Here We Are at the End

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.







  1. Shiv Dutta on December 30, 2013 at 12:40 pm


    Thank you very much for all the wonderful tips. I wish I knew about your blog earlier. I wish you a very Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year.


    • Lee Martin on December 31, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      Thanks so much, Shiv. I wish you much prosperity in the coming year.

  2. Maureen on December 30, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Best wishes for a wonderful New Year.

    • Lee Martin on December 31, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      The same to you, Maureen.

  3. John Zulovitz on December 30, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    All are wonderful choices, Lee; however, the one that strikes me the sharpest is the final example, from Mr. Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” a novel I read when, as a junior in high school, I took an “Advanced Novel” course.

    The story of Frederick and Catherine was not my first encounter with Mr. Hemingway’s work; for a year earlier, in College Prep. English, I and the other students in my class read “A Day’s Wait.”

    It still shames me to say that, initially, I wasn’t much impressed with Mr. Hemingway’s work. Being young and a bit full of myself, I recall telling my teacher and fellow students that I found “A Day’s Wait” rather dull. “All those sharp, declarative sentences,” I said, “seem to lead to nothing important.”

    I should add that, while a sophomore, and during the period when I read “A Day’s Wait,” I was also reading a lot of John Updike — the “Rabbit Angstrom” novels — as well as John Steinbeck — “Of Mice and Men” — and William Kennedy’s “Ironweed.”

    During that time, I thought Updike was the cat’s meow, the whip’s snap. I loved getting lost in his labyrinthine prose; I loved, even more, how deeply he investigated his characters’ lives, each of whom he presented fully, complete with attributes and flaws. They were, by turns, idiosyncratic and mundane, curious and commonplace. I admired their ambiguities and the way they were sometimes unable — or unwilling — to communicate with one another. And though they sometimes thought so, they were not infallible. Such intercourse struck me as beautifully harsh and real. The relationship between Rabbit and Janice was, I thought, spot-on with regard to the way relationships really work: a duet in which the players stumbled when finding themselves susceptible to obligation, and soared when they encountered those moments of grace in which they found themselves to be in perfect — if timorous — agreement.

    “Of Mice and Men” taught me about prejudice; namely how it can exist in such an insidious way that we often don’t realize the way we judge others based simply upon how they appear to us.

    “Ironweed” taught me about guilt and how the burden of carrying one’s mistakes and sins to such a soul- and mind-crushing degree that it can ruin our lives. It is a story of ghosts; of dreams squandered and deferred. Traveling round the streets of Albany with Francis, Helen, and Rudy, and discovering whether or not they persevered, left me dizzy, almost giddy.

    So why, I wondered aloud in that sophomore English class, should I be concerned with a story about a child lying in bed with a fever? It didn’t make much sense to me.

    In addition, I had heard that Mr. Hemingway was a writer much taken with machismo, which didn’t much interest me. “His characters are almost always male, and they are almost always alone,” I had heard. “They drink lots of liquor and aren’t interested in letting others get too close to them.”

    After reading “A Day’s Wait,” I cultivated an attitude (an ignorant one, I see now) that Mr. Hemingway’s writing was not for me.

    A year later, however, I found myself taking “Advanced Novel,” and presented on the syllabus — along with Golding, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald — was Hemingway. Oh no, I thought. I have to read an entire novel written by this guy? The prospect didn’t seem very enlivening.

    Mrs. Calhoon, the class’s teacher (she was also my adviser for the school newspaper), was an object of much ribbing from me. With each book read, I asked her: “How much longer before we have to read Ernie’s book?” “Now, John,” she would say, “it’s Ernest Hemingway.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, filled with a youthful hubris to which I had no real right. “How much longer?” It was a question to which Mrs. Calhoon sadly shook her head.

    In the class, before reading each book, we had to do a biographical study of the authors. It was then that I learned of how Mr. Hemingway began his writing career as a journalist. Suddenly, all of those sharp, declarative sentences started to make sense. Well, all right, I thought, I can cut him a little slack on that score. But what of the brawn and machismo, the man who needs no one and, what’s more, has no desire for human connection?

    When the day came, I took a deep breath, went to my room, and cracked open the Hemingway book. “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” Oh brother, I thought. Here we go. Run-on sentences punctuated by those sharp declarations.

    Steeling myself, I went on, and much to my stubborn and youthful chagrin, I found myself starting to connect with Frederick. The writing (also to my chagrin) wasn’t only good; it was damned good. Then Catherine came on the scene, began nursing Frederick to health (and, by example, showing him that he was capable of real human connection and emotion), and I was hooked.

    Even though we were only assigned to read one to two chapters a night, I began reading ahead. And halfway through the book, heart racing and mouth dry, I discovered that my hands were as good as glued to those pages.

