Facing a month with five Tuesdays, we were very fortunate to have our much-admired colleague Jane Yolen offer to choose a topic for us and lead off.
Response 1: Jane Yolen
“Endings,” the conference director directed. “Talk about endings.” She was assuming that after almost 300 published books I had some idea of how to make an ending. Assuming that elves don’t sneak in at midnight to finish each and every book for me. Assuming that the editor doesn’t write all my final pages. Assuming that I have more to say than just: “A good ending is one that is both inevitable and surprising,” which is really all that you have to know.
Besides, how can I talk about endings without first saying a word about beginnings? They are the poles of a book, story, even an essay. They balance one another out. If the beginning holds the DNA of the story, the ending has to be able to prove that.
The traditional ending solves the problem, dilemma, or conflict of the main character. The loose bits all tied up. Usually (especially in children’s books) the ending is happy or at least satisfying. Once Max is home his supper is still hot; once Charlie gets to live in the Chocolate Factory his life is good; once the LittlePrincess finds her father, the book is done. Finished. Over.
But think of this: The ending without the beginning is simply a block, a stoppage, a single bookend, one side of an equation, omega without an alpha.
I am better at beginnings. Can write them all day—and I do. I can show you a file cabinet full of beginnings. Nowhere do I have even a small folder of endings. Most authors don’t write endings to start a book. But it is the endings that people leave the books with, so in some ways the endings are the most important part.
As I thought about endings—and being a lover of fairy tales—I knew immediately that the deeply rooted last line in folk stories, “And they lived happily ever after,” is the core of what we think we know about endings. We hear it always in our hindbrain because it’s the last line most of us in the West have grown up with. That line stops the story at the point of greatest happiness. The wedding, the homecoming, the mystery unraveled, the villain disposed of, families reunited, babies born. If we went on in the story Cinderella, she might be whispered about in court: after all, her manners are not impeccable, she always has smudges of ash on her nose, and no one can trace her bloodline back enough generations. Perhaps she has grown fat eating all that rich food in the castle, and the prince’s eye has strayed.
If we went on in The Three Little Pigs, the brother who builds with bricks will have kicked the other two layabouts out of his house, or hired them to run his successful company and they—angry at their lower status—would plot to kill him. But, having little imagination, they would do it the only way they know how, by trying to boil him in the pot that still holds the memory of the wolf’s demise, so of course the brick-building pig would find them out.
But modern books pose a different problem. They present harder choices. It’s no longer fairy-tale endings we are talking about, but the other stuff, more realistic, stronger, difficult, and maybe not happy-ever-after stuff.
The biggest three problems for me about endings are:
1. I don’t know how to plot, and how do you have an ending without a plot?
2. You have to get over the great wall of Middle to get there, and I hate Middles.
3. What happens if the character insists on a different road than the one you
thought you had planned?
Whether I think I know the ending before I start, or think I really know it halfway through the book, the right ending always surprises me as much as any reader. And what surprises me the most is how inevitable the ending really is. Even if I hadn’t known how things were supposed to go, the story had known it all the time.
When I wrote the historical novel The Gift of Sarah Barker—“Romeo and Juliet in a Shaker community” is what I called it to myself—I expected the boy Abel and the girl Sarah to fall in love, which they did. Have adventures, which (in a way) they did. And leave the Shaker community, which they certainly did, because the Shakers did not believe in any boy/girl or man/woman (and certainly no homosexual) pairings at all. Shakers were meant to be as asexual, as innocent, as angels. But I also expected that the two would get married, have a child, and Abel would go off to fight and die in the Civil War, leaving Sarah to return to the Shaker community with her baby, there to become her baby’s “sister” as her own mother had done with her. It was a perfect arc for the novel. In the beginning is the ending. But it was not the arc my novel wanted to take. When I reached the end, I so loved my characters and what they had gone through to earn their love, I knew the book couldn’t turn into tragedy. Not even a Cold Mountain kind of transcendent love tragedy. Sometimes a book earns a powerful tragic ending. But not this one, it needed a positive ending. Actually, it insisted on such an ending. So Abel lived a long, good life with Sarah, helped raise their child, not only because I couldn’t bear to kill him young, and not only because I knew that Sarah would never go back to the Shakers dragging a child with her, but because the story wouldn’t allow it. So I discovered the ending as I began to write it, as it turned away from tragedy into the proper love story it was meant to be all along.
