My ten year old daughter wants to be a writer, and we talk about writing a lot. The other day, she was telling me about a short story collection she admires. "The ending lines are so good," she told me, "that sometimes I take them for my own stories."
I closed my eyes and bit back the lecture on intellectual property. She's ten. It can wait. Instead what I said was, "don't you think, though, that what makes an ending line really good is all the sentences leading up to it? I mean, doesn't the story have to earn its ending? If your stories are different than that writer's stories, don't they need different last lines? your own last lines?"
Easy for me to say. Lately, my project has been to revise my 2nd novel, a novel whose ending needs major work. As I'm reading, I'm trying to decipher my own tracks, to determine where they might lead. I know I've stopped short somewhere along the way, but the snow looks pristine all around, and I don't know where I've been leading myself.
I'm also trying to find chapters within this novel-in-progress that might work as stand-alone stories. I've got two in circulation right now, and what's my primary worry about both? The endings. In each case, I've revised them to try to achieve a little more closure (for lack of a better word) so that they feel like something that has ending, rather than a piece of a long story building up to another end altogether.
I've been reading a ton of short fiction as I do this, looking admiringly at how nuanced good writers are in their endings, how gracefully they let us go, allowing us to close the story and feel done with it, even as it haunts us. In good stories, the writers earn their last words.
And the best stories start earning their ending with the very first line, which is not to say that they're circular or "pat." I'm not talking about the gimmick ending here where the writer circles back to the same line or image and says "ta-da." Good openings feel subtle and effortless--a sure sign that a writer has done a hell of a lot of work.
Part of me wishes I could end this blog entry with a nifty formula or tips for writing good endings, but if I believed writing could be so easily reduced to formulas and tips, I wouldn't be doing it for a living. It's the hunt, the following of the tracks, that makes the job so interesting in the first place.