Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Final Chapter

I've never really believed that the final chapter can make or break a book. Well with the exception being it being either truly horrific, or a thriller or a mystery that not only doesn't result in closure, but ends up creating even more questions than it answers, as with one bestselling author's latest books that I recently read.

However, that doesn't mean it's not important. Because it is. Very. While the first chapter is meant to draw you in, and all the subsequent ones keep the reader engaged enough to keep turning the pages, it's the final one that leaves them closing the book with a sigh of satisfaction or a vague sense of discontent.

Unfortunately, for the last four years, my final chapter of one of my manuscripts, has been the latter. It's not that I hated it. And it wasn't that I could put my finger on what was exactly wrong with it. It just wasn't... right. For some reason it didn't feel worthy of my heroine.

After everything she'd been through, it was like I left her hanging with this slightly soppy, introspective, anti-climactic exit. I could almost see her standing with her hands on her hips, glaring at me and saying "Seriously, after everything, this is where you leave me?"

The problem with not knowing what is wrong, is it's really hard to make it right. And so I tinkered with the scene and I edited it and I rewrote it and four years later, and who knows how many rewrites, it still stunk.

And then one night I woke up and realized. IT WAS ALL WRONG. All of it. The scene didn't need rewriting, or editing, or a better use of the five senses. The entire scene needed to be scrapped and replaced with something completely different.
And I had an inkling of what that new scene should be. So I scribbled something down but, while I knew it was heading in the right direction, it still wasn't it.
On Tuesday night I was jolted from my sleep again. And this time I had it. The new scene was right, but the choice she made was wrong. She had to make the different decision.

The opening line showed up on my notebook page. Then the closing line. Then a completely new character who linked it all together.

Last week, I finally sat down and weaved it all together. And as I tapped out the final line, I could see her leaning back in her chair, pumping her arms and saying "FINALLY!" Finally a scene that tied up all the lose ends, gave her closure and was worthy of all the trauma I'd inflicted on her for 300 pages. Finally a scene that I wouldn't be embarrassed to submit should I ever be lucky enough that an editor wanted to read it. Finally an ending that made me believe that people who read it would turn the final page with a satisfied smile, rather than a feeling of discontent.

What about you? How important is the ending of a book? Is it make or break? Does it matter if the rest of the book has been amazing? What makes you close a book disappointed? Contented?


  1. They say the first chapter sells THIS book and the last chapter sells the NEXT book, which makes a certain amount of sense.

    I know when I'm rewriting, I'm back and forth between the opening and the closing, trying to make sure the reader asks the right questions at the beginning, and that the ending answers those questions in a satisfying way. It can take a few tries to even get the right combination of scenes, and then, like you say, it still needs to be tweaked.

    Great fun!!

  2. The last chapter is definitely a make or break for me. I've just finished a mystery that was powerfully written, layered, complex, spell-binding and then the ending left me saying "huh?" I've read this author before and had the same anti-climactic ending to an otherwise terrific book. Now I wonder if I'll pick up her next one.

  3. I once sat, propped up in bed, until about 3 in the morning, unable to put a book down. My heart pounded. My mouth felt dry. The writing was brilliant. I couldn't possibly stop and sleep. I had to know what happened.

    With each sentence I grew more tense. Something HAD to happen soon to rescue this poor girl. Then I turned to the last page. And it hadn't happened. The girl was left high and dry by the author. I had no idea what would become of her.

    I was so upset I hurled the book off the bed in disgust. Months later, I discovered the author had written a sequel, which picked up where the previous book left off. With much relief, I bought the next book, but it wasn't the same. I wished the author had finished the story properly the first time round.

  4. At one time Harlequin did a series of that type. It was a mystery involving about five nain characters, so there were five books, each by a different author. The love story in each book was complete, but the mystery thread carried on until the last book. I was so irritated to get to the end of a book and not find out "whodunit" I vowed never to pick up a book in a series like that again.
    I later read a blog by one of the authors who found the whole idea intriguing but hated leaving her readers dangling at the end of her part of the series.

  5. What a great post, Kara! What persevereance, what patience you have. Over the years my husband always knew when I finished reading a book that made me sad and sometimes mad too! I would be grumpy for hours. Perhaps that is one reason I mainly prefer reading romance novels with their essential Happy Ever After endings -as long as they ARE believable, in character and not a couple fighting until that last page of course.

  6. Valerie you are so right! I had never thought about how the ending influences whether or not you buy the author's next book - but after my most recent disappointment that was exactly the result.

  7. Re Shirley's comment, that is so frustrating, but it might be that the author didn't get the option to finish the novel as he or she really wanted to. My first two novels were originally one novel, but then after it was accepted for publication, I was told it was too long and that I would have to divide it into two. So I had to acquiesce, if I wanted it published. I was never happy that my poor heroine's future was definitely left up in the air - but at least it did encourage some readers to buy the sequel. So perhaps this is what happened with the book you read, Shirley.

  8. Yes, the ending is what will buy an author's next book for me. If all the ends haven't been tied up satisfactorily, I too, will toss the book away and not read another word written by that author. I don't mind if the ending is sad, but so long as the character feels they've come to a point of understanding and resolved all the issues in their life I'm happy. I'll buy the author's next book. Kara, I admire your patience in continuing to get that ending right. Well done!