Last month, I wrote about how a writer friend had asked: At what point in the labour of writing a book do you know you're going to finish it?
This month: another conundrum thrown up by conversation with the same group of friends. How, one of them asked, do you find an ending?
The friend was in the toils of writing a fantasy. She had invented a world which she loved, she had characters she loved, she had involved them in all sorts of tasks and situation which she was thoroughly enjoying writing about -- but she didn't know how the book would end. Or if there would be an end of any kind, good, bad or indifferent. In short:
In my experience, only with extreme difficulty. We all know that stories, novels and poems all have a shape, an arc, and you have to find and follow that structure in order to arrive at the right ending or, at least, an ending which satisfies its creator and readers. But it's very easy to say that. When you're inside a story, jumbled up with its characters and all their motivations, plus theme and even moral -- and subtexts -- well, that's like being one cat in a sack of half a dozen cats and fighting to find a way out. It's hard, if not impossible, to see what the arc of your story is or what way it's inclining.
I've sometimes found it helps the process along to 'prime the pump.' Take a few minutes to relax, then lay out the problem in your mind: I need a reason for this character to be here... I need to know how that character will react... Or whatever your problem is. When that's all clear, say, 'Over to you!' And go off to the river with a fishing-rod, or to the football or WI meeting or whatever it is you do for fun. Anyone for burning down Downing Street?
In Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, Alice is trying to reach the other side of an immense chess-board. She
finds that the harder she walks or runs towards the other side, the farther away it becomes. But when she turns her back on it and walks in the opposite direction, she immediately arrives
at the place she's been trying to reach. I've always thought that a brilliant metaphor for originality. And originality is surely what we're aiming at as we try to find an ending. Our plot, our
ingenious twists, our perfect ending should all have a little dash of originality to make them interesting.
But the harder you try to be original, the less you will succeed -- because you're thinking about it. Thinking about it uses the conscious mind and will involve you thinking about every book you've ever read and every film you've ever seen. You'll be copying them, reacting to them or reacting against them in a desperate attempt to be original and every time you do that, your own work becomes less you, less authentic. Reflecting or recoiling from someone else's work is not being original -- originating with you, that is. An interesting linguistic point is that 'authentic' and 'author' come from the same root -- the author is the originator of their work. To be original, it must be authentically of that author. Do you really want your book to end that way -- or a character to behave like that? If what you write is genuinely what you think and feel, then it's original and authentic, even if someone else thinks you copied from -- wherever.
Turn your back on the whole 'is it original' quandary and walk away -- let your conscious mind grapple with the problems of baking bread, building IKEA furniture or finding your way on a map -- and the thoughts that sneak up on you from your subconscious will be authentically yours. They have a far better chance of being seen as 'original' by your readers.
Writing is so individual that I doubt this will be much use to anyone else, although I hope it is. But if you are, like my
friend, having trouble finding an ending, do not despair. Everyone does, no matter how experienced they are. Writing is hard and writing the end is the hardest bit of all.