Kurt Vonnegut put it best in a lecture to M.F.A. students at the University of Iowa: “The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is. And if I die – God forbid – I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’”
After you’ve created characters that feel real, developed affections and pity for them, lived with them a long time and walked them through crisis after crisis – it has to end. To turn to them and say “this was the good news, and that was the bad news” takes some hubris.
Whether or not a writer believes in God (and I’m pretty sure Vonnegut didn’t), it’s important to remember that, at best, playing is all we are doing. It’s less important if things end well for our characters than if we have shown their lives, and through them life itself, honestly. If the truth is that the good news and bad news are hard for us to tell apart, then an ending that says that is not ambiguous at all. In his book “How Fiction Works,” the critic James Wood says that if Chekhov was right and novels do not give answers, they can still give “the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric.”
We are trying our best. Endings need not be conclusions.
With this in mind, it turned out to be pretty easy to finish my novel. By the time my editor and I were done with our drinks that night, I had a pretty good idea where things had to end – like Elizabeth Bowen’s reader, as soon as I got there, it seemed to have been inevitable from the beginning. I banged out a new final chapter in just a couple of weeks…