The Happy Finish

I’ve always loved John Irving’s books–especially  The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. His stories feel wonderfully complete, progressing inexorably and almost divinely from the opening sentence to the final thought.

Now I know why.

According to Off the Page: Writers Talk about Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between by Carol Burns, John Irving never starts a novel until he’s written the last sentence.

Beginnings matter in writing, but endings may be even more important. In everyday life, loose ands and unfinished business give us a feeling of imbalance, so we crave the satisfaction of seeing someone’s story tied up neatly at the end of a novel. Closure feels good. It’s one of the reasons people read fiction.

And while the first sentence of your book has to hook the reader and draw him in, the last sentence has to make him sink back into his chair with a happy sigh, reflect for a moment on your brilliance, then rise and trot off to the nearest bookstore to request your next masterpiece.

Ending with a scene that echoes the beginning of the book is one way to give readers that satisfaction. If your character reaches a point similar to where the story began but responds to it differently, readers realize the character has grown and changed. Using imagery, language, or dialogue that echoes the beginning of the book can subtly remind readers of where the story started, and make them conscious of the completion of the character arc.

And by writing the last sentence first, you know your destination before you even begin. Like an architect building a skyscraper, you can place each stone where it will best support the magnificent finial that crowns your work – the spire that reaches to the sky.

It’s a matter of setting priorities.  Novice writers tend to concentrate on those first five pages, but a satisfying wrap-up is even more important.  Irving puts the ending where it belongs: in first place.