Writing the final pages of a novel is difficult enough, but then comes the final challenge. It’s the end of the end, the last stop on the line, the dazzling dismount: a damn good closing sentence.
I finished my novel while sitting in a movie theater, watching a documentary on light pollution. I’m not sure what it was about The City Dark that helped me get there. Maybe it was the documentary’s eerie central question — Is darkness becoming extinct? — or perhaps it was the church-like quiet of the theater. Maybe it was that, in my utter absorption, I’d for once stopped thinking about the novel. Whatever it was sent me scrambling for a pen and a receipt and then, when I couldn’t find either, repeating one line in my head like a mantra: I knew there was nobody watching me. I wasn’t sure that it was elegant, or even grammatically sound, but I did know it was just how my narrator — who spends the novel negotiating issues of privacy and voyeurism — would want the book to end. Grammatical or not, it was my last line, and I was sticking to it.
Read on to see how six authors found theirs.
1. Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona del Mar
For my debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, I had no idea what the last lines would be and finding the ending was kind of like fencing by yourself in a giant gymnasium in the dark. I just kept writing and writing. Where was it? It had to be around there somewhere. There couldn’t NOT be an ending. I parried and thrusted and eventually I found an opponent in the darkness and somehow the damn thing got written, but it was not graceful. It was an awkward and sweaty process. Clearly there had to be a better way.
John Irving, of whom I am an ardent and really inappropriately effusive fan, claims to start with his last scene first and then write the whole novel toward it. How elegant, I thought. What a beautiful way to work. So that is what I attempted with my second novel, which Knopf recently bought and which will come out, you know, eventually. So I wrote the final scene of the book first, and then I started at the beginning and I wrote toward it. This is not as easy as it seems! The book, like a sewing machine going too fast, kept veering off in unexpected directions, taking huge looping digressions. And yet, what was there to do but follow where the characters led me? When I write, I tend to write a lot and then discard a lot, and so I patiently followed my characters and eventually, low and behold, they wound up right where I had started, at the ending I had chosen for them in the beginning. I added one extra scene-let, more of a coda really, and then that was it, but mainly because it felt somehow incorrect to end a novel on an airplane. You have to land, right? You just have to. So I let them land, and then that was it: the trip was over.
In the end, I am not sure one strategy is actually more effective than the other, and both cause a tremendous amount of anxiety. In the first case, you are terrified there is no ending and your characters will just continue on like Schrödinger’s cat, half alive and half dead, with nothing at all resolved. But in the second case, you doubt constantly that the ending you initially chose was the right one. What if you are forcing your characters into actions and behaviors that no longer make sense for them? What if their destiny is no longer their destiny and you are just like a bad matchmaker trying to force through an arranged marriage out of pride? So far as I can tell, there is no best option, and in fact part of how you know you have finished a novel and that the ending you have found is the ending you were meant to find, is that the entire process is awkward and sweaty and appalling and at the end of it you vow never to do it that way again.
2. Meg Wolitzer, author of Belzhar
My character’s name is Jam, and she’s been sent to a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers, because she cannot get over the tragic loss of her boyfriend. It’s revealed early on that this boy once gave Jam a jar of his favorite kind of jam. Throughout the
book, she says she will never open the jar; doing so would be letting go of her love for this boy and everything they had together. I will get to the last line, but to give it context I first have to mention what comes right before it. The very end of the book reads:
‘This stuff is supposed to be pretty good,’ I say, and then, trying to look casual, I grasp the lid of the jar and give it a turn. It makes a surprisingly sharp pop, as if it were releasing not just air, but something else that’s been dying to get out for a long time.
Then I sit cross-legged on my bed, leaning against the study buddy, facing DJ, and with a slightly bent knife stolen from the dining hall, I spread some of the dark red jam on a couple of crackers—one for her, and one for me. When I put mine in my mouth, the sweet taste startles me. I let it linger.
I let it linger. I was excited to write that very last line; it felt right, coming after the description of opening the jar, which is a big deal for the narrator. The last line serves as a kind of coda, a way to hold on to what’s just happened — to give not only Jam a chance to see that her action matters, but that its effect will have some staying power. This, of course, is what all writers want their readers to experience; we hope that, somehow –– at least for a little while –– the words will linger.
3. Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
I struggled a lot with the final chapter of Nathaniel P., last line included. I worried about being too heavy-handed, inflecting the ending with too much of my own point-of-view. Although I definitely favor a certain reading, I tried to refrain from any overt signaling of what I think because I wanted to remain true to the book’s character, Nathaniel. The last line reads:
He’d no more remember the pain — or the pleasure — of this moment than he would remember, once he moved into the new apartment, the exact scent of the air from his bedroom window at down, after he’d been up all night working.
