Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The End: Leaving Your Reader

When I couldn’t sleep the other night I turned on the television and caught the last 30 minutes or so of the 1939 movie version of Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton. I have seen the movie many times over the years and have always loved the final words of Quasimodo at the end of the movie when he looks at the stone statues of Notre Dame surrounding him and says with tears in his eyes, “If only I could have been made of stone like thee.”

Even though those are Hollywood’s final words and not the final words in Hugo’s novel, it got me to thinking about the importance of the final sentences and paragraphs in books—that point at which the reader has completed your story and returns to her own world.

Here are the final sentences of Hugo’s novel in which, after Quasimodo’s mysterious disappearance, skeletons were discovered in a cavern:

The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

As writers we often talk about the importance of well-written first sentences in books, that those beginning words should draw the reader into the book and keep them reading. Less often do we talk about the importance of the last sentences.  Although I don’t recall where, I remember reading that the last word in a sentence should be the strongest word in that sentence, that the last sentence in a paragraph should be the strongest sentence in that paragraph, and that the last paragraph in a chapter should be the strongest paragraph in that chapter, and so on until the end of the book.

Whether a novel, memoir, short story, or article, we hope to leave the reader with a resolution, an idea, or a feeling of some sort. We may want to leave the reader with a twist that will get them anxious for the next book in the series, or a poignant, uplifting moment that will ring in the readers’ heads for days. Some closing sentences mirror the beginning paragraph of the story, others offer a metaphor for the story or character, or imply the theme of the entire work.

To remind us of the importance of endings and give us some creative food for thought, here are a few last sentences from books on my bookshelf.

     "An' they chased him 'n' never could catch him 'cause they didn't know what he looked like, an' Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice . . ."
     His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.
     "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."
     He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

          Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." 

          Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities 

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.

          Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

 Stein has aged greatly of late. He feels it himself, and says often that he is "preparing to leave all this; preparing to leave . . . " while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies. 

          Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.  

          F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 

When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.  

          Jack London, The Call of the Wild

 I stand on the deck with the Wireless Officer looking at the lights of America twinkling. He says, My God, that was a lovely night, Frank. Isn't this a great country altogether?

          Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes

While a good beginning gains your reader’s initial interest in your story, a good ending can make your story resonate in a reader’s memory long after the book is closed.


Jennifer Rova said...

Excellent post, Nancy. Writers are taught to write a satisfying ending. Your post honed the point that the very last sentence is a big component of that dictum. It begs the question of how Snoopy would have ended "It was a dark and stormy night." I loved your examples from various classics. They prove your point well.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

What great examples you give, & so well tied together. I'm huge fan of Victor Hugo , others you mention. A good ending always leaves the reader satisfied

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

What great examples you give, & so well tied together. I'm huge fan of Victor Hugo , others you mention. A good ending always leaves the reader satisfied