    “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” This was a difficult sentence for me to read, and for a very simple reason: it’s challenging to read words on a page when one’s eyes are filled with tears.

    The next day, I went into “Advanced Novel,” approached Mrs. Calhoon’s desk, and said, much humbled: “I finished Mr. Hemingway’s book last night.” To this day, I recall the warm, conspiratorial smile my teacher beamed at me.

    As for some other great endings, these came to mind:

    “He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” — Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”

    “But he did not ask, and his uncle did not speak except to say, after a few minutes, ‘It’s time to go home,’ and all the way home they walked in silence.” — James Agee, “A Death in the Family”

    “The trumpets go again. My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others.” — Richard Ford, “Independence Day.”

    “… Kelly, little ‘Lizabeth, as if they did not recognize her running there squealing in expectation in joy in her little white anklet socks raising her arms to be lifted high kicking in the air as the black water filled her lungs, and she died.” — Joyce Carol Oates, “Black Water”

    “She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.” — John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”

    “Her meals to Moses would be until the end. Celeste was never to close down her days, even after Moses had died, without thinking aloud at least once to everyone and yet to no one in particular, ‘I wonder if Moses done ate yet.'” — Edward P. Jones, “The Known World”

    “One thinly bearded man clawed his face. One or two waved at Yakov. Some shouted his name.” — Bernard Malamud, “The Fixer”

    “This was not judgment day–only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.” — William Styron, “Sophie’s Choice”

    “But I don’t think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt. Amen.” — Alice Walker, “The Color Purple”

    “I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

    “But it is still just an idea. I only put the stove down there today because the room needs drying out anyway.” — John Fowles, “The Collector”

    “In this way, you’ll live forever.” — Adam Johnson, “The Orphan Master’s Son”

    “She was holding him, wanting him, and he wished he could make love with her but he could not. He saw Frank and Mary Ann making love in her bed, their eyes closed, their bodies brown and smelling of the sea; the other girl was faceless, bodiless, but he felt her sleeping now; and he saw Frank and Strout, their faces alive; he saw red and yellow leaves falling to the earth, then snow: falling and freezing and falling; and holding Ruth, his cheek touching her breast, he shuddered with a sob that he kept silent in his heart.” — Andre Dubus, “Killings”

    “Then the music takes us, the music rolls away the years, and we dance.” — Stephen King, 11/22/63

    “If it ever happens to you, you might swear, as I did that day, that if you can just keep moving — keep driving long enough, fast enough — you’ll come to the edge of the world, that point where land rises up to meet sky, and you’ll have no choice; you won’t be able to stop. You’ll just float out into all that blue — call it Heaven if you want — and just like that, you’ll be gone.” — Lee Martin, “The Bright Forever”

    Such are the books and their endings which, though I read many of them years ago, live in my mind and heart to this day.

    • Lee Martin on December 31, 2013 at 12:24 pm

      John, I love your story about how you came to appreciate Hemingway. Your additional examples are excellent, and I’m honored to have my own included. Happy New Year to you.

  4. Meryl Peters on December 30, 2013 at 8:27 pm


    Serendipity strikes again. As I sit here revising a story ending (again) I clicked on your blog, which I have been following for several months. You continue to inspire me as you did a few years ago at RopeWalk and as you did through our previous correspondence.

    One of my many writerly resolutions is to add my voice to the conversation. Thank you for providing the opportunity to participate.

    All the best to you in the New Year!

    Meryl Peters

    • Lee Martin on December 31, 2013 at 12:28 pm

      Ah, Meryl! Believe it or not, I was thinking of you not so long ago, and now here you are. Welcome! I’m so glad to hear from you and to know that you’re still willing words onto the page. I wish you much happiness and prosperity in the year to come.

  5. Nina Gaby on December 31, 2013 at 6:10 am

    It’s the beginnings that have me. An ending, so far off, would seem a luxury. Happy 2014.

    • Lee Martin on December 31, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      Ah, yes, beginnings. I always find whatever will suffice to get the words moving, knowing the opening will surely change by the time I know what the end will be. Nina, I wish you much joy and prosperity in the coming year.

  6. Richard Gilbert on January 1, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Love this, Lee. Endings are so important, and memorable if great. Like the end of Gatsby. I recently read an essay by Jill Talbot where the ending just explodes with a metaphor from the beginning:

    Happy New Year, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on January 2, 2014 at 2:20 pm

      Happy New Year, Richard! Thanks for the reminder that a good piece, particularly a lyric essay, can achieve that resonance via an evolution of a central metaphor or image, one that grows into something surprising and significant in the final moves of the essay.

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