I spent the weekend mapping out the last four chapters of my novel. After two years of writing, not writing, despairing and then ploughing on, the end is clearly in sight. (For context, I’m on chapter 26 and I anticipate a 30-chapter novel).
But what makes a good ending? So many of my favourite novels seem to fall away towards the end, as if the writer was unable to live up to the promise of the opening and the thrill of the exploration that draws us deep into the world. Once we’re out of fairy stories, happily ever after doesn’t cut it any more. ‘Reader, I married him,’ resonates down the ages, but I believe it’s a rarity.
Consider the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, universally acknowledged to be the most quoted in the history of novel-writing. Can you remember the closing lines? No, me neither. There’s a wedding, certainly, but the picture in my head comes from the television adaptation, with smiling faces under bonnets and Colin Firth finally ceasing to scowl. There’s no gently ironic, elegantly phrased line running through my mind.
More recent ‘literary’ novels would blush to end with a wedding. The good ending happily and the bad unhappily – too much of a cliche for our sophisticated modern times. Snatch away that happy ending, undercut it with tragedy. Overturn our whole understanding of the story, at the risk of annoying the reader immensely. Wind down into uncertainty, leaving the reader contemplating the intrinsic un-knowability of life.
Here are three of my favourite novel endings. So go on, inspire me with some novels with terrific endings, to fire my resolve to end my novel with a bang and not a whimper. (Spoiler alert – I give away endings below. Stop reading now if you find that sort of thing upsetting).
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbon. Everyone settled on their nice new lives, and Flora flying off into the sunset with her pilot vicar. Most satisfactory.
The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris. If you want to know what death might be like, read the last page. Oddly comforting.
The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger. Actually, the ending was what sold me on the book. Unbearable, to leave her imprisoned in never-ending waiting. I’d have thought sod it, I’m off out.