Greater Is The Art Of Ending

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” Longfellow

Years ago, after reading my short story in my first writing class, the teacher asked, “Why this ending?”

“Because while I was still writing I realized I would be late for class if I didn’t stop or finish the story. So I had to end it somehow.” I answered.

He laughed and said, “Never ever do that again. Are you aware of Mickey Spillane’s dictum? ‘The last chapter sells the next book.’ Well next time you write a story remember that. Remember also that the stronger your ending, the more likely it will be recommended for reading. At the end of the day it is word-of-mouth that creates bestsellers.”

And I thought of the times that I was moved, even cried, shed tears, after reading some books. I also thought of the times when I was left disappointed by the endings of other books. Peter Jacobi wrote:

“The reader should be left satisfied, feel that he’s read something finished, something with a point clearly made, something with a unity that has moved him from start to finish almost in circular manner.”

Some people say that Ernest Hemingway wrote the ending to A Farewell To Arms thirty-three times to achieve the empty feeling of the protagonist’s controlled anguish over the death of his love. And even though he loved Huckleberry Finn, here’s what he wrote:

“All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.”

In writing you have a certain choice that you do not have in life. You can choose how to end your story or novel. Hence your ending must move your readers. Your ending, be it sad or happy, or even a surprise, has to leave readers feeling that they have been through everything the main character, the protagonist, has gone through. It should leave them knowing that they have been in a journey or a fight and that the journey or the fight is over. With your story and your ending you have to convince your readers that the book they just finished reading was so terrific that they would recommend it to others to read. Evan Marshall writes:

“An editor once told me she was rejecting a manuscript I’d submitted to her, even though she loved reading it.
“Then why,” I asked, “are you rejecting it? You just said you loved it.”
“Yes, until the end. It fell flat and fizzled out. Darn it, when I stick with a book for four hundred pages, I deserve a terrific payoff!”

A better way to describe a strong ending is to use Lawrence Block’s analogy:

What makes an ending work?
Maybe the best way to answer that is to listen to a Beethoven symphony. By the time the last note of the coda has sounded at the end of the fourth movement, you damn well know it’s over. When the last ringing chord hits you, every musical question has been answered, every emotional issue has been resolved, and you don’t have to wait for the folks around you to start applauding in order to be certain the piece is done.


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4 Responses to Greater Is The Art Of Ending

  1. ‘The last chapter sells the next book.’ Fabulous quote! I’m going to print that off and take it next to my laptop!

  2. You have certainly made your point! Endings are very important. If there is one thing I would change about my first book it is the ending. Even my editor did not complain about it as it was, but I think some improvement could have been made, even though I wanted to leave a little suspense so people would buy the second book, which has a more satisfying ending (unless you talk to my sister-in-law!), at least for my liking. 🙂

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