The Last Word
A few nights ago, I participated via Internet in a big teen lock-in and got a question I hear frequently: why did I choose to end ASHES the way I did? Now, for those of you who haven’t read the book, never fear. I won’t ruin it by telling you HOW it ends. Let’s just say that I broke several rules, and I did that on purpose. In fact, the end breaks enough rules that a recent Horn Book article talked specifically about this: that the “shocking” conclusion was among the “coolest” examples of an author being “daring enough (or heartless enough, depending on your tolerance for sad endings) to let their protagonists face seemingly insurmountable obstacles and find that they are, indeed, just that.”
Which is pretty darned cool in and of itself.
But, back to the question. Why did I do that? Well, whenever I’m asked, I always ask the question right back, not because I’m being coy but I want to hear what or how people think/feel/react. The answer I hear most frequently is that I did it to make people buy the sequel. EEEEHHHH! Wrong. (Although it’s true that my editor and I went back and forth about this–he was a tad nervous about breaking SO many rules–when I explained why, he was right on board.) Some people think I’m trying to be shocking just for the sake of being shocking, and that’s also wrong, but it’s a tad closer to what I was thinking and trying to convey. Going for that emotional gut-punch isn’t far off.
Let’s think, though, about what good beginnings and endings do for us. A great beginning grabs our attention, right? But a fabulous beginning sentence or paragraph also sets the tone for the novel; it hints at what’s in store. For example, one of my favorite beginning lines of all time belongs to William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Oh, my goodness, is that evocative or what? You instantly “see” that sky; you know what color it is; you also know that we’re talking a lot of light and tech because only a ton of light–and that means, a big city–has the ability to wash out a black sky and bright stars. (Or skies are muddy orange; I’ve noticed this in places like New York, where I wonder if people even remember that looking up is fun to do.) Regardless, that line sets up the entire book. You’ve garnered tons of information from fifteen words. Fifteen. That’s amazing.
Similarly, a great last line (or last couple of lines) sends the reader and the book on her way, and if the writer is very skilled, evokes the mood the writer wants you to walk away with. For example, at the end of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, poor mute Melinda, who’s found not only courage and closure but her voice, has the last word: “Let me tell you about it.”
Hand’s down, though, I think that Libba Bray is fabulous at these type of send-off last lines/last paragraphs, and IMHO, her best work can be found in her Gemma Doyle series. All her last lines are great, but my particular favorite can be found at the end of A Strange and Terrible Beauty:
“The wind shifts, bringing with it the smell of roses, strong and sweet. Across the ravine, I see her in the dry crackle of leaves. A deer. She spies me and bolts through the trees. I run after her, not really chase. I’m running because I can, because I must.
Because I want to see how far I can go before I have to stop.”
This is a perfect send-off for that first book because it is all about beginnings and a young woman daring to break the rules. This end does, in fact, set up the beginning of the next book and helps you understand where this series is headed.
Most often, when I reach the end of a book I’m writing, I know what the last line is because I knew it from the beginning, and the whole book has been a journey to that last line. The one time I was a little surprised by where I ended up was at the end of SHADOWS, not because the line hadn’t been “said” in my head already but because it wasn’t the last line/scene but the penultimate scene. When I got to the end, though, and penned what I had imagined the last line ought to be, it just didn’t feel right. Just didn’t. I realized after a few minutes that the book’s journey had really ended the scene before. So I switched them around, and now I do think that SHADOWS ends in a way that both evokes what I want to people to feel and summarizes the journey. (I’m sure you’ll tell me if I’m right.)
But back to ASHES: this is the G-d’s honest truth about why I ended it the way I did. It’s actually kind of artsy-fartsy, but my reasoning went like this: ASHES is a book about what happens when the world falls apart. Nothing remains that you recognize; all the niceties are swept away. Alex has to endure in that world, where all the old rules no longer apply. So my feeling was if she has to do that, why should you get a break? I wanted you to experience the same kind of shock and dislocation she does, that moment when you finally, truly understand that nothing will ever be the same again.
That’s why I did it. Do I succeed? I dunno; you tell me. But I sure hear enough from people who are FRANTIC to find out what happens next; who are so shocked and upset they want to yell and scream at me (that’s fine; just be civil); who think about throwing their books or Kindles across the room (some actually do). All that’s good because that means you felt something. You weren’t indifferent. You weren’t . . . oh, cool. You were . . . SAY WHAT?
All good. Mission accomplished. That you care is all and the best a writer can hope for.