I’m writing Chapter 19 of a 20-chapter novel. It’s a historical novel, so we all know that everyone dies in the end. I admit that I’ve tossed in a few vignettes here and there to kind of while away a year or four and reveal a little bit more about the time and place. But what on earth am I going to write when the final breath has floated out into the chill morning air?
I hadn’t really thought about the ending until now, when it is a matter of grinding through the last few events to get to the end of the central character’s life. In a way, I have a certain license—I didn’t chronicle the famous person’s life exactly, I chronicled the life of her rival. Everything my protagonist does is in context of the famous woman. So I suppose I can kill my protagonist off in much the same way as the famous person.
But is that worth waiting for? Will that lead my readers to the point of closing the book with satisfaction and wondering what happens to the surviving characters? Or rather, will it leave them with a feeling of plodding through a laundry list of events?
Okay, so perhaps I can end the rivalry, have a letter sent from the famous one that says something like “I always admired you.” Or the unfamous one can have a moment of clarity and realize that the other woman never knew that there was a competition and she’d been in it alone all along. Or maybe her last words are of bitter remorse or maybe more rivalry. Or maybe she has a humiliating death and her last thoughts are on the order of “sheesh.”
Or maybe the famous one’s last gesture is one that ultimately causes the death of the other—one final fit of apoplexy.
It never occurred to me when I started writing the book that there would be any difficulty here. I mean, I knew that everyone dies in the end, even my narrator has to go sooner or later (it ends in 1179). You (my reader here) even know that everyone is dead by now and you haven’t read any of it.
I had trouble in the middle, when it switched from setting everything in motion to plodding through the “this happens and then that happens” that provides the bulk of the middle. It was hard to get a good subplot going that would maintain the forward thrust of the novel but allow a little respite from straight historical narration.
Then I had trouble when the narrator goes to see a play written by the famous person. It’s a pivotal play—it changed the nature of theater in one sense, but also, it reveals oodles about the character of the famous person and her rival, and the times in which they lived. The narrator has to narrate the play while interjecting her own thoughts about it. I started by paraphrasing the play, but that was four pages of text that didn’t move the plot of my novel along. Then I tried synopsizing the play with a few quotations and some whispered thoughts, and then cut cut cut, but in the end, well, I’m not happy with that chapter yet.
But I thought the end would be easy. I know how and when the famous person dies. The rivalry doesn’t have to die with her—my character has been alone in the rivalry for nearly 60 years by that time, and she can easily maintain her peevishness if I want. Or not.
I thought about letting my protagonist die before the famous person, but the mythology that arose from the famous person’s death seems like a good thing to toss into the craw of my jealous character.
If I provide a nice fit of apoplexy for my protagonist, what of my narrator? How does she close the book? Do we just watch the protagonist die, shrug, and say something profound? Or trite?
What do you think?.