Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Final moments in books

In the last couple of years, I've been thinking about what makes for satisfying final moments of a book -- the kind that makes you sigh and put the book down on your chest, still open to the last page because you want to savor the moment, because you aren't sure you want to close the book yet.

My question about final moments was thrown into sharp relief when I took a screenwriting class and discovered that I can quickly and easily recall the ending of about half or a third of the movies I've seen.  On the other hand, there are only a handful of books whose final moments I can remember. I asked some other writers and found that I'm not alone in this.  Final moments of books are rarely memorable. Why is that?  Are movie endings better?

At first, I thought it was a strong image.  And while I'm sure that's a factor, I'm not sure that is the only factor.  After all, many, many books' final moments are on a strong image and honestly, the image didn't make them any more memorable.

Then, I thought it was because movie endings are a so clean and everything is wrapped up, but then, some of my favorite movie endings are not.  The end of Shakespeare in Love, for instance, is Gwyenth Paltrow walking on a beach with the voice over narrating something along the lines of:  "My story starts at sea, a perilious voyage to an unknown land." (Go to minute 3:25 to see what I'm referring to.)

Or even the little joke at the end of Patriot Games, where we cut to black while we are waiting to hear whether the next baby in the family is a girl or a boy.  Sure, the ending was tied up, but something else was happening in those endings:  they were giving the viewer a way to let the story continue.

Does that translate to the page?  I realized that there were only three(Jazz by Toni Morrison, Project X by Jim Shepard, and Invisible by Pete Hautman),  and they all had something in common:  they weren't really endings. (Well, maybe I take too much credit when I claim to have 'discovered' this.  More like, it was nicely gift wrapped for me.  I was lucky enough to talk to Jim Shepard when he came to the University of Minnesota and asked him about endings, citing his book as one of the few whose endings stays with me.  He told me that Project X ends en medius reus).  Which got me thinking about Invisible, which ends with a bit of twist that indicates that there is more of the story to come and Jazz, which is one of the best endings I've ever read.  Jazz ends by bringing the call and answer techinque of the musical art form of well -- jazz -- to lit.  Wikipedia defines the call and answer this way:  Part of the band poses a musical "question", or a phrase that feels unfinished, and another part of the band "answers" (finishes).

Morrison ends my throwing out the call and waiting for the audience to answer.  Her final line:  "Look.  Look at where your hands are right now."  They are, obviously, on the book.  She is giving us a hint about the narrator of the piece, but also empowers the reader to act, to move, to think and by doing so, answer her call.

So maybe the Shakespeare in Love prinicple applies here.  Maybe final moments in books, like movies, are most memorable when they leave room for the reader.

I'm still not sure why movie endings leave a stronger impression than books, so what do you think?  Who has written an ending that you love?  Why?  What makes a final moment satisfying to you? 


  1. I love this post. And find that this is totally resonating with me. I am probably going to walk around and think of this all day! Thanks. It is such and interesting thought that I'm going to have to start taking better note of. I will be back when I think of a few examples.

  2. Speaking of Morrison, I do love the way things come crashing together at the end of Song of Solomon.

    And the last sentence of Banana Yoshimoto's book _N.P._, about the crazy beauty of life, almost made reading the book worth it (I loved her book _Asleep_ though)--that line ended up "excusing" strange behavior of the characters.

    Speaking of in medeas res, what about something like The Sopranos? It seems like, given this time of year, many people are buzzing about season and series finales, including and especially Lost, and the follow-up on Jimmy Kimmel with spoofs of other series' endings. It's interesting what makes a satisfying filmic ending versus the written one--how we want to tidy things up in the mainstream.