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The Importance of a Good Ending

April 3, 2013

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

That’s the final sentence of “The Great Gatsby,” and as far as endings go it’s pretty damned good.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

That’s the ending to “The Sun Also Rises,” also a winner.

We hear so much about the importance of the first sentence, or paragraph, of a novel that it’s easy to forget that the last one is at least equally important. I’ve always believed it was more important. Readers who have invested time reading to the last page want to feel that the time was worth it, that the story was concluded at just the right time, all questions resolved, the characters brought to a logical end of the lives they led for 60,000 or 70,000 words.

Some writers tend to fade as they reach the end of their novels; they’re fatigued, they’ve spent months, if not years, telling a story and they want to get it finished. They may have rewritten their opening paragraph dozens of times, but when it gets to the last one they shrug and say, to hell with it.

Look at the examples of last lines at the top of this post. With just a few words they reinforce the themes of the novels, the story is wrapped up in a few elegant words, and readers are happy they spent time with the characters. An added bonus: They’re happy they spent time with the author.

Nothing disapppoints (me) so much as an ending that’s inconsistent with everything that came before it, that’s ambiguous when it should enlighten, that even with the last words doesn’t add to our understanding of the characters.

I’ve just completed the first draft of my new novel, “The Coffin Haulers,” and spent an hour writing and rewriting the last line, which I hope amplifies the theme. And yet I know I’ll revise it two or three more times in further rewrites.

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