Last week I read an articulate article on how to end a book well. I distill the essence of the article below, but if you want to read if for yourself, it’s located here.
To End Your Book Well: Start with a question
Mark Cecil, the article’s author, started his quest to figure out how to end a book well with a question a novel-writing teacher had posed: “What is the feeling you want to leave the reader with, when they finish this piece?”
Cecil, who wrote novels for the sheer joy of creating them, eventually realized that his writing left no emotional mark on his readers–but he wanted his books to resonate emotionally. As he expresses it, he yearned for his work to leave readers “…with grand, indescribable moods. I wanted to evoke the aching, forlorn beauty at the end of The Great Gatsby; the rugged, mystic hope at the close of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; the awesome compassion for genius on the final pages of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.”
Once you determine that your work-in-progress should leave the reader with an emotion, you’re ready to circle back to the question: What feeling should your reader experience at the end of your piece?
To End Your Book Well: Create Setups and Payoffs
Cecil recounts that his two favorite types of writing are parables and jokes. He notes that both of them work well–and with economy–by creating a story that has a strong setup and payoff.
In the parable, the payoff is wisdom. In the joke, it’s laughter. Anyone constructing a joke or a parable arranges a tight, sturdy story to get to the payoff as quickly as possible.”
Despite being considerably more complex, a novel (or any book, for that matter) is a series of setups and payoffs. While that might seem simplistic, is it really? Or an uncannily helpful way to think about your book’s structure, including what you’re aiming for at the end of the book.
Know Your Genre
Cecil believes the genre or category you’re writing informs the payoff. As he explains it:
If you know your ending = then you know your genre.
Knowing your genre = knowing what your reader craves.
Knowing what your reader craves = the first step in giving it to them.”
The Ending Informs the Beginning
Once you know what feeling the reader wants to experience at the end of the book informs you as to where to begin the story. Cecil points out:
Most character arcs can be boiled down to this: ‘It’s a story about a character who begins at X and must overcome Y to get to Z.’ But in the writing process, Z comes first. Without Z, you don’t know what Y or X must be. Without Z, you don’t have a story.”
Pitch Perfect Ending
Intrigued with the notion of knowing the emotion you want to invoke in the reader, Cecil asked authors what they aimed for in concluding their books. He reports that many authors are stymied at first by the question but eventually find a way to articulate a response.
One author summed it up beautifully:
You have to hit that last right musical note that will sustain,’ [Jonathan] Evison said, describing how he works on his own novel endings. ‘When you hit it, you know it, and the book doesn’t ever feel done to me until I hit it. In Hollywood they call it “the walkaway.”’”
With a word to encompass the concept of satisfying the reader’s longing to experience a certain feeling at the end of a book, Cecil then knew what the title of his article must be: Nailing the Walkaway.
What feeling do you long to evoke in the reader at the end of your work-in-progress? What insight resonates with you from “Nailing the Walkway”?
Writers: Here are some hints on how to think about the best ending for your work-in-progress. Click to tweet.
Can a novelist write a great novel without knowing the end of the book? One writer says “no.” Click to tweet.