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Ernest Hemingway and the sense of an ending

When you are writing a story, what makes an ending? This is possibly the most difficult question in the literary and dramatic arts. Endings are notoriously tough. They bring pressure to be coherent, to sum up, which can seem unnatural or unlifelike.

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And there is unresolved disagreement about whether to plan them at all: Some writers (usually seen as the more commercially minded) insist that a story can only come from an ending; that the ending must be imagined first and the story created backward from there. Others (the more experimental or simply diffident) claim that they can come up with something original only by wandering blindly, guided by voices or spirits or something.

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Here's a story: A soldier has been wounded. He deserts a senseless and bloody war. He falls in love with and runs away with his nurse. She is pregnant. When they are finally safe and living a quiet life, she gives birth to a stillborn son. Then she dies of a hemorrhage.

Here's an ending: "After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the house in the rain."

That's a famously bleak and unemotional ending. Yet it's unabashedly conclusive: A senseless death has echoed the senseless war deaths that preceded it. But no message is spelled out by the language; no inner reflection occurs.

It's not surprising that the writer, Ernest Hemingway, agonized over it. In fact, as you have by now no doubt read, he wrote 47 alternate endings to A Farewell to Arms, all of which will be appended to a new Scribner edition of the 1929 novel. This upcoming release can teach us a lot about how seriously a great writer took his endings.

I find it hard to believe that Hemingway didn't know where, in structural terms, his story was going from the beginning.

In a couple of his alternate endings, apparently, the baby lives. But Catherine has to die. The entire arc is aimed at that devastating conclusion, and every narrative detail is prefiguring it. But once Catherine has died, what needs to be said? That's what he struggled with. Interestingly, the few alternate endings that we have been allowed to see so far are more wordy than the one he settled on. They contain reflection. Like this: "There is no end except death and birth is the only beginning." Or this, apparently suggested by his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald: "[The world] kills the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

It's interesting that after all this obsessive work, he chose to excise the philosophizing. It's interesting too that his manuscripts contain a few alternate titles as well. Hemingway considered Love in War, World Enough and Time, Every Night and All, Of Wounds and Other Causes and several others. Titles are also tough – and they are similar, I think, to endings, in that they encapsulate the story. Hemingway, not by coincidence, ended up choosing a title with "Farewell" in it – and then wrote 47 versions of the farewell itself as the conclusion.

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I know from working with young writers that those who most want to resist a planned ending are also likely to resist choosing a title at an early stage. I recommend picking a title from the very beginning as it helps focus the narrative. It helps you to know what your story is about.

Even this idea – knowing what your story is about – is suspect, for some reason, to the hip modern writing student. I can't tell you how many times a term I hear the phrase, "I kind of wanted it to be ambiguous." That's frequently a rationalization for the incoherent. Of course it's not cool to be didactic, "messagey"; it's not modern for a story to have a moral, like a fable. But it turns out it's actually difficult to write stories with a message. Conclusions are not some kind of lazy default position; it takes enormous talent and intelligence and artifice to wring a lesson from a sequence of events. Even Hemingway, a textbook modernist, a formal experimentalist, wrote and rewrote his point, and when it was finally clear to him what that point was, he edited it out.

Spoiler alert: 10 great literary endings

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

– Araby, from Dubliners, by James Joyce

But my life now, my whole life, independently of anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no longer meaningless as it was before, but has a positive meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.

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Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

– Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

And you say, "Just a moment, I've almost finished If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino."

– If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino

Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

– Molloy, by Samuel Beckett

He loved Big Brother.

– 1984, by George Orwell

The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

– Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.

A Perfect Day for Bananafish, from Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

– To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

Are there any questions?

– The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

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