, but it is true that Anna Karenina’s suicide, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, are the endings we remember.

This doesn’t mean that fiction is somehow better if it ends in disaster. As readers we want and deserve the somewhat satisfying marriages that end the novels of Jane Austen. And that word is the key. The ending should satisfy. Promises should be kept, questions answered and uncertainties resolved.  Hamlet has a tragic ending, yet the ending satisfies; characters acted out their destinies, villains got their just deserts and Hamlet paid for his indecisions.

A Farewell to Arms ends on a sad, but right note. Hemingway is supposed to have rewritten the ending thirty-three times. He stopped when he achieved the desired effect of portraying the protagonist’s despair – the overarching feeling of emptiness – over the death of his love.

In Infinite Jest, the plot is not resolved. David Foster Wallace says about his book’s ending: “On the surface it appears that the book has stopped.  But it’s supposed to stop and then kind of hum and project. Musically and emotionally, it’s a pitch that seemed right.” Right is the operative word here, as is lyrical.

A word from John Dufresne, a writing coach and author of The Lie that Tells a Truth: “End the story on your best, or second best line. Don’t write past it. This is the line that echoes in our mind when the story’s over.”

Neat isn’t real

The novel seeks to imitate the world in all its complexity; the world of several main characters, of minor players, “ships that pass in the night” and melt into it, of distant wars, natural disasters or celestial wonders. An ending in which every loose thread is neatly tied up, every problem resolved, and the characters tracked into the future as far as the mind’s eye can see, kills the novel’s fundamental effect and it loses its verisimilitude. Henry James described the novel as a “loose, baggy monster.”  In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says, that a novel “built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use.”

An interesting aside about the revision process: Stephen King’s main character in The Green Mile was an innocent man about to be executed. King decided to change his name from John Bowes to John Coffey, giving him the initials JC, after the most famous innocent man of all time. Faulkner had used the same device in Light in August, where he calls the sacrificial lamb Joe Christmas. If a symbol such as this jumps out at you, polish it and facet it. A symbol’s ability to summarise and encapsulate has the potential – when used well – to be arresting.

I opened up a dozen of my favourite books and was hard-pressed to choose one or two of the most evocative endings to use for this final piece on writing. After much thought and even more heartache, I chose two for their echoes of sadness, for their intimation that life continues; the bigger narrative plays on, even though the characters have reached the end of their journey.

“Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.


“In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.”
- Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

In the novel as in life, there are no proper endings.