I’m the sort of writer who lets lots of words, ideas, and pages sprawl, then sweeps a great deal aside to find a center. I often quote E.L. Doctorow on how writing is like driving in the dark: you just need to see just as far ahead as your headlights. But I add that I don’t generally drive without knowing where I’m going. For the novel I just completed, even while I was writing sloppy or exploratory drafts of early chapters, I was writing a similar messy draft of the ending. I had a vision, and while the particulars changed, the characters and general action of the last scene stayed the same up to my last draft.
But like the perfect beginning, endings are hard. Writing poems is good practice for how to open a door and how to shut it — or should you leave it a little ajar? My students just wrote picture books with interesting characters and reasonably steady arcs, but some endings left me feeling “Oh.” instead of “Ohhhhhh.”
How do we reach a good ending? The answer seems partly tied up to the depth of what’s happened along the way. Some good picture books can move along on one idea, but I think most of the best have layers, and we get a sense of them coming together on the final page or two.
Author Jill Esbaum recently pointed some of us toward an interesting article about how the megahit Frozen left the small audience at an early screening wiggling and clearing their throats. People cheered for the characters, humor, and some songs, but something was off. Discussions ensued about how to find and fix it. Could what was lacking be hidden in an ending that fell flat? Apparently the two sisters in the early version of the film had clashed throughout, though neither gave anyone much to root for, and at the end the change was about a lesson learned that didn’t evolve from their relationship. You can read the article to see how the writers explored layers in themselves, asking themselves their own hard questions about sisterhood, kindness, and the hazards of perfectionism to create more believable characters and an unforgettable conclusion.
The way to the good ending may be through writing lots of drafts, perhaps adding a new layer with each one, including those we take away. I just read an essay by Arthur Miller in which the playwright said that all anyone needed to know about tragedy is the story of Jesus. He noted that had the great man’s life just ended on the cross, it wouldn’t be so much. What makes it powerful is Jesus then asking God why he’d been forsaken. Miller points out that not only do we need that line of dialogue, but we need just that single line. Had Jesus gone on to say other things he thought and felt, it would have been too much.
How do we know what to put in and leave out? The best way I know is by trying lots of combinations. And asking, again and again, have I said yet what I really really want to say?