Friday, August 14, 2009
In the end is the beginning.
When I first started writing novels, I always knew the final scene. It might change as I went along, but knowing who was still standing when the dust settled, and where, made it possible for me to traverse the long path between my first lines and that last scene—which I wouldn’t write until I got there, since its job was to pull me on, like the nearby tree on which a jeep winches itself out of a ditch.
Around the seventh book, I was about a third of the way into the work in progress when the awful realization dawned on me that I didn’t know the book’s end. I had no image in mind, no purpose, no tree. Only dust. I couldn’t write for days as my mind desperately tried to cobble a vision together, and couldn’t. But because the book was already sold, and because I hadn’t been having any particular trouble to that point, I made myself sit down and keep working as if the end was clear. And I learned that it isn’t necessary to have a tree nearby, if you just keep driving on the road.
But endings are tough. I personally dislike the artifice of a final scene in the library When All is Revealed, but without one, how do I show how the plot works? I try to sprinkle as much as possible before the actual ending without robbing the reader of all surprise, but that means there are times when doing so deflates the final scene of any satisfying heft: one of my books has a thrillerish end when all the puzzles have been solved and the only question is whether or not the protagonist is going to survive. And after I’d written the line that she was still breathing, I couldn’t think where to go: scene in hospital? Scene with the two children she’s been sheltering, some months later? Trial scene? Everything felt like anticlimax, so I just ended the book with the fact that she was breathing. And got letters from readers asking if their copy had left something off, because it was too abrupt.
In crime fiction, a book’s ending has to complete the story by tying off at least the majority of loose threads. I have a particular dislike for would-be literary crime writers who turn around at the very end to dangle a question before the reader: ambiguity is not a sign of superior creativity.
Still, in my last book, The Language of Bees, I had to leave a couple of threads unclipped because they were going to lead into the next book. And to indicate that I was well aware that there were unclipped threads, I put at the end three dread words: To be continued. And received a ton of flack for that because people hearing about it assumed that all the threads were unclipped, which really, honestly, they are not.
But beyond finishing off the story, the end needs to reward the emotional commitment of the reader. It has to gather up not only the plot threads, but those of theme and what can only be called flavor, and entwine them all in a sturdy and aesthetically pleasing knot. If the book was a thriller, the end needs to remind the reader of all the sweat they’d had while reading it. If the flavor was comic, the end needs to preserve that light touch. One of Dorothy Sayers’ novels deals with dark issues but has its share of lightheartedness, yet when she came to its end, I suspect that the darkness overrode everything else in her mind, because the final note is jarringly bitter.
So, just a simple matter, right? No responsibility there, to leave the reader, who has sunk twenty-five dollars and several nights into the story, with a note of satisfaction and an impulse to close the book and pat the cover with gratitude.
My current work in progress, (its working title has been The Green Man, although we’re still fiddling with the final title—and if you’re interested you can follow the blog posts about the writing process in “Mutterings"), has seven points of view and five intertwining plot-lines. It is, as mentioned, the conclusion of lat year’s book, which means its conclusion has to carry the weight of two years and 800 pages of story. It has to make sense, and it has to make sense of the story—logically and emotionally.
When I gave the first draft to my editor in April, I wasn’t satisfied with the ending—although hey, at least it had one. In the rewrite, one POV at a time, I shoved and bullied and cajoled the characters to play nice and come together. And when I finally reached the place in the rewrite where I either had to bring all those plot strands together or tell my editor that we’d be publishing this one with a do-it-yourself ending, I sat down one morning and in six hours, hammered out 3500 words of a new ending. And it worked. All those long musing times drifting to sleep, all those weeks of wrangling and wrestling with intractable characters moving around an illogical countryside, the seven points of view came together on Westminster Bridge at half past two in the morning, and gave me their ending.
The first line of the book is—
A child is a burden, after a mile.
The last line is—
Honestly, you didn’t expect me to tell you that, did you? But rest assured, when you read it next year, you’ll remember the first line.
Laurie R. King’s twentieth novel will be published next spring.
You can read excerpts of the others, and her blog and book club and Twitter and… at http://www.laurierking.com/