As we enter the last few days of 2013, perhaps it’s a good time to offer some thoughts about ending a piece of fiction or nonfiction with resonance. Before I do, though, please let me thank all of you who have read my blog this year, have taken time to leave comments, and offered me encouragement. Sometimes I feel like I’ve run out of things to say, but your insights and those of my students always keep the conversation going. I’m fortunate to be a part of this world-wide community of writers and readers. Much love to you all and all best wishes for a very happy and productive 2014.
Now to some thoughts about ending a piece of writing. Emily Dickinson said this in an 1870 remark to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” To me, something always goes off at the end of a good piece of writing in a way that sends shockwaves through the reader. There are numerous ways to achieve this resonance. Here are but a few.
And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning. (“The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Anton Chekhov)
Here, we see an ending based on a simultaneous closing and opening. The two lovers, married to other people, long to be free from their “intolerable fetters.” Notice how the glimmer of hope in the thought that they’d soon find a solution clangs up against the awareness of the difficulty that lies ahead. The sound, then, is resonant because hope and reality co-exist. The story ends with the sound of two discordant notes—the hope for “a new and glorious life” vibrating against the troubled life they’ll have to face.
You think it’s strange that you assumed you were the only boy hurt by that kiss in Mark’s bedroom. But you see that Jared carries that day with him like you do; he carries a shame not very different from yours. Somehow you’ve shared a scar for this many years. You say to Jared that just knowing he remembers is enough. He thanks you and grabs you again. On your shoulder his hand feels a little like the warmth of comfort, and a little like the squeeze of danger. (“If You Knew Then What I Know Now” by Ryan Van Meter)
This piece of nonfiction about a boyhood hurt achieves its resonance by a leveling of a binary. Throughout the essay, we’ve seen the writer as the victim and Jared as the bully. In this final move, Van Meter allows Jared equal footing when he realizes that Jared has been scarred by the incident, too. The last line resonates with ambivalence. Jared’s hand feels like comfort, but it also feels like danger. Writers create this effect by practicing the art of empathy, of seeing something from the inside of the other.
I move toward Eugene. “I will have something,” I roar.
“Stand back,” he shrieks, “I’ll spit in your eye.”
“I will have something. I will have terror. I will have drought. I bring the dearth. Famine’s contagious. Also is thirst. Privation, privation, bareness, void. I dry up your glands, I poison your well.”
He is choking, gasping, chewing furiously. He opens his mouth. It is dry. His throat is parched. There is sand on his tongue.
They moan. They are terrified, but they move up to see. We are thrown together. Slud, Frank, Clob, Mimmer, the others, John Williams, myself. I will not be reconciled, or halve my hate. It’s what I have, all I can keep. My bully’s sour solace. It’s enough, I’ll make do.
I can’t stand them near me. I move against them. I shove them away. I force them off. I press them, thrust them aside. I push through.(“A Poetics for Bullies” by Stanley Elkin)
Elkin’s short story resonates with force at the end. The narrator, Push the bully, persists. The end of the story builds to a crescendo. It makes a loud sound. Notice how the final sentences work to achieve this. Four short, declarative sentences followed by a variation, a momentary rest (“I press them, thrust them aside.”) before climaxing with the final short sentence, “I push through.” That rest before the final push (pun intended) makes all the difference in the resonate sound at the end.
But after I got them to leave and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. (A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway)
Who better than Hemingway to illustrate the art of understatement? Here, after the dramatic death of Catherine and her baby, Hemingway chooses to leave us with the quietude of Frederick walking back to his hotel in the rain. The stillness of that last sentence resonates because of the intensity of the dramatic action that precedes it.
I hope these examples prove useful to you as you think about how to end a piece so it resonates with your readers. Happy New Year to all of you. Here’s looking forward to another year of our ongoing conversation.