Sandsone Press Logo

On The Blog

The Red Pen: The importance of ending well

Publishing Director and author Moira Forsyth is back on the blog today with the final piece in a series of blog posts featuring advice for writers. We are not currently open to unsolicited submissions, but the tips in The Red Pen blog series will help you ensure that when we do reopen on June 13th, your book will be in the best possible shape. Find out more about our submissions window on our submissions page.

As we come to the last of the Red Pen pieces about editing, with an ‘Epilogue’ to follow on submitting your work, I’ve been thinking how to write about endings in a way that also ends well. This time, there’s no bullet point check list. What follows are some thoughts about the different ways in which a novel can end.

How often have you read a book with great enjoyment, rushing towards the last pages, only to be disappointed? As readers, we know that endings matter. As writers, we may struggle to get ours right. Too often, as editors, we feel let down by submissions which end weakly or without credibility. Readers reports come back depressingly often with a comment that the ending didn’t work or wasn’t believable.

William Godwin (father of Mary Shelley) wrote the end of a novel first, believing this would ensure ‘unity of plot’. However, when he had finished writing the rest of the novel, he no longer thought his original ending was the right one, and he changed it. If you’ve always anticipated the end of your novel, now you’ve got there – does it still work?

Dickens wrote two endings for Great Expectations, the second to please his friend Bulwer Lytton, who thought Pip should marry Estella. John Fowles gives – in the novel itself – alternative endings for The French Lieutenant’s Woman – a device which infuriated me when I first read the book. You’re the author, I wanted to shout at Fowles – you’re supposed to choose! He must have played with this idea over and over – when he revised The Magus he changed the ending of that novel.

Some endings tie up all the loose strands. The genres of crime fiction and romance are expected to do this, though novels in series can pick up unfinished business in each following one. This happens with huge success in some TV series. Think of the woven threads of Line of Duty where characters from previous series reappear or are referred to – or turn up dead! Yet each series, as each crime novel must be, is complete in itself in terms of its main story.

Mullen makes the distinction between novels with a denouement and novels with endings. A denouement solves the problems and explains the mystery. Everything – more or less satisfactorily – reaches a conclusion. If you’ve created a mystery in your novel, you must reveal it by the end or at least provide a possible explanation, so that the reader doesn’t feel cheated.

An ending which provides this kind of denouement, is a ‘closed’ one, but literary novels often have ‘open’ endings, where there is more than one interpretation possible, of what has finally happened. The question I’m most often asked about my own novel, Tell Me Where You Are is ‘Are you writing a sequel?’ something I never planned. It has an open ending in one aspect, but in others, the conclusion has been reached, change has happened, and there is a resolution.

As you write, your own ending should become clear, even if you’ve not planned it already. Some writers are certain about the end they’re aiming for and I admit I never write a short story without knowing where it’s going. Writing it is a bit like running a race to get to the end before the whole vision of the story slips from my grasp. For me, novels are different. I may start with one idea, but quickly realise it won’t do, or I start with no idea at all of what the ending will be and it takes me most of the novel to find out.

With some novels, the end resonates long after you’ve put the book down and gone to do something else. The words echo – think of The Great Gatsby with its lovely, poetic and yet enigmatic closing paragraph. It’s both satisfying and mysterious, a difficult combination to achieve.

Victorian novels often told the reader what happened to all their characters in later life – who married whom, where they lived, how long they lived. George Eliot does this, and for me that’s the only part of Middlemarch which is not flawless. I don’t need to be told – I can imagine for myself, for example, Fred and Mary Vincy’s future life and the children they have. It’s rare for this to happen in modern novels, unless the author is parodying Victorian writing, or closing a long family saga.

More often, I’d advise authors to say less in their ending, rather than more. We persuaded one author to cut his last chapter almost entirely and absorb some of it into the previous one. It went on too long. You should finish reading a novel wishing there was more, not bored by lot of added detail. Some endings loop back to the beginning of the novel, and that can be a good way of pulling everything together and reminding the reader where they began.

Most of all, I love novels where you reach the end then want to turn back and read it again, because you’re full of questions and you need to think about it. So is that what was going on all the time? Have I got it? Have I missed something?

The best endings stay in your mind, and they throw a light on everything that has gone before.

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth