Portrait of Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd

‘The End’ is nigh… The vital importance of endings in fiction

I don’t know about you, but I have a real thing about endings. As a reader, I mean – we’ll come to me as a writer a bit later on. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been really intrigued by the premise of a modern novel, and ploughed through several hundred pages, only to find the whole thing ends in a damp squib. The book doesn’t so much end as stop – sometimes in what seems to me to be mid air. It’s as if the author has a great initial idea, plays with it for a while, but ends up with absolutely no clue how to resolve it.

I think this is one of the worst forms of authorial cheating – after all, we can all think of thousands of enthralling opening scenarios or seemingly inexplicable plot mysteries; the challenge is to resolve them in a way that is believable, satisfying and hasn’t been done a hundred times before.

I said ‘modern novels’ just then, and that was quite deliberate. It really does seem to me that this failure to finish is a very contemporary malaise. As if having abandoned all the traditional conventions about the novel as a form, we’ve also managed to abandon all the traditional wisdom about how to put one together, which really is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are definitely some great examples of fine modern endings – AS Byatt’s Possession comes immediately to mind – but it seems they’re sadly few these days.

In fact, using Possession as an example is perhaps rather revealing in itself, since so much of that novel (including the concluding passage) is set in the nineteenth century. Say what you like about Austen, Eliot, Dickens et al, they did do a decent final page. No loose ends, no fashionable ambiguity, no ending in a whimper not a bang. Closing with a wedding may now seem hopelessly outmoded, but that doesn’t seem to put off the thousands who still devour Pride & Prejudice every year. And whether you like Great Expectations or loathe it, the book does deliver exactly what the title promises – it’s not just Pip but the reader who has ‘expectations’ at the outset, but by the end of the novel Dickens has addressed and resolved them all.

Great Expectations, in fact, famously started life with another ending entirely. A bleaker but rather moving alternative in which Pip and Estella are parted; he sees her one final time in the street in London some years later, and she supposes the little boy with him is his own son. Dickens’ publisher begged him for a more conventionally happy ending, and Dickens did indeed oblige with what he called “as pretty a little piece of writing as I could”.

One of my other favourite books, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, made a huge impact when it was first published because it has not one but two endings – not because the author couldn’t decide between them, but because he wanted to show two equally plausible possibilities. The only problem, as he says, is that he “cannot give both versions at once, yet whichever is the second will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the ‘real’ version.”

I’ve recently been wrestling with the ending to my second novel. I started with a completely clear idea of the trajectory of the story, and as I neared the end all the pieces fell one by one into place. As I think someone else once said, I could almost hear the rhythm of the closing sentences at least three pages off. And as I said myself once, on a BBC radio show about the craft of writing, creating a novel is rather like flying a jumbo jet – you need different skills to get it down than you did to get it up.

Well, this one initially came down just beautifully – a gentle diminuendo followed by a moment of perfect silence. Or at least I thought so. But then I was persuaded by my publishers – for all the best reasons – that it would be better to have it end another way. I don’t want to give away any more than that, for obvious reasons, but suffice to say that for someone who’s talked so often about the inadequacy of endings, those three paragraphs quickly turned into probably the most difficult three paragraphs I hope I ever have to write. Two and a half attempts later I really do think I have a conclusion that is just as affecting as the one I started with, but only time – and my readers – will tell.

Now, having said all that – and rather cheekily – I will do exactly the same as all those modern novels that I was just criticising, and not even attempt to bring this piece to a conclusion, but merely stop it in mid –


You can hear the BBC radio show I mentioned by going to http://thewritelines.co.uk/radio-series/ It’s Series two, Episode two.

This piece was originally written for Terri Giuliano Long’s blog http://www.tglong.com/blog/category/writing-tutor/creative-writing/