Today I welcome the wonderful Lynn Shepherd to the blog! Lynn is former copywriter, and now an award-winning author!
The End is Nigh
by Lynn Shepherd
I don’t know about you, but I have a real thing about endings. As a reader, I mean – we’ll come to me as a writer a bit later on. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been really intrigued by the premise of a modern novel, and ploughed through several hundred pages, only to find the whole thing ends in a damp squib. The book doesn’t so much end as stop – sometimes in what seems to me to be mid air. It’s as if the author has a great initial idea, plays with it for a while, but ends up with absolutely no clue how to resolve it.
I think this is one of the worst forms of authorial cheating – after all, we can all think of thousands of enthralling opening scenarios or seemingly inexplicable plot mysteries; the challenge is to resolve them in a way that is believable, satisfying and hasn’t been done a hundred times before.
I said ‘modern novels’ just then, and that was quite deliberate. It really does seem to me that this failure to finish is a very contemporary malaise. As if having abandoned all the traditional conventions about the novel as a form, we’ve also managed to abandon all the traditional wisdom about how to put one together, which really is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are definitely some great examples of fine modern endings – AS Byatt’s Possession comes immediately to mind – but it seems they’re sadly few these days.
In fact, using Possession as an example is perhaps rather revealing in itself, since so much of that novel (including the concluding passage) is set in the nineteenth century. Say what you like about Austen, Eliot, Dickens et al, they did do a decent final page. No loose ends, no fashionable ambiguity, no ending in a whimper not a bang. Closing with a wedding may now seem hopelessly outmoded, but that doesn’t seem to put off the thousands who still devour Pride & Prejudice every year. And whether you like Great Expectations or loathe it, the book does deliver exactly what the title promises – it’s not just Pip but the reader who has ‘expectations’ at the outset, but by the end of the novel Dickens has addressed and resolved them all.
Great Expectations, in fact, famously started life with another ending entirely. A bleaker but rather moving alternative in which Pip and Estella are parted; he sees her one final time in the street in London some years later, and she supposes the little boy with him is his own son. Dickens’ publisher begged him for a more conventionally happy ending, and Dickens did indeed oblige with what he called ‘as pretty a little piece of writing as I could’.
One of my other favourite books, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, made a huge impact when it was first published because it has not one but two endings – not because the author couldn’t decide between them, but because he wanted to show two equally plausible possibilities. The only problem, as he says, is that he ‘cannot give both versions at once, yet whichever is the second will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the ‘real’ version.’
I’ve recently been wrestling with the ending to my second novel. I started with a completely clear idea of the trajectory of the story, and as I neared the end all the pieces fell one by one into place. As I think someone else once said, I could almost hear the rhythm of the closing sentences at least three pages off. And as I said myself once, on a BBC radio show about the craft of writing, creating a novel is rather like flying a jumbo jet – you need different skills to get it down than you did to get it up.
Well, this one initially came down just beautifully – a gentle diminuendo followed by a moment of perfect silence. Or at least I thought so. But then I was persuaded by my publishers – for all the best reasons – that it would be better to have it end another way. I don’t want to give away any more than that, for obvious reasons, but suffice to say that for someone who’s talked so often about the inadequacy of endings, those three paragraphs quickly turned into probably the most difficult three paragraphs I hope I ever have to write. Two and a half attempts later I really do think I have a conclusion that is just as affecting as the one I started with, but only time – and my readers – will tell.
Now, having said all that – and rather cheekily – I will do exactly the same as all those modern novels that I was just criticising, and not even attempt to bring this piece to a conclusion, but merely stop it in mid…
About Lynn Shepherd
Lynn Shepherd is a copywriter-turned-novelist and the award-winning author of Murder at Mansfield Park. Her second book, another literary murder, will be published in 2012.
Visit Lynn’s website, and her find Lynn on Twitter.
- Martin Lake Writing: Talking with Lynn Shepherd
Great post! I know my endings before I even start my books, which helps guide me, as a writer, through the process and keeps me on track and motivated. Sometimes endings will change, sure, but I find that, for me, knowing where I'm going helps me get there.
I love your response, Dina. Thank you! In school I was taught not to plan, to let the book develop organically – but I don't think that's great advice – at least not for everyone.
Hi Lynne – great post about a subject that's sadly neglected, and when a poor ending is the worst thing ever for a reader who has invested time, money and headspace in the story.
As is happens I often dither over where a story starts, but usually know where it has to end. Maybe I need a co-pilot!
Thank you for adding your voice to the conversation, Alison! I'm with you! I get so frustrated after investing time and emotional energy only to reach a disappointing or unfulfilling conclusion.
Nothing I hate more than slogging through a difficult read only to have my perseverance rewarded with a unsatisfying ending. It's not only a modern trend, though. I'm thinking of "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James. It just stops, like you described. I don't demand all novels end happily (although I prefer it), but I think we deserve some reasonable resolution. As I writer, I've vowed never to cheat the reader out of a decent ending.
I completely agree! For awhile writers used existential angst as an excuse – e.g. that's the way life really works; there are no endings – but I've always thought it just that most of the time: an excuse. Thank you for joining the conversation, Shannon!
Thank you everyone for the comments! One of the reasons I write mysteries (and love reading them) is that you rarely get a really bad ending in that genre – the writer really does have to make a bit of an effort to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion.
If there's a plot, there's a mystery – or should be, imo.
Still loving the jumbo jet metaphor!
I wholeheartedly agree. Just having an interesting discussion on Twitter. Some writers think it's good to leave a story unfinished – life is a journey. I have to disagree. While I understand the point, and for literary fiction open endings can (I'm not saying do) work, most readers – in my opinion, anyway – read for pleasure, to get away from everyday life. Sure, life is uncertain . . . that's part of the reason we read. Reading gives us the satisfying illusion that there may really be answers. And sometimes there actually are (even in real life).
This is a fascinating discussion. I, too, prefer the clearcut, got-the-bad-guy endings of mysteries, often, because I have that sense of brushing off my hands and saying, "Well done! Another case closed!" On the other hand, it is often the novel with a sensual or visual image in the very last paragraph that stays with me, leaving me with an emotional punch that a mystery seldom delivers. I recently finished a novel (a supernatural thriller) where I had two bad guys, and therefore had to decide whether I needed both endings to both mysteries to be resolved within the book, in "real time," or off stage for one of them, because my agent (gently) suggested that a double ending might be "over the top." I chose to go over the top…mainly because I needed to leave my protagonist in a safe place when I ended the book, just for my own emotional satisfaction.
It's a fantastic book!! Thanks so much for joining the conversation, Holly! Holly is one of my writing group lovelies – please check out her book Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir. And Whispers in the Dark very soon!
I have to confess I like the jumbo jet thing too! :)