Without success, I am trying to write an ending. I have selected some novels from my bookshelf to see how they do it. Welsh (Trainspotting, 1993), Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890) and Woolf (The Waves, 1931) are huddled together at the end of one shelf. I decide that, between the three of them, they should give me a decent spread across time, style, and genre.
Irvine Welsh ends with a beginning: “He could now never go back to Leith, Edinburgh, even to Scotland, ever again. There, he could not be anything other than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be. He’d stand or fall alone. The thought both terrified and excited him as he contemplated life in Amsterdam.” This makes me wonder if I too should exile my character. I could pack her a bag, book her a flight, give her a new start. There is hope in Welsh’s ending, a sense of possibility. In fact, this could almost be the opening of a book, not the conclusion. It is a prime example that all endings really are beginnings; that a good ending clears away the old and creates space for a new story to begin.
Oscar Wilde’s ending couldn’t be more different. His is a firm full stop, a definitive conclusion firmly tied up with strong brown paper and twine. In one short, final paragraph, he encapsulates the essence of Dorian Gray’s story: “When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was.” There is nothing quite like a knife in the protagonists’ heart to expunge all sense of possibility! Short of some more magic (which is not to be discounted for Wilde) Gray will not be joining Trainspotting’s Renton for a fresh start in Amsterdam. Perhaps high drama is what I should aim for: a dagger, blood, jewels, art, beauty, betrayal. And when I sell the film rights, the soundtrack to my ending will be a crashing percussion section at full crescendo. Can I pull it off?
Then I pick up Virginia Woolf. The music changes. Softer now, but with some force remaining. As I read, I think I hear a clarinet. Woolf closes The Waves as she opens it, with gorgeous, rolling, fluid-as-water prose: “‘It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!’ The waves broke on the shore.” It is a statement of defiance against the inevitable, for who can stop the waves? But I could not pull this off: such poetry, such fantastical imagery, such rebelliousness in hurling oneself against death. I love her sudden drop to the shore, to the perpetual breaking of the waves, to that which never ends. The power of the sea rises and falls, but always waves break – a forceful smash, a gentle curl. Should I try to copy her and create an ending with a sense of continuation; not a new beginning, but an encapsulation of the inevitability of life persisting, a presentation of the smallness of one’s story in the context of the great prolongation of the earth?
See? See how slightly (or considerably) mad this is making me. I’m an expert on everyone’s ending but mine. My inclination is towards sad endings, which I’m told are unsatisfactory, even though life is full of them. But sad endings are unpopular. We love a book with a clean, neat ending, one where love is found, conflict resolved, fortunes made, mountains climbed, the murderer exposed, justice restored, Amsterdam in our sights. I don’t mind the ending where he leaves her without saying goodbye, or where nothing changes, or where the lesson is not learned. I don’t mind the story having no moral, no moment of epiphany, no resolution. I would happily leave it with the waves continuing to break on the shore. Sometimes you just have to end things. Take a deep breath and say what you need to say.