Friday, May 8, 2009

How should a novel end?

by Tom Mach

© 2009 by Tom Mach

Actually, there’s no single answer to this question. A lot depends on the kind of novel it is, whether the novelist wants to “wrap things up” (as you would in a murder mystery), or if the novelist wants to leave some things undone—either because it would be more realistic or the novelist has another book in mind as a sequel or as a part of a trilogy and wants to hook you for the next book. I recall a lesson I learned from a dear writer friend of mine. She said, “Don’t go for a totally happy ending where everything is resolved and all of your characters now go trudging off into Never-Never-Land.” What she was saying was it’s okay to have a sad ending, as long as there is some hope that you can give the reader.

Do you remember Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett’s lover Rhett has left her forever? She’s now on the barren Tara plantation, left with little else. But there’s a glimmer of hope in Scarlett’s soul. Despite her sadness she says, at the end of the book:

“I’ll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” (That last sentence is one of the most important lines of the book.)

In my novel, All Parts Together, I have a protagonist named Jessica Radford who is desolate because her former lover, Matt is marrying another woman, her publisher no longer wants to accept her novels written about slavery, her hero—Abraham Lincoln—had been assassinated, and she feels betrayed by her adopted sister, Nellie. In a fury, she tosses her manuscript across the room. But there is a knock on her door. A stranger asks Jessica to become involved in another, even greater cause than slavery. Here is how I end that story (because I have in mind a forthcoming third novel of the Jessica trilogy)—

Jessica cleared her throat and put her hand to her warm forehead. “I’ll be there But first I need to clean up this awful mess that I’ve made.” (Note the symbolic twist I put at the end—the “mess” of her life versus the “mess” she made in her hotel room)

How should a novel end? I think it should end where the satisfied reader says to herself, “I know this character will survive. She’ll come out the better for it. I wish her well, and I’ll miss her very much.”

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