Endings And The Novel Writing Process, by Bernard Beckett
I recently read an interesting piece of research that suggests that the crucial thing when it comes to recalling and assessing an experience is the way it ends. So, for example, people asked to rate the nastiness of a painful experience (they used submerging the hand in unpleasantly cold water) leaned more heavily upon how it felt at the end (whether the water was slowly warmed again or not) than the duration of the pain.
This brought to mind a university job I once had helping to run a children’s holiday programme. The young chap I was working with (now a bishop, of all things) explained to me that the key thing was to end the day with your best activity. Just so long as, when the parents came to pick them up, their little darlings were buzzing with enthusiasm, the reports would be positive and they’d all be back the next day. The movie industry is well aware of this effect. The cliché-spouting executive is quick to tell you it’s the way the person feels as they leave the film that will determine whether or not they recommend it to a friend. Hence the constant reworking and second guessing of Hollywood endings and the almost pathological aversion to stories that don’t ultimately affirm.
As a reader, few things infuriate me more than a novel that misses its ending. No matter how much I’ve enjoyed the preceding pages, if the ending is mishandled I feel like I’ve just been subjected to a long joke without a punch line. I find myself asking: why exactly did you want to tell me this? (I once heard that there is a special word in German for the person who tells long and pointless stories – we need such a word).
Yet, as a writer, I’ve messed up a fair few endings of my own. Endings should complete the story. They should make sense of all that has gone before. Not necessarily in the tidy, tied up, artificially resolved way of Hollywood. I’ve nothing against ambiguities and uncertainties. What I strive to avoid though, with varying degrees of success, is the ending that fails to fulfil the novel’s implicit contract. If a novel presents me with a murder on page one, I expect to find out the who and why by the end. If it introduces the love struck hero, facing impossible odds, then by the end I’d like to know if he’s succeeded, or failed, or simply fallen out of love. What I don’t want, is to have that left unresolved. If that’s the method you’ve used to maintain reader interest throughout the story, then I think you’re obliged to give them the payoff.
If I think about the times I’ve failed with endings, they are consistently stories where I was confident I would find the ending when I got there. I was enjoying the characters, building the situations, turning and twisting the plot, and somehow I believed, so long as I put my faith in the world I was creating and followed the characters where they took me, an ending would emerge. I’ve read of writers who operate this way and produce remarkable endings. So it’s not impossible. But looking back on my ten published novels, that’s never worked for me. Never once did I embark upon a story not knowing the ending and then find it. I found an ending, sure, but not the ending, the one that lets you close the back cover and feel that the story has finished.
So, for me, I’ve worked out rather belatedly that I need to know how the story ends before I can begin it. That doesn’t just mean I know the how of the ending, that character x discovers the letter he threw into the sea was from his father, but also the why, by which I mean the emotional context. What does the revelation of the ending tell us about the main character? How does it make us feel? How does it allow us to reinterpret or package all that has gone before? So endings have both a narrative and emotional dimension, and to know the ending is to know both of these. (Recently I worked on a novel where I knew what would happen at the end but not how I wanted the reader to feel about it. After two years, the book was discarded).
Although I know the ending of a novel before I start writing, I won’t necessarily have much idea of the in-between. I don’t plot incident by incident, or even chapter by chapter. Part of the thrill of writing, for me, is watching the thing wriggle into life on screen, and the more thrilling that feels the more likely it is that I’m on to something. I make sure I’m aware of the destination in a meaningful way because the ending is, in so many ways, the reason you’re telling the story in the first place. It’s the thing that compels you to take a stranger by the arm and say, ‘Hey, listen to this.’ If you do that when you don’t have much to say, well there’s a word for that in German.
Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org
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