Writing the Last Chapter

writing the last chapterWriting the last chapter doesn’t mean getting to the end of the plot. Whatever is in the last chapter is the memento mori, the closing image, the takeaway. The last chapter will likely set the mood for how the reader remembers the novel.

So we shouldn’t get fixated on plot. In longer novels the climax of the plot may play out over several chapters. In shorter novels the plot may wrap up in just one. But what is in that last chapter?

The main job of the last chapter is to show transformation: how the main character(s) changed or transformed from the person they were at the start.

Granted, readers want a satisfying conclusion; win, lose or draw. Who lives, who dies; who gets the happy ending, the sad ending, the homecoming or the final farewell. Births, marriages and deaths tie off the plot. You may have a happy ending at the altar, or a ‘surprise‘ twist, as in every episode of The Twilight Zone.

By all means tie off the loose ends. Explain those arbitrary coincidences, plug those plot holes. But don’t forget the purpose of that last chapter; the arc of change.

Arcs of Change

The reader has to understand the character arcs of change. Change is what story is about.

You have to show how the characters change. By change we mean:

  • values
  • perspectives
  • beliefs

Up to this point we’ve seen the character pursue goals, seen their conflict and misbelief.

The last chapter has to ensure we understand their true goals, the outcome of their conflict (win, lose or draw) and the rejection of their misbelief.

The last chapter has to bring clarity:

It has to show the protagonist embracing change, for example:

  • love and/or family over isolation
  • selflessness over selfishness
  • reconciliation over division
  • proactivity over passivity

These can take many forms. At the end of Great Expectations, Pip’s value change means he no longer chases wealth and social status, he attempts to re-connect with Estella.

Lizzie Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker) comes to a true understanding of the man she hated for his pride in chapter one. Darcy rejects family and societal expectations and follows his heart.

Cue Main Theme

The last chapter is often where the theme of the novel comes into sharp focus. In Great Expectations, the theme is identity, finding one’s place in the world. Pride and Prejudice has the classic ‘love conquers all.’ The last chapter tells the reader what message to take away from the novel, regardless of the tone or outcome of the plot. In performance stories, it may be ‘triumph over adversity’ when the athlete wins, or ‘pride and self-affirmation’ in a valiant defeat. Frank Herbert’s Dune, is a World View story disguised as epic Sci-Fi adventure. The theme is be ‘beware all authority’ or ‘power corrupts’ . For Dorothy returning from Oz, it’s ‘there’s no place like home.’

Not Just Plot

The key to a satisfying last chapter is ensuring the story doesn’t just end with the plot. Anyone can write a plot. Plot is just stuff that happens. Story is how the character changes. Show the characters arriving at their new state – or better still, embarking on the next stage of the journey. Lizzie, Darcy, Pip, Paul Atreides and Dorothy all do this. That’s what writing the last chapter is really about.