Fiction — The Last Chapter is not the place to tie up loose ends

Most fiction writers have a fairly clear idea where the novel is going well before they reach the last chapter.  It’s likely they’ve even had the final paragraph or sentence in mind for quite a while.  But sometimes approaching that last chapter, the end, can be challenging if one has neglected to tie up the loose ends — that minor character introduced in chapter 3, the one you intended to get back to but haven’t; the issue with the grandparents who came to visit once but, for no good reason, never appeared again.   The attempt by some authors to tie these loose ends up neatly with a red bow in a jam-packed last chapter is in my opinion unprofessional and annoying to the reader.

I would suggest that when reaching the halfway point, it’s a good idea for the writer to take notice of how many loose ends are left hanging.  For those of us who write family oriented fiction, or anything with multiple characters, or fiction with a complicated plot as in a mystery story, this can be especially important.  It’s so much better to deal with these side issues along the way, perhaps in that aforementioned second half of the novel.

I recently read a work of fiction, a mystery of sorts, which had been recommended as a book club choice.  I prefer not to mention the title as I would not label it a favorite, nor would I give it more than two stars in a review.  However it was different and fairly clever and I read to the last page.  In my opinion the last chapter, the ending, diminished the novel’s quality when what appeared to be last-minute explanations dealing with the fate of several minor characters seemed hurriedly inserted at the last.  I found it disappointing.

Another recent read, a novel I would recommend to anyone, The Light Between Oceans, had an ending I also questioned, but for a different reason.  It left me swamped by depression.  I spent several days trying to figure out how it could have ended otherwise, how the last chapter could have been different.  Then, after coming up with nothing, I decided the author had written her last chapter the best way it could be written because the story, based as it was on such an infinitely poignant moral issue, a legal issue it turned out, left few options.  The loose ends had all been dealt with well before the closing chapter.  It was a compelling read, but a heartbreaker.  I gave it five stars on Goodreads.

A third novel I finished a few weeks ago, A Live Coal in the Sea, was written by the prolific novelist  Madeleine L’Engle in 1996.  I had some difficulty following the changes from past to present time, as the protagonist gradually revealed long-kept family secrets to her granddaughter.  But I must say the author showed a mastery of her craft at the last—giving the reader not only a totally surprising and unexpected ending, but one that was ultimately acceptable to all concerned, including the characters themselves.

A writer of fiction, whether of short stories or novels, holds the last chapter of his or her work “in waiting” until it becomes the written word.  I find it exciting to work toward that moment!   While using the second half of a novel to build suspense and uncertainty, it can also provide the opportunity to tie up those loose ends involving minor characters and side issues.  Even if it means writing a few more chapters before reaching the last.  From a reader’s point of view, the endings of fiction works, the last chapters, are every bit as important as the frequently critiqued and criticized first chapters.  They, too, should be able to stand on their own, unfettered by the clutter of less important detail that can be included elsewhere.

In the event you’re wondering, I confess that I prefer to write happy endings.   Perhaps that’s because I prefer to read happy endings.  But it’s certainly wise not to rush to get there, not before the reader learns what happened to all those side characters and issues one creates along the way.

I am very excited about the last chapter In my latest novel, The Widow Darling. The ending is both happy and surprising.  I hope for an early fall release of this sequel to Turn on No-Bridge Road.