Sunday, September 16, 2007

Where the River Ends

The other day Kathleen Bolton at Writer Unboxed, one of my favorite blogs on writing, described the difficulty of drafting the final chapter in her current work-in-progress.

She had reached the end... but wasn't sure exactly how the story should come to its conclusion:
I mean, I have a vague idea of how it should end (hopefully leaving the reader slavering for more), but I’m waffling between an upbeat ending or something more artistic (e.g. sad)...
Bolton asked readers what they wanted from an ending, and here's how I responded:

What I want from an ending is to feel as if the tumblers of a combination lock have fallen magically into place, opening a door into my heart.

Or maybe what I want to feel is a door clicking softly shut, but not before revealing one last glimpse into the character’s heart… as his or her struggle, which began on page one, comes to a conclusion that feels both surprising yet inevitable.

Inevitable because the ending will have grown out of the choices that the character has made along his or her journey, but surprising in that the reader won’t be able to predict it.

The key to unlocking the ending of your book, I suspect, is in your character’s heart… and in the emotional arc of the story that began with the first words that you put down on paper long ago.

And I’ll bet the key to your ending will appear in your hand the moment you close your eyes … and let go of the ending that you think should appear… and allow your character the freedom to discover his or her own destiny.

So, I was thinking about endings when I finished reading two novels this past week.

The first book, Rules by Cynthia Lord, is a touching portrait of twelve-year-old Catherine's struggle to come to terms with her younger brother's autism.

It's a struggle that takes its toll on her life as she tries to make friends with her new neighbor without the embarrassment of her brother doing things--dropping his pants in public, opening doors without knocking, chewing with his mouth open--that she's come to dread when he's around.

And the ending brings a certain relief to the reader (as it does to Catherine), coming after her painful recognition that no matter how many rules she might make, nothing will change her brother from being who he is... and that she has to accept him (and people's responses to him) as part of her life.

The book's final scene shows Catherine and David gazing into the aquarium, where a toy wizard stands on the gravel despite Catherine's rule: No toys in the fish tank.

At the beginning of the book Catherine would have gotten irritated at her brother's inability to follow the rules. But now she is able to laugh.
The tiniest knock comes, and my door creaks open. David stands framed in the light from the living room. "No toys in the fish tank."

I slide my slippers on and follow.

In the aquarium a toy wizard stands on the gravel, his wand raised, mid-spell. Standing beside the castle, he's so big only his pointy shoe would fit through the tiny castle door.

Oops! Wrong spell!

And instead of a fierce dragon to slay, a huge, curious goldfish mouths the end of the wizard's hat.

I can't help but laugh.

"'"What are you laughing at, Frog?"'" David asks, worried lines cutting his forehead.

I touch the tiny frog stamp on his hand and show him mine. "'"I'm laughing at you, Toad," said Frog, "because you do look funny in your bathing suit."'"

David smiles. "'"Of course I do," said Toad. Then he picked up his clothes and went home.'"

"The end."

Tomorrow I'm going to tell Mom she has a point about David needing his own words, but other things matter, too. Like sharing something small and special, just my brother and me.

Kneeling beside David, our arms touching, our faces reflect side by side, in the glass.

I let that be enough.

The image of the two children kneeling side by side, touching, powerfully bridges the emotional distance that Catherine has had to travel over the course of the story. It's not necessarily a surprise ending. But it does feel inevitable, like a door whooshing shut, leaving just the slightest echo behind to linger in the reader's ear.

In the second book, Hearts of Stone by Kathleen Ernst, fifteen-year-old Hannah watches her father march off to join the Yankee troops and finds her heart turning to stone as his death is followed by her mother's. And another piece of her heart turns to stone when she loses her best friend, Ben, who won't speak to her after his father joins the Confederates.

With her younger brother and twin sisters, Hannah takes to the road, leaving behind their home on Cumberland Mountain for Nashville. She's hoping to find her aunt there instead of staying home and letting the Preacher separate the children and send them to different families.

But Nashville only brings more grief, hardening Hannah's heart even more. Once there the children discover that their aunt, too, has died. And after a harsh winter--the children barely able to survive by searching for cigar ends to resell--Hannah's younger sister dies, too.

