Award-winning author Michel Faber speaks about the power of an effective ending.
This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Endings, with contributions from Michel, Geoff Dyer and Eva Verde. Our Resources packs are generously supported by Arts Council England. Discover more here →
The beginning of a story is the hook, the lure. It can be shamelessly manipulative, entrapping your reader with promises and mysteries. It’s dead easy. Any hokum will do.
The ending is a different matter. Your reader has travelled with you for a long time. They’ve got to know your characters, and, if they’ve made it this far, they care about them. They want things to turn out right. Maybe not happily. But appropriately.
My Victorian novel The Crimson Petal And The White originally ended with the death of the heroine, Sugar. I’d planned this from the outset. Melodrama to the max.
My wife read it and wasn’t impressed. Eight hundred pages of intimate engagement and then a kick in the teeth? It didn’t seem right to her. I talked about the rules of Greek tragedy. She talked about character development, and what state I wanted people to be in when they finished my book. Sure, I had the power to devastate people. But was that really what I wanted my story to achieve?
I went back and rewrote it. Sugar lived.
The appropriateness of an ending, however, is not just about what happens at the end, but how the language conveys those events. The pace and feel of the prose determines how the ending resonates. In the original ending of my novel The Book Of Strange New Things, my hero lifted three fingers and said “Scout’s honour.” I thought this was so clever! My wife thought it was too abrupt. I argued that it worked hard thematically: my hero used to be a Boy Scout, and now he was a minister, and the three fingers symbolised not just a Boy Scout gesture but a church spire and the Trinity.
My wife wasn’t having it. “It’s like a joke,” she said. “This is the end of an epic journey, and your readers are emotional about it being over. You can’t fob them off with a snappy one-liner.” So I went back and wrote something that allowed people to breathe, to take more solemn leave of those characters and that world.
My most recent book, D (A Tale Of Two Worlds), is for younger readers. It’s especially important to behave appropriately when you’re dealing with children. They’re looking for clues as to how the universe works, whether humans are toxic or redeemable, whether there’s any point trying. I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath when I was too young and the ending traumatised me. I forgive him, because he was angry about the heartless treatment of the poor during the Great Depression. But if you’re considering inducing great depression in your reader, ask yourself first whether you’ve got a cause as righteous as Steinbeck’s.
In D (A Tale Of Two Worlds) my heroine Dhikilo goes on a perilous journey and she beats the odds. She returns home to the eccentric professor who sent her on this mission. He seems surprised she made it. But pleased. The final line is: “ “Oh, I do like a happy ending,” he said.”
For this book, that was right. For other books, it wouldn’t be. But to you aspiring writers, my counsel is: Think of the power you wield – the power to hurt, or to console. Use it wisely.
Michel Faber has written nine books. In addition to the Whitbread-shortlisted Under the Skin, he is the author of the highly acclaimed The Crimson Petal and the White, The Book of Strange New Things, which was shortlisted for the Arthur C, Clarke Award and won the 2015 Saltire Book of the Year, and most recently Undying, his first poetry collection. Born in Holland, brought up in Australia, he now lives in the UK.