So perhaps one way to look at endings is a process of discovering what the book itself wants and needs, and in that way also finding the ending that you—the author—wants. Maybe the moral of this is that sometimes you have to write the wrong ending many times till finally, by a process of elimination or sheer fatigue, the right one gets written.
I want my novels to end with what I call “the getting of wisdom.” Authors have major themes in their lives that they tend to hit over and over again, even when they don’t realize that’s the story they’re telling. So Hannah/Chaya comes home to the future with an understanding of the past in The Devil’s Arithmetic. Young Merlin at the end of *The Young Merlin Trilogy knows that he has a destiny, and a child to care for, though he is barely out of childhood himself. Marina and Jed in Armageddon Summer find out that they have to and can make choices for themselves, and not get carried willy-nilly into their parents’ craziness ever again. The getting of wisdom for the characters—and I must admit, for this author as well.
Because make no mistake about endings: though in real life they are final, and we have no do-overs, in fictional life this may not truly be The End. Especially not when the publisher waves a rather large check in your direction, and promises much marketing. . .
Here are three things that you should NOT do when you get to that END:
1. No deus ex machina ending. No glorious messenger arriving with the king’s pardon out of the blue. Your characters, and what they have done throughout the book, must be the ones to have set in motion what happens at the end.
2. No changing horses or plot or conflict in midstream in order to make things more exciting at the end. You have to have everything grow organically to earn the ending.
3. Don’t give us 300+ pages of a book in which we are totally invested in the
story, only to give us the climax offstage. Because after that, no ending will seem worth the hard ride.
Here are three things you SHOULD do when you get to that END:
1. Deliver what you promised. This means you must be true and logical to what has gone on before. The last page, the last line is not where you give us a Glasgow kiss. (That’s a head butt, for those of you who don’t do Things Scottish.)
2. If the book is meant to be really and truly over (not just a set-up for books 2–7) tie up the loose ends, offer the explanations, and then leave.
3. Brevity in an ending is to be desired. Not forty more damned pages while you let us know what EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER will be doing for the rest of their lives, not to mention their children and grandchildren.
Oh and that last line: the kicker, the killer. Make it sing. Make it memorable. Let it rise to the numinous. Have it break out into the ether.
From Where the Wild Things Are: Max gets home, finds his dinner waiting—And it was still hot.
From George Orwell’s Animal Farm: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
From Orwell’s 1984: He loved Big Brother.
From Charlotte’s Web: It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both. (Okay, I cheated on the last as it’s two lines.) But that’s what you aim for. THAT kind of last line.
Response 2: Sandy
“Hear! Hear!” I say to Jane Yolen’s comments about endings. “I agree!” “Ditto!” And “What she said!”
Her advice on what endings must do and be is so insightful, I have to admit she left me wondering what I might add. “Hold on,” I told myself, “this is a blog about personal experiences in the writing trade, and nobody else—not even Jane Yolen—has had a single one of your personal experiences.”
“True enough,” I answered myself, and proceeded to recall my personal experience of the wrestling match known as finding the right ending. The first thing that came to mind is a common plaint I hear when I speak to groups of very young aspiring writers: “I’ve been writing this story and it just goes on and on and on and I don’t know how to end it.”
“Take a look at these three ingredients of a story,” I suggest. “Character. Problem. Resolution. Who is your main character? What does she want? What’s standing in her way? What does she do about that? How does it all turn out? It’s that simple. When you know what your main character wants, you know your ending. Either she gets it or she doesn’t. The middle is all about when and where and how and why.”
Okay, it’s not exactly “that simple.” But it is simpler than writing incident after incident after incident of a never-ending saga. In theory, anyway. The right ending grows organically out of the right beginning and the right middle. In practice, things can get complicated again.
So here I sit with twenty-five early drafts of Here Comes Gosling!, an eventually published picture book. Ten of these drafts have completely different endings from one another and from the final version. The story, in brief: Froggie and Rabbit eagerly prepare for the arrival of guests—Goose, Gander, and especially new baby Gosling. Froggie can hardly wait to meet her! But babies rarely respond as anticipated. Froggie’s enthusiastic greeting inspires horrendous honks of discontent. Froggie retreats, discouraged, while the others try in vain to placate Gosling. Now Froggie is perfectly content to wait as long as the honking persists. While he waits, he hums . . . and then sings . . . and then dances. A captivated Gosling stops her honking to watch, and their friendship begins. The visit culminates happily with a picnic, a story, and a sleepy farewell.