In Nashville, though, she meets Ben again, and they manage to overcome their separate grief to join together as survivors and return home.

The final scene of the book shows Hannah and Ben lingering by a river on their way back to Cumberland Mountain, hoping to rebuild the homes that they left behind at the start of the story.
I let his words and wondering pour right down inside until that empty place in my chest filled up and spilled over, all the while searching the bank for a stone. Finally my fingers closed around a good one: flat, about the size of my palm. I heft it, turned it over. Just right.

"Let's do a double," Ben suggested. "See whose goes the farthest." He chose his stone, and we perched on the bank, ready. The late sun skittered bright on the river. "Go!" Ben shouted. Those stones went dancing across the water, into the sun, out of sight.
Again, this wasn't a surprise ending, but it had the feel of inevitability, like the line of a circle coming round to meet the point where it had started.

The reader begins to feel that sense of closure strongest, not only watching the children toss the stones across the water (as if tossing the stones of their hearts away so they can feel alive again), but listening to Hannah describe her chest, empty for so long, filling up again and spilling over.

Two different books, two different endings... each satisfying in its own way.

What about you? Can you turn to the ending of a favorite story... and explain what makes the ending so satisfying?

How do you feel as the story comes to a close?

Why do you feel this way?

Can you point to the words or phrases that draw out these feelings in you?

Share your thoughts about endings with Wordswimmer when you get a moment.

If you'd like to read Kathleen Bolton's post on endings at Writer Unboxed, visit:

For insights into how Cynthia Lord wrote Rules, take a look at this interview:

If you'd like more information about Cynthia Lord and her work, visit her website:

And to read about Kathleen Ernst and her work, visit her website:


Unknown said...

Awww, that's lovely, Bruce. The best endings do close the circle but leave a tiny question. Thanks for sharing.

Kathleen Bolton (on my kid's Blogger account)

The Ginger Darlings said...

Lovely swimming in wonderful words.

Nick Green said...

I think the best endings don't seem to end the story; they just have it fading off into the distance. So you can't quite pinpoint the moment when the characters vanish, so you go on seeing them after they ought to be too far away. And you know they are still out there, somewhere.

Those are the endings I like.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the helpful description of the best kind of endings.

Those endings, as you say, are the ones where the characters remain vivid and alive in our imagination long after we turn the last page.

Maybe we go on seeing these characters because we've come to love them over the course of the story and have learned to "see" them with our hearts?

That was certainly the case for me in Rules and Hearts of Stone.

Anonymous said...

Ginger Cats and Kathleen,
Thanks for the kind words... Glad you stopped by.

gaelwriter said...

It's a good topic—what's the best sort of ending to hope for in writing; or even, what is the stamp of an acceptable ending?

I know I've felt good, for a while, in reading what's often recognized as a 'Hollywood' ending, but it usually doesn't last. I took down a book I've often thought of as a favorite, for many reasons—"How Green Was My Valley," by Richard Llewellyn (1939), about a boy growing up in a coal-mining region of Wales. I spent so many hours with that boy, and his many brothers, and sister, and parents, and the tough but majestic life they led. And in the end of the story, most are dead, or emigrated out to America, and the boy, now grown, goes over their memories one by one, as he prepares to leave the blighted Valley himself. His ending words are like poetry:

"Is he dead?

For if he is, then I am dead, and we are dead, and all of sense a mockery.

How green was my Valley, then, and the Valley of them that have gone."

Sad words, but there's a lot of hope that has been built up. Hugh is alive, and he's going forward. That's a good ending. Of course I like happy endings, too, if they're well earned, and that may be harder to write, successfully, because life is like that, and we sense it.

So for now, tonight—the exact answer may have different nuances tomorrow—the stamp of acceptability is 'earned exhilaration,' or, 'sad but hopeful.'

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the ending for How Green Was My Valley.

It's a perfect example, I think, of what Nick's talking about--an ending in which you know the characters are "still out there, somewhere."

How an author arrives at such an ending... well, maybe you've hit on a way by identifying two of the necessary emotional components that a long-lasting ending needs: sadness and hope?

That an ending needs to be earned... well, that's yet another component... worth a future post, I think.

Let me mull it over and see what I can come up with.