I wanted the line to be ambiguous in its meaning, to convey a feeling that is acute and earnest but can nonetheless be interpreted as the fleeting nostalgia of the moment — something that can be forgotten without consequence — or something more important, the kind of deeper truth that can be inconvenient and unsettling and which we might prefer to bury under the chaos of day-to-day life. I think such ambiguousness is true to life: as we go through our lives, we rarely know how to read what we feel, how much weight to put on this or that passing mood. I wanted the novel’s presentation of psychological and moral life to be as complicated and prone to shape-shifting as our actual private lives.
The line also contains a nod to another book, but this is so subtle — practically imaginary — that it’s for myself rather than because I expect anyone else to see it. For me, the reference to the smell of morning from a window recollects a scene in George Eliot’s Adam Bede. The charming, handsome Arthur Donnithorne has spent the night worrying about a romance he started in spite of his better judgment; he resolves to end the relationship before it goes too far. But when he wakes up the following morning, to a lovely day, and breathes in the fresh morning air from his window, his late-night anxiety seems overwrought. He puts aside as melodramatic the resolutions he made. In the course of the novel, it turns out he was right to be worried; it was the cheerfulness and bustle of day that was misleading. I think this scene is incredibly perceptive about how people, myself included, actually behave, and I liked the idea of calling back to it, ever so subtly.
4. Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits
I wrote many, many drafts of this novel and each had a different ending, and a different final sentence. Some were mean and cutting, some were attempts at hopefulness, some were vague in a way I hoped a reader would make sense of (since I certainly couldn’t), and all of them were overthought. I was trying so desperately to control the readers’ experience of that final moment that I forgot about the characters and the story. Somehow, with final lines, it’s so often impossible to separate from them my own feelings about the work as a whole, so that I find myself trying to cram as much meaning as possible into a single sentence, trying, I suppose, to redeem the project from all the ways it has fallen short of what I’d hoped it would be.
So how did I find a final sentence I was satisfied with? The short answer is that I ran out of time. We were supposed to leave on our honeymoon the following day. It was summertime, August, and we were visiting my parents in northern New York. Everyone in my family was outside in the sunshine and I could hear them through the open windows laughing and chatting, occasionally someone diving into the pool, and everything inside me wanted to be out there with them. But the novel was a year overdue, and somehow I couldn’t bring myself to leave on this trip knowing that the cloud of this book — and all its subsequent distractions — would follow us onto our honeymoon. So I sat at the desk in that bedroom writing and rewriting the final paragraph by hand. I wrote it and scratched it out and rewrote it, added arrows and clauses, read it aloud to myself again and again, trying to listen for the right feeling. Finally, as the afternoon sun began to change, I knew everyone would soon be headed back inside, so I said to hell with it. I typed it into the manuscript and emailed it to my editor. Then I went outside, announced that I had finished, and went swimming.
5. Michelle Huneven, author of Off Course, Blame, Jamesland and Round Rock
In three of my four novels, I knew well before I was halfway done what the last line was going to be. In fact, I wrote to those last lines. I had to see my way clear to them. They pulled me through. In my fourth novel, Off Course, I didn’t know the last line and I overwrote the ending by 20 or 30 pages. (Sometimes a book just ends, no matter how hard you try to tack on something else). Only after cutting those pages and packing what I could use from them into the preceding chapters did I locate my last line in a serviceable, finalizing bit of exposition. Who knew?
My favorite last line comes from my second novel, Jamesland.
Jamesland begins with 30-something Alice Black waking up in the middle of the night to find that a deer has come into her house. She chases it out and goes back to bed, but in the morning, she can’t tell if the deer was a dream or a fact. Either way, she’s sufficiently disturbed to discuss the event with various people, including a minister who suggests that Alice look into what deer might mean to her. In her own inadvertent way, Alice does look into this. She learns, for example, that in Buddhism, the deer is a symbol for listening; in Persian carpets, the deer is a symbol of worldly cravings; in the Psalms, the deer thirsts for water like the soul thirsts for God, etc. You might say that deer become a vehicle for meaning in Alice’s life. Although she never pins down what, specifically, deer “mean to her,” her whole life changes as she pursues the question.
One thing that happens is, she takes up with Pete, a chef who, at the end of the novel, has just opened a new restaurant. On a cool, winters day before the dinner shift starts, he’s walking up through Griffith Park to meet Alice, and he sees a deer leaping over bushes on the hillside.