Basically, it’s a story about waiting. How hard it is to do. How what you’re expecting isn’t always what you get. How patience can eventually pay off.
In my first draft, there wasn’t even a Gosling. Instead, Froggie and Rabbit needed to head out of town to meet a new baby bunny. After some frustrating preparation and much delay, they arrive. Froggie announces his gift for the bunny is a story he will read to her himself. Last line: And he did. Yes, the beginning and middle were just as dull flat. It was a story about waiting, all right.
I tried again, with basically the same beginning and middle about getting ready to leave town. Beginning: “I’m taking a trip, Froggie,” Rabbit said. “Would you like to join me?” Well, that’s not too bad. Trips promise fun. Of course, Froggie says yes. Middle: Again, there’s much tidying up and packing and fussing about. The ending? (Please forgive me. I usually don’t share this dreadful stuff with others.) “Let’s go!”
They never even get to leave town, let alone meet the new bunny! A clear case of a hopeful beginning defeated by a nonexistent middle that then leads to a flop of an ending that’s trying way too hard to convince the reader something exciting is going on here.
I hope you’ve forgiven me. I forgave myself and pushed on. Many times. Eventually, the bunny disappeared, the trip was abandoned, the geese showed up at Rabbit’s house instead, and the honking began. All very nice, but this time I got myself tangled up in a fancy-schmancy, quasi-poetic beginning: The sun was still half asleep when Froggie heard a tap-tappity-tapping at his door. In spite of everything else finally falling into place, that beginning eventually trapped me in another deadly ending: The sun was already half-asleep when they all headed home. “Shhhhh,” Froggie said.
The sun is not—and should not be!—a character in this story!
It was never a matter of just reworking the ending. The whole story needed to be revised and revised and revised until it flowed. Until everything it needed to flow was included and everything that kept it from flowing was gone. And when it flowed, it flowed right from the beginning through the middle to the ending it couldn’t live without. As Froggie progresses from eager anticipation to confused disappointment to renewed enchantment, Gosling also changes. When we first meet her, her honk of dismay is loud and frightening. Then, as she comes to enjoy Froggie’s antics, her honk becomes “a soft, sweet sound.” And finally, the last line, the only possible last line after a long, hectic, hard-won happy day comes as Froggie finishes reading her a story: And the new baby Gosling snored a goosey snore, “HonKKKKkkkkKKKKkkkk . . .”
And on that quiet note, David, I hand wrestling with endings over to you.
Response 3: David
Thank you, Jane and Sandy, for bringing so much wisdom and practical advice to this month’s subject. Sandy, you lamented following Jane’s grand opening. How do you think I feel following both of you?
But name me one writer who doesn’t have an opinion about writing and I’ll show you where he’s buried. You want good endings, how about the one in Barbara Robinson’s fabulous story, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever? In the beginning we meet the six Herdman kids, who lie and steal and smoke cigars and disrupt school and traumatize kids, parents, and teachers alike. They take over the annual Christmas pageant at school and threaten to wreck it.
But things change in surprising ways. The last sentence in the book could only be uttered by a Herdman, and you wouldn’t “get it” if you hadn’t just witnessed a remarkable transformation in Gladys Herdman, who stands there yelling at the audience, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” I’ve read that book a number of times. Every time I get goose bumps and tear up with joy. That’s what a good ending can do.
Jane and Sandy, you both give good examples of how authors struggle to find just the right way to end a story. Part of the mystery of writing is that we don’t always see the whole vision when we set out. It’s like working a jigsaw puzzle and getting down to the last, odd-shaped hole in the picture, before the final piece, the ending, falls into place.
Jane spoke about novels and Sandy brought in picture books. I don’t write novels but occasionally write long nonfiction books. I think in my next response it might be fun to talk about endings to nonfiction books and maybe even poetry. But this time I’ll pick up on Sandy’s comments about picture books.
Sandy, I think what makes the ending of a picture book important is that it can trigger the reaction in the young listener that authors love to hear: “Read it again!” Some endings are sad but as Jane points out, children’s literature abounds with happy endings, or at least ones that seem fair and fulfilling and maybe inspiring. I loved Pat Brisson’s book, Wanda’s Roses. Her heroine cleans up a junky lot and enlists the help of the adults she meets, all of whom know that the thorn bush Wanda keeps calling a rosebush will never bloom no matter how hard she tries to encourage it.
