The Hydrangea’s Last Chapter

I’m not a gardener; however, I like having a few containers sitting around with basil, rosemary, lavender, and perhaps a few flowers. And, I like to save plants–the ones I find on a bargain table that, if not sold that day, are destined for the trash bin the following day.

Recently, I debated whether I should let a large hydrangea plant–that was clearly struggling and not putting forth any flowers–die a natural death, or take a drastic measure to save it. Assuming it was on it’s way out regardless, I whacked it down to about about 10 inches above ground. I fully expected it to perish. Instead, it burst forth with new leaves, has grown at least two feet in a short time, and even managed a few blooms.

That may not be a bad approach to take with a manuscript that has a weak, unsatisfactory last chapter. When I approach the last chapter of a manuscript I’m working on, I envision my characters as having met their challenges and emerging into a new phase of their lives. I want to convey that to the reader who, I hope, cares about what happens to the characters as much as I do. If I have portrayed my fictional men and women sufficiently, that should happen. And I should bring the book to a believable conclusion that leaves the reader–if not in agreement–at least with a sense of closure.

But that doesn’t come easily. Case in point: I just finished the latest novel by a well-known author. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and has had at least one of her books made into a film. She is at her best when writing about families and relationships. I really liked this last novel, and read with anticipation to see what the main character would finally decide.

The suspense increased as I turned to the last page. Was the main character going to make a life changing decision or not? Finally, in the last two sentences of the book, she appears to make a decision, but then what ? The reader’s left hanging, still with no idea if she will carry through or not.

I realize that short, abrupt endings have become a vogue in fiction, but there is a limit to how truncated one can manage without irritating the reader. This book was 292 pages. It would have benefited from 293.

Sometimes, we either write themselves into a corner, or simply don’t know how to fashion the ending we imagine. When we write, we usually have our characters firmly in mind and know what should happen in the last chapter. Knowing and doing, however, are not the same thing, and producing that perfect ending can be daunting. I’ve struggled with more than one last chapter, reworking endlessly and finally settling on a version, but never feeling fully confident or good about it.

Hence, the whacking. I think the solution may be the same one I applied to the hydrangea. Take a chance, discard the old, the tired, the not-good-enough. Write a new, fresh chapter. Consider–would a different outcome make a difference? Explore various scenarios apart from the one you’ve had in mind. Experiment. You’ll know when you’ve got the conclusion that works, and you’ll have given the reader something to hold onto. You may not ever want to write a sequel, but the ultimate compliment is when your readers ask if there is going to be one.

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