Now, whenever I’ve come across deer in the wild, I am always awed; I think they’re beautiful, graceful, wildness incarnate. But some people see something else.
Pete, watching the deer, pats his pockets for a pen or pencil to jot down a note. But he hasn’t got a pencil. So here is the book’s last line: “He’d just have to remember, then, to put venison on the menu.”
6. Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas
I’m not one to approach the craft of writing with any sort of metaphysical bent. Those who speak of themselves as detached vessels through which prose flows can find me in the corner, rolling my damn eyes. However, there are a few aspects of the writing process I regard with a reverent wonder approaching the realm of soothsaying. None more so than last lines. I write the following with the typing equivalent of a straight face: before I know who the characters are, before I even know what the story is about, I hear its title and last line. I hear the last line, and then I write toward it. Not all the time, but usually.
This doesn’t mean I’m trapped. Knowing the airy location at which the story terminates does not mean I have any idea where the story will take me, or who I might invent as I journey. I don’t even know what the last line will mean to the characters. If an X marks the spot of where the story ends, the map still has no lines or countries, and the X could be a trap door leading to another dimension.
It’s really that simple.
Bring your sorry shit back tomorrow.
I vacillated between two possible last lines for my novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. The difference between the two was the decision of who I wanted to end the story on — the young jazz singing protagonist, who we’ve struggled with for 280 pages, or a heretofore minor character. The former would leave the reader in an enclosed space, the room in which the little girl is rehearsing. The latter would end in an expansive place, literally and figuratively, leaving the door open for (what turned out to be) spirited interpretation. It would be impossible for me to convey the importance of the last line without you reading the novel, but I can say this: I knew the last word would be “tomorrow.” For a novel that takes place over the course of one day, that for the most part eschews flashbacks in order to keep all momentum pointed forward, it was important that the last word acknowledged the idea of a next day.
First lines are a challenge for me. They feel like work. If you want to know how to write a first line, I’d ask Kevin Wilson or Amy Hempel or Charles Baxter. If first lines belong to the story and its launch, last lines belong to the story’s effect. The last line launches the reader into what he or she will end up thinking about the story. Maybe that’s why they must feel delivered, and my job is to keep myself open in the way most conducive to hear them. I know, I know. Roll your eyes. I don’t blame you one bit.
I’d most likely never admit any of this had I never heard Amy Hempel say at a reading that she normally hears her last lines first, too. That, along with so many other things she has said about writing, validated the most internal of internal inclinations I’ve grown up feeling about the craft.
So if this all sounds like hooey to you, please take it up with her.
See Also: The Art of the Final Sentence
Image Credit: Geograph.
John Steinbeck found Of Mice and Men in a poem by Robert Burns; Joan Didion came across Slouching Towards Bethlehem in one by William Butler Yeats. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was scrawled in the bathroom stall of a Greenwich Village saloon, which Edward Albee entered in 1954. Many of Raymond Carver’s titles were changed by his longtime editor, Gordon Lish — for better (“Beginners” became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) or worse (“Are These Actual Miles?” was replaced by the vague and perplexing “What Is It?”). F. Scott Fitzgerald first titled his most famous work Trimalchio in West Egg. Though eventually persuaded that The Great Gatsby was less obscure, easier to pronounce, and much preferred by his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald maintained that the final choice was “only fair, rather bad than good.”
In lieu of a fateful bathroom visit or an assertive editor, how do authors find their titles? Many plumb the work of Shakespeare (Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, as well as a number of titles by Agatha Christie, were all inspired by the Bard); others, religious or not, turn to the old poetry of the Bible. Still more scour their own manuscripts in search of a string of words that might capture the novel’s spirit. And some, like Alice Munro — whose latest title, Dear Life, was taken from a phrase she heard as a child — find that the perfect moniker was in them all along. Still, the process of titling remains individualized and mysterious: methods range from intuition to reason, from revelation to painful labor. Here, five contemporary authors tell us about theirs.
Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas:
I knew my debut novel’s title would finish with the clause The Cat’s Pajamas, however I heard the beginning of the phrase only as a rhythm. It sounded like: Something something something The Cat’s Pajamas. When I realized the missing phrase included “2 a.m.” (the time bars close in Philadelphia, where the novel is set), it prompted me to clarify the 24-hour nature of the novel and use hours of the day instead of chapter headings. Then, all I had to do was figure out what happened at that fateful hour. For weeks, this question rotated in my subconscious as I conducted the errands of my life: what happens at 2 a.m.? WHAT HAPPENS AT 2 A.M.? Whatever it was had to synthesize what up until then are disparate story lines while staying true to my desire to keep the stakes realistic. I ticked through all the possible tricks: murder, mass suicide, alien invasion, but knew the answer would be somewhere in subtle middle distance, harder to write, but closer to the way I’ve found life actually works. One of the unexplainable mysteries of writing fiction is that I normally begin already knowing the title and last line. I can’t explain why. It’s a mystery. The stories for which I don’t already know these elements take longer. Perhaps because something hasn’t quite distilled, and my conception is still a piece of sand, battling a shell to turn itself into a pearl.
Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits:
When it was finally time to submit my novel to publishers, I had no title. I sat for a full day in utter paralysis, staring at the title page, my cursor blinking in 24-point font. I would type whatever came to mind, most of it nonsense, just to see how it looked, and it all looked ridiculous. I had spent the previous week taking long walks and speaking aloud every term that came into my mind when I thought of the manuscript, an embarrassing voice recording of my attempts to seem smart. I went to Shakespeare — King Lear! I thought, there are some similarities, aren’t there? Old guys, unraveling families. Never mind the fact that I had never really understood that play, not really, and didn’t then when I skimmed it looking for my answer. Finally, I wrote my friend Stuart, who was one of the only writers I knew who didn’t overthink things. He wrote back a few minutes later with a list of trivia about Connecticut. Facts and data, all surface details. Stuff that seemed hopelessly superficial. But there, at the bottom, under a list of nicknames was “the land of steady habits.” And that was that.
Some titles come at me, wham, even before the story. I wrote the story “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” after that sentence somehow appeared in my brain, having no idea what the story would be about. Other titles are fought for. For a good while, my first novel was titled The Constellation Makers, which is not a good title at all (I knew that, fortunately). I had a long list of titles but I can’t remember the others because once I thought of No One is Here Except All of Us (which I took from a sentence in the book), I knew it was right and it never changed. However, I assumed that if I was ever lucky enough to get the thing published, surely the publisher would nix my long, complicated title. I assumed they would want something snappy (and that I’d hate it). This is not at all what happened and I was so glad that I had gone for the thing I wanted instead of guessing at the desires of the industry—turns out uniqueness, at least in this case, was an asset. Whatever the journey to a title, whether based on list-making and brainstorming and bouts with Thesaurus.com or one of those beautiful revelatory moments, I know the right title by instinct more than reason.
I titled my short story collection, Brief Encounters With the Enemy after one of the stories, A Brief Encounter With the Enemy. I know this may appear like an uninspired choice—indeed, it took me about one minute to come up with it—but I intended some subtlety behind it. For one thing, pluralizing the title helped to thematically link the eight stories, but more important is that it raised the question: who exactly is this enemy we keep encountering, and why? I’ll leave that up to each reader to decide.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves:
I had been working with another title, The Real Estate of Edmund Leary, which I liked for the double-duty “real” was doing, but I didn’t prefer to include the name of a character in the title, particularly when the book was more explicitly Eileen’s than it was Ed’s. While re-reading Lear in preparation to teach it, I came to the line in Act 2, Scene 4, where Lear is wondering why Cornwall won’t appear, even though he’s been ordered to. To explain away the offense to his ego, Lear says, “Infirmity doth still neglect all office/Whereto our health is bound”—i.e., sickness prevents us from doing the duties we’re required to do when healthy. The next line elaborates on this theme: “We are not ourselves/when nature, being oppressed, commands the mind/to suffer with the body.” Lear justifies Cornwall’s flouting of his authority by appealing to the universal experience of being beholden to our bodies: when the body isn’t working, the mind doesn’t work perfectly either. I found rich resonance in the idea of locating both the mind and the body in Lear’s formulation in the brain, so that the body that isn’t working is the mind, in fact — and then positing the mind in Lear’s formulation as what we think of as the spirit, the soul, the personality. When the brain isn’t working at its optimal best — when there’s an obstruction of function through illness, or a fixation or obsession that springs from traumatic early childhood experiences — the animating spirit of the person, what we think of as personality, is impaired as well.
The phrase struck me immediately as being at the heart of my concerns in the book. We Are Not Ourselves suggests characters who are not at their best, who by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves. It also suggests that we’re always learning and evolving, that we’re works-in-progress. We are not ourselves yet, in a sense; there’s hope in that. In a different vein, we are not reducible to whom we appear to be in our biographies. We contain multitudes in our rich internal lives that our lived lives don’t reveal. Another resonance for me is that we need each other to experience the full flowering of our humanity and our greatest happiness. We are not only ourselves; we are not islands unto ourselves. I liked that the phrase opened up fields of interpretation that would extend beyond the more circumscribed concerns of my original title, so I grabbed it and didn’t look back. As soon as I knew it was the title, it was as if it had been the title all along.