In the end, Wanda’s enthusiasm and trust inspire the adults to do more than help clean up. The last sentence says it all. And later that summer the whole lot was filled with the biggest, most beautiful, sweetest-smelling roses that anyone had ever seen—just as Wanda had always said it would be. With such a satisfying ending, the only thing left for a child to say is, “Read it again!”
I remember other books like that, stories that left our daughter Robin and her brother Jeff begging for another reading, and another. What a great way to expand vocabulary and engage thinking and imagination in children. Of course the whole story has to be good but the ending matters hugely.
The thirtieth thing I wrote, in 1967, was a picture book called Little Turtle’s Big Adventure. A small turtle loses its home by a pond when a road is built through it and must set off in search of another place to live. The journey is long and lonely and sad. Eventually a pond is discovered and the turtle settles into its new life. I knew all that would happen before I started writing. What I didn’t know was how I would end the story. At the end of the first draft I still didn’t know. I don’t remember how many drafts it took before the final piece of the puzzle revealed itself but, eventually, it did, and it seemed totally inevitable and right. He closed his eyes and took a nice long nap in the warm sun. It was a happy conclusion to a desperate adventure that ended well. Captain Kangaroo read the story on his show.
Sandy, Jane, have you ever used the kind of ending that I call, for lack of a better term, the boomerang? The beginning returns as the ending. The first sentence in When Cows Come Home begins, When cows come home/At the end of the day. The last sentence is, Farmer winks/And milks away/When cows come home/At the end of the day. Between the first and last lines the cows go off on a rambunctious holiday behind the farmer’s back but, in the end, I needed to bring them back to reality, back to the barn, home to be milked. I tried all sorts of endings before I realized that what I was trying to say is that some things don’t change. No matter what, cows come home at the end of the day. I think young readers and listeners feel reassured when they can count on the day ending the way it should.
Okay, dear Sandy, back to you for your second hitch at this wrestling business.
Response 4: Sandy
Yes! David, I couldn’t agree with you more about the sheer perfection of Barbara Robinson’s last line in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect book. Tears of joy, indeed.
In fact, I ran downstairs—okay, limped downstairs with my recently bashed knee—to my autographed-copy bookshelf to read it again. Then I remembered I’d lent it to a friend. (I really need two copies of that book, one to lend and one to keep in case the other never gets returned.) But here’s what I was looking for: Is that unexpected but totally appropriate shout of “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” really the last line? Don’t the other characters react? Doesn’t Barbara want to say a few words about the religious and social significance of that line? To me, that line in that context has its traditional meaning, but it also applies to our need to wake up and pay attention to all children, including the very challenging Herdmans of this world.
Nope. There is nothing after that line. There is no reaction from the other characters. There is no speech from the author. It’s not surprising to learn that Barbara Robinson has a theater background. She knows that when the problem is solved (the pageant is uniquely saved), the tension of the story drops and there’s only one thing left to do—get off the stage! By doing so without so much as a backward glance, Barbara accomplishes exactly what you’ve advised, David: Want to think more deeply about what the other characters’ reactions might be? Want to explore the meaning of the story further? Read the book again!
Oh, my. You really sat us down at the feet of a master, David. Now there’s an even longer line of wise words for me to follow. What can I possibly add?
Well, I can answer your question about the boomerang ending. Yes, absolutely, I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. For example, there’s my second book about Rabbit and Froggie, What a Party! My original title for that book was What a Day!, and I wish the marketing folks hadn’t messed with it. (But that’s another topic we can take up later.) For me, this is a story about the fullness of a day. Froggie wakes up in his comfy bed in his cozy home, wildly excited about attending his grandfather’s birthday party. Off he goes, and, indeed, he has a wonderful time. But the party ends. Everyone’s tired. It’s time to go home. Froggie doesn’t want to leave—ever! Eventually, he does go home, as we all must, and rediscovers the comfort and coziness waiting for him there. It’s a fine place to be at the start and at the end of a lovely day. If the reader wants to linger a bit longer at Grandpa’s party, of course, he or she can read the book again.
