Oh how Thriller Guy envies the lucky writer who has his book’s ending in mind before he even starts writing. TG has been in this position a number of times, and it feels like having money in the bank. But he’s also been in the position where he just starts writing and prays that by the end he will have figured it all out. Both methods can work, and writers must always be open to the idea that ending you originally envision can change, even radically along the way. TG assures nervous writers that you will always come up with an ending; it really can be magical when you come up with something you never thought about but once thought proves to be exactly right.
Mickey Spillane said, “The first page sells the book, the last page sells the next book.” Wise words. TG wishes he had a formula for writing endings that would guarantee success every time, but he doesn’t. Some major points to remember, though…
Make sure that all loose ends are tied up, unless the book is going to be a series, in which case leave a few untied. Have the ending be satisfying: Good does not always have to triumph completely over Evil, but it must be weighted heavily on the good side. There can be sadness in an ending as long as it is of the elegiac kind and hope is triumphant. Good cannot win through bogus deeds or lucky breaks: Victory must be earned. In the end, characters must be wiser, even if they are sadder, than when the book began.
Here are fifteen great endings from fifteen excellent books.
...you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. –Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953; trans. Samuel Beckett)
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. –F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. –James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty. –Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days. –Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance. –Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow. –Toni Morrison, Sula (1973
I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them. –Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)
He heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut. –Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die. –Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)
That’s it. The sun in the evening. The moon at dawn. The still voice. –John Hawkes, Second Skin (1964)
So that, in the end, there was no end. –Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955
And he couldn’t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here. –Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater (1995)
Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine. –Malcolm Lowry,
Under the Volcano (1947)
“GOOD GRIEF—IT’S DADDY!” –Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, Candy (1958)
TG will leave you with perhaps his greatest writing tip, certainly his greatest ending-writing tip: Always tie the end to the beginning. Go back and read the opening of your book, and then make your ending come full circle. You will leave your readers satisfied, which is the greatest gift you can give them. They will appreciate it, and they will read your next book.
And so endeth the series, Five (or so) Mistakes Thriller Writers Make.