When I was a child, I developed a set of deliciously painful fantasies to reach for whenever my life felt stifling: running away, contracting a wasting illness, being orphaned (or kidnapped) and raised by disciplinarian ninjas. One of the most potent dreams involved becoming a latchkey kid, free after school hours to move around the city on my own dubious recognizance. I grew up in the suburbs, so my notions of “the city” were vague, but I supposed that I would live by my wits, sneaking through back-alley shortcuts and shoplifting candy bars when the need was great.
In Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari is a near-perfect stand-in for the scamp of my childhood dreams. She makes her own breakfast and escorts herself home at the end of the day; she knows swears. But her world is more fraught and dangerous than the one I had in mind. For one thing, her mother is dead, and, unlike the sympathetic thugs from my fantasy (who always showed up in the nick of time to grab my hand and tell me to run), the adults who remain in her life don’t follow her around to keep her safe. They each stay in their place, and she skips between them like a stone.
Some of Bertino’s characters are more stuck than others. For instance: Lorca, the owner of the titular club, who spends most of the book trying to keep his business running in the face of blatant city code violations. Or Mrs. Santiago, the deli owner who feeds Madeleine and asks about her day: she provides a necessary stability for the girl, but seems so fixed in her routine that she won’t even chase her dog (the marvelous Pedro) during his frequent bids for freedom.
But what’s enchanting is the way that most everyone – no matter how fixed at the story’s outset – is moving towards the same sublime adolescent freedom as Madeleine. It’s our privilege as readers to not just witness this mass unfettering, but to share in it: we feel the new lightness in each character’s step. Sarina Greene – Madeleine’s schoolteacher – is the clearest example: she starts off woebegone, still wearing her high-school-era discontents and sitting silently in the corner at a Christmas party. Soon, though, she’s chasing her new paramour through ice-cold fountains, making snap decisions, having fun. And so are we.
As we follow the antic momentum towards the Cat’s Pajamas (and, we assume, the hour of 2 A.M.), the book shimmers with pratfalls and wit, feeling at once real-to-life and larger-than. Not everyone is perfectly happy: Madeleine – an aspiring jazz singer – discovers the club and decides to make her way there, but despite her age and her Puckish quest, she’s not innocent. Her father, locked away in his grief, sleeps in their apartment like an ogre underneath a bridge; caustic and dangerous when startled awake. (He’s also the one exception, so far as we see, to the rule of stuck characters breaking loose.)
Still, it’s his alienation that gives Madeleine the leeway she needs to step out into the evening and play her part. And this seems to be another loose rule of the book: no redemption without suffering. Fair enough.
One question: is it possible for a group of characters to be too charismatic? If so, that was my only real objection to Bertino’s novel. The cast is large, and many more than our three major players (Madeleine, Sarina, and Lorca) take over as point-of-view characters for a page or two. Quite rightly, Bertino lets most of these personalities fall to the wayside so her plot can progress, but a few stuck in my mind long past their expiration dates: Clare Kelly – Madeleine’s nemesis – for example, is such a delicious brat that I couldn’t help but want more time with her. I also snagged on the suggestion of a parallel between Madeleine’s competition with Clare and her mother’s long-ago rivalry with a woman we know as Principal Randles (who expels Madeleine from elementary school, seemingly to get back at her mother for being too pretty), but the connection goes largely unexplored.
It’s fair to say, though, that all this really points out is that Bertino draws rich and real human beings with enviably few strokes of the pen. Instead of feeling overcrowded, the book feels lively, with the jostling energy of…well, a club. It’s packed. You might elbow someone to get to your table. But in the end you don’t really mind, because those electric connections are part of the fun.
Coincident with the release of her new novel, Marie-Helene Bertino published an excerpt in the latest issue of Granta. It features, among other things, a character using the phrase “better-him-than-me kind of park.” You could also read Bertino’s interview with Jessica Gross, which followed the publication of her debut book of short stories.
Out this week: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman; The Kills by Richard House; When the World Was Young by Elizabeth Gaffney; Secrets of the Lighthouse by Santa Montefiore; The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer; Ride Around Shining by Chris Leslie-Hynan; Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks; The Liar’s Wife by Mary Gordon; The Dog by Jack Livings; Bluff City Pawn by Stephen Schottenfeld; Beneath the Neon Egg by Thomas E. Kennedy; 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino; and Bad Feminist by Year in Reading alum Roxane Gay, who also came out with a novel a few months ago.