Since you’re moving on to nonfiction and poetry endings in your next post, David, I think I’ll say a bit more about plays. In fact, I’ll talk about boomerang endings AND plays. Right now, I’m working on a new script called Walking Toward America. It’s based on my dear friend Ilga’s experiences in Europe during World War II. When Ilga was between the ages of 10 and 17, she and her family fled their home in Riga, Latvia; spent time in a forced labor camp in Germany; walked over 500 miles in two wintry months; spent several years in Displaced Persons camps; and finally sailed to America through the worst Atlantic storm in many years. Ilga has written about these events in a series of short stories and also in a longer essay for a community life story project. So I have plenty of material to draw from. More than enough, as you’ll see.
After much thought and shifting around of those jigsaw puzzle pieces you mention, David, I’ve decided to start the play with Ilga on the ship; then, as the storm is at its worst, cut back to a joyful time in Riga; go through the labor camp and the long, treacherous walk westward; and finally cut back to the ship again as the storm ends and Ilga and her family arrive in New York harbor. The end. That leaves out about six years in DP camps. It also leaves out Ilga’s delightful story about her family’s final destination of Oak Lawn, IL, where they’re introduced to the wonder of Wonder Bread.
Why omit such rich material? Believe me, it hasn’t been an easy choice. But even though there were challenges in those DP camps (two or more families to a room, for instance) and great humor in that loaf of Wonder Bread, at those points, the family is safe. And “safe” means a drop in the story’s tension. Recognizing that, I feel I have to stick with the high-tension moments, mention the DP camps in passing, then get her to America, and get her off the stage. By using “the boomerang ending,” I’m able to do that. No P.S. about the Wonder Bread, just as there’s no P.S. after Barbara Robinson’s final line.
That said, I’ll get off the stage myself. And that’s your cue, David.
Response 5: David
Sandy, you and Jane have covered endings of fiction very well. For my second go at the subject, I’ve decided to tackle endings for nonfiction and poetry. These share much in common with fiction but there are differences.
My most recent nonfiction title, Mammoth Bones and Broken Stones, tells of the archaeological quest to identity the first people to migrate to the North American continent. One advantage of writing nonfiction is that we frequently know how our narrative will end before we begin. In my case, the answer was that we still don’t know with certainty who the original settlers were, which means that we also can’t be sure of where they came from or how and when they arrived. Swell! So how, I wondered, can I end a book for a quest that hasn’t yet succeeded?
Sandy? Jane? You publish nonfiction too. How do you handle this situation? If it were fiction, I might introduce the character(s) and the situation; struggle through various efforts to resolve, improve, or accept it; and look for a perfectly timed, dynamite ending. As a reader I figure I deserve a reward at the end, something to keep me thinking about what I just read.
I decided to treat the beginning and ending of Mammoth Bones like bookends, sandwiching the story of the search between them. I went back to my beginning and strengthened early statements about how hard it would be for scientists to ever determine the absolute, irrefutable answer. That set up my ending scenario, at least in my head, long before I got to it. Once there, instead of ending with one memorable sentence—sorry, Jane, I really tried!—I went with a cluster of concluding thoughts:
Who were North America’s first people? We still don’t know. It may have taken thousands of years and wave after wave of new arrivals from different locations to finally settle here. Whether they came on foot or by boat, they came. Our quest goes on.
Do you ever tear up during the closing scene of a movie or play? I do. Sometimes I need a minute or two before trying to speak. A good ending gets me every time. This goes for poetry too. I want to mention poetic endings before wrapping up. Poems that end memorably tend to be the ones we go back to reread. Poems in rhyme and meter can be harder to manipulate than poems in free verse, but even so it’s always good for readers to feel that the poet left them at the right place and time.
Sandy, I know that you and Jane can quote great examples from your own work but here are three examples. One is mine; the other two are not bad either. (Me winking.)
1. From “Introduction to Poetry,” in Sailing Alone Across the Room by Billy
Subject: How to enjoy a poem.
Ending: They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
2. From “On the Road,” in Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser
Subject: Picking up a pebble on the road
Ending: Put it back, something told me,
put it back and keep walking.
3. From “Making Ready,” in Pirates by David L. Harrison
Subject: Pirate captain watching green recruits loading ship
Ending: They’ll learn soon enough to be pirates,
for now let ’em count and dream.
Perfect endings are rare and good ones are hard to come by in any genre. They can’t all be blue ribbon winners. Whether delivering a speech, writing a picture book, finishing a novel, creating a play, or composing a song, writers sweat more over beginnings and endings than anywhere else in their work. In the end, it’s worth it.
Jane, thanks for bringing this one to the table. Sandy, as always, it has been a pleasure.