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.”


14 Responses

  1. I like endings which are enigmatic. Open ended and up for interpretation. I think that by leaving the happy ending out of the story, just about hanging on the precipice of this last meeting, whether happy or not, achieves the same and allows your reader to find closure.
    Good post, good way to start the day (for me).

    • Thanks so much, Henry, for dropping by! And yes, I agree about leaving an ending “up for interpretation.” I don’t like wholly “pat” endings with every bit of plot in place–especially where the sleuth tells us (rather than shows us) precisely what has happened. This sort of thing happened recently in the TV show “Endeavour.”

  2. 47 endings for Hemingway! That’s inspiring (and a little alarming). Thanks for that bit of information. It’s helpful for all of us, whether were teaching writing or not.

    • Ah, you begin your day early, Lev. I don’t know how you end it….But yes, I was a bit shocked to read all those Hemingway endings. Better perhaps to be like John Irving who famously said: “How can you plot a novel and not know the ending first?!” But admittedly, I never know either.

  3. Nancy, the views on endings are probably as numerous as the readers. However, as far as mysteries are concerned, I like the ending to solve ‘whodunnit’ and tie up all loose ends — not by telling, but by showing. I enjoyed the blog.

    • Definitely by showing, Betty, yes. And John Irving, I forgot to mention, writes his ending first, he says–then starts his new book. And he plots every move. Something I can’t seem to do, but then, I haven’t had a novel put into a film as he has, so he may be doing it right. On the other hand, to each his/her own!

  4. My first novel, Arirang, had three different endings and I had reviewers weight in the ending selected – the couple meet on the ship’s deck and the reader doesn’t know if it’s the beginning or the end.

    Ghost Orchid, my second novel, would not end. I had to cut it and decide to write a sequel. However, the stopping point did take the story full circle from it’s tragic opening to the explanation the lead character, Neev, sought throughout her life.

    My publisher required “happy for now,” “happy in the future,” or “happy ever after” endings as required by the romance genre.

    • Ah, interesting, D.K. For me it would be a problem to have an editor require a happy ending. But I expect readers of romance would demand one, and there are times when I grieve at a sad or tragic ending. And yet go back and discover that the ending is right.

  5. Perfect timing, Nancy. I’m struggling trying to tie up the loose ends in DYING FOR A DUDE. I created enough threads to fill my closet. Now I’m trying to determine how to satisfy all the armchair detectives without resorting to an info dump! Back to the keyboard!

    • Great way to describe that ‘tell all” ending, Cindy, as an “info dump!” I’m going to remember that phrase next time I encounter the frustrating ‘tell all.’ Isn’t it okay to leave a thread or two hanging loose–to be tied up in the next book? I would think so.

  6. Hi, Nancy,

    I didn’t know Hemingway had struggled with a proper ending for A Farewell to Arms. Personally, I don’t like depressing endings and won’t write them myself. But I’d rather read a light book than a tragic one. Guess I’m a fan of the happy ending which is why I prefer romance and certain types of mystery.

    • I like happy, or at least hopeful endings, too, Jacquie, but not always. I gather in A Farewell to Arms that Hemingway also considered letting the lovers escape to Switzerland and thereby leave an open ending. Did they survive or not? The problem there was Catherine’s pregnancy. And the terrible war going on around them. It couldn’t be a light read. I felt, in the end, though I was sad, that it was the right ending.

  7. Intriguing post, Nancy. I like to think I know the beginning, middle and end of every book I write and leave the intervening details to my muse. But, I admit my first YA novel, EAGLEBAIT, was ended where my then tween-aged daughter decided enough was enough. Thanks for jogging my brain!

    • Oh, it was your daughter who read the novel and decided it should end where it did? I also had a daughter on whom a YA novel was based, but I didn’t dare let her read the manuscript before sending it to my publisher, and she was not altogether pleased with my ending. But secretly, I think she enjoyed the notoriety in the press.
      Thanks for reading my post Susan!

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