What’s in an Ending?


Oh the pleasure of pounding those words onto the end of a story. Whether it took four, eight or twelve drafts, three months or six years, the story is over, ended, and the rest is up to the reader. When I finished final edits on my first novel, Running Toward Home, I envisioned all of the characters in that novel climbing onto a bus. As the bus ground its gears and chugged off into the sunset —I’m a poor author, my imaginary busses are all a little decrepit— one character made his way to the back and waved goodbye. I blew Corey a kiss and wished him good luck.

It is rare for me to begin a story with the ending clearly in sight. In fact, one of the pleasures of writing is in following the tape as it plays out in my mind, following my characters even when their footsteps are barely visible in the snow. But not to pretend that it’s all a mystical journey, there comes a point when I know it’s time to rein in even the bossiest character and hand her the bus ticket.

I love mysteries, particularly the creepy stories of the likes of Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, and a number of other favourite British authors who do “creepy” so very well, and get great satisfaction from the ending that gives up the secrets and brings the suspense to a close. But my preference in literary fiction is the “open ending”, the one that leaves room to speculate on what happened next; sometimes even what happened within the story.

I write with a straightforward style and in my self-critical moments, I’ve felt that there is often a too definite a resolution. Have I really left room for the reader to own the story?
What I’ve learned after two novels, a collection of short stories and the somewhat strange hybrid of non-fiction, memoir, and fiction that became The Boy, is that I should be prepared for at least a dozen different interpretations of the story, and in particular in the ending.

A friend, after reading the stories in A Crack in the Wall, phoned and asked why I seemed to be incapable of writing anything but depressing fiction. Depressing? I thought all of my fiction had at least traces of humour, and a crumb of hope in the ending. “Nope,” said the cranky voice on the other end of the conversation, “everybody you write about is drowning. Could you at least throw them a rope that they can reach?” So much for the light touch and twinkle of redemption.

In the final scene in Delivery “the ferry slides away with from the dock with two long mournful pulls of the whistle.” To me, it’s clear that where we last see each of the characters, answers the big question and earns —THE END— Apparently not, because at least half of the readers I’ve met at book clubs have sputtered over the ending. Well? Did she keep the baby? Is she going to give her up? Are Jack and his nasty wife going to raise her? I’ve learned it’s best to just ask, “What do you think? How do you think it ends, and how would you like it to end?” When I don’t like the answer to my question, because I know the best way for that story to end, I remind myself of the bus, and that the reader shaking the book at me really does own it now.

The Boy raises countless questions. Why the complicated structure? Why write a fictional version of the story alongside the true version? Do I believe that Robert Raymond Cook was innocent? Probably the most difficult question: Why did I write this book?
But for once, at least where the fiction is concerned, I felt compelled to spell out the fate of young Daniel Peters in the most definite of summaries. “He will hold down a job in a welding shop, find someone to love, and look ruefully back in his old age on the years he wasted as a punk. In the end, his family will claim him.” The fiction is there because the only way I could endure writing the true story, was to offer a different ending, a form of redemption.

I seem to have drifted to non-fiction and particularly memoir recently, and I wonder if it’s all about control. I may encounter readers who feel the story isn’t complete, but there is no way that I will countenance anyone playing loose and fast with the stops and starts of my own life.

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