by Nancy Means Wright
I’ve never been good at endings. My 1990 divorce after decades of marriage cost me an expensive session with a shrink. Divorce seemed the right ending for me, but was it right for our offspring? Well, I did it, and years later we all hang out together at birthdays and holidays–and our seven grandchildren take their hyphenated names in stride. My former husband and I have grown wiser and happier in our separate ways. It was the right ending.
But what about ending a book? I’ve always told writing students to make the ending resonate in the beginning. You start with the dramatic questions (who had means and motive to kill this person?) And in the end you provide most of the answers. The reader has that thrill of surprise, yet looking back, feels that “oh yes,” this is the “right” ending. You’ve resolved the major conflicts, made your ending as unpredictable as possible, yet left room for imagination and interpretation. You’ve understated rather than overwritten. No hint of a deus ex machina where the armed police just happen to break into your house and round up the bad guys.
All the same, endings have been a struggle. In Harvest of Bones I spread the guilt among four suspects. And in Stolen Honey, I discovered that my prime suspect was too good/moral a fellow to have killed, so 3/4 through the book I had to choose a new villain and a new ending. Egad!
I recently picked up a 2012 edition of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms which includes the author’s early drafts, and most fascinating of all, his myriad endings. In the novel, Lt Frederic Henry, like the author himself, is a WWI American driver in the Italian Ambulance Corps. He is seriously wounded, falls in love with a beautiful nurse, gets her pregnant, deserts the army, and the lovers escape to Switzerland. Never was Hemingway happier, he claimed, than when he was “living in the book and making up what happened in it every day.”
But he had a hard time with the ending, in which his Catherine has a Caesarian section. He made 47 different attempts, which his grandson, Sean Hemingway has grouped under nine headings. There is the existential Nada Ending in which woman and baby son both die: “Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” He wrote a Live Baby Ending in which Catherine dies but the baby lives–then decided “But he does not belong in this story.”
There is the Funeral Ending: “When people die you have to bury them but you do not have to write about them…in writing you have a certain choice that you do not have in life.” And then the Morning After Ending in which the bereaved Frederic smells the spring morning after a rain and has a moment “before I realize what it was that had happened…that it was all gone and would not be that way anymore.”
He wrote numerous ending fragments before he found his “right” ending, using his famous ‘iceberg principle,’ in which 7/8ths of the story is under the surface. Many of us, I’m sure, use this principle, particularly those of us writing historical novels–taking care that our research isn’t obvious. The final ending of A Farewell to Arms illustrates this principle when Catherine begins to hemorrhage, and dies. The novel ends with two nurses refusing him entry, though he pushes past them. “But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light, it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” And we can feel Frederic’s pain and total despair.
“Less is more” is the advice I learned from reading Hemingway, and for the most part, have tried to emulate in my fictional endings. My new historical novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, ends with a shipload of returning WWII soldiers. One of the men has a two-year-old daughter by a woman who is crazy in love with him. But she hasn’t yet told him about the child she has brought with her to the ship. I ended the book with the young man simply “moving slowly towards us as though borne on an incoming wave.”
Should I have described their meeting? I don’t know. But as Hemingway said in one of his endings (above): “Maybe that baby does not belong in this story.”
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