Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Before you type THE END: Creating emotional resonance in your final scenes

I'm freshly back from my globe-trotting adventures, happy to be with my kids again, and extremely jet-lagged. Enjoy this post from the treasure-chest of the Alley archives.

You enjoyed the book. You really did. The author’s voice was strong; the opening scene hooked you; the characters beckoned you in; the plot kept you turning pages.

Then you reached the ending.

Anti-climactic would sum it up. There was simply nothing… memorable about it. The author tied up the plot threads neatly, sure, but it was done with a businesslike air that left you cold. Story’s over; thanks for your company; now back to real life with you, and better be quick about it – the kids are whining and you haven’t started dinner yet.

Yeah, you might think about those characters once or twice over the days ahead, but is this a story you’re going to rave about to your friends?

Probably not.

The brutal truth is that a story is only as good as its ending. Endings matter. They’re the final impression you leave with your reader. The part of the story that lingers – or fails to do so – in a reader’s mind. Dash off a forgettable ending, and chances are the reader will soon forget the rest of the book as well.

In this post I talked about creating twist endings – those unexpected reveals that change the way we perceive a story as a whole. This week I’d like to approach the topic from a different angle entirely.

Many great novels don’t end with a twist – and yet they still give us pause, striking some note deep within that feels like truth, taking us to a place where rows of type transmute into something bigger than the fictional world; something that imprints itself on our spirit.

These are the stories that make us want to cling a few minutes longer to the world of the author’s creation instead of leaving it behind. The stories we can’t stop thinking about. The ones we can’t stop talking about.

I believe these endings all have one thing in common.

Emotional resonance.

Stories offer something that life cannot always give. Closure. A sense of completion, of finality. A sense that we’ve been on a journey, and that the journey has had a purpose. The best endings contain a largeness that expands beyond the lives of the characters we’ve walked beside. Such endings illuminate not just the themes of the book, but something about our own lives, our own experience.

According to, resonance can be defined as:

Richness or significance, especially in evoking an association or strong emotion
Or, acoustically speaking:

Intensification and prolongation of sound, especially of a musical tone, produced by sympathetic vibration.

To me, the idea of “sympathetic vibration” is key. When a musician draws a bow across a cello, the strings vibrate, creating sound. But energy also passes into the body of the instrument, causing the air and wood to vibrate at the same frequency. The richness of tone that results is known as resonance.

Us authors have the chance to play words like musicians. For an ending to resonate emotionally, it needs to work in frequency with notes played much earlier in the story.

The best endings contain something of the beginning. They give us a sense of completion – of coming full circle.

Let’s look at four ways to do this.

  1. A resonant phrase
At the beginning of The Kite Runner, the protagonist, Amir, enters a kite-fighting tournament with his servant Hassan. They win – a victory that symbolizes to Amir the chance to finally win his father’s approval. But the victory will not be complete until they run down the felled kite of their final opponent. Knowing how much it means to Amir, Hassan offers to run the kite for him.

“Hassan!” I called. “Come back with it!”

He was already turning the street corner, his rubber boots kicking up snow. He stopped, turned. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “For you a thousand times over!” he said. Then he smiled his Hassan smile and disappeared around the corner. The next time I saw him smile unabashedly like that was twenty-six years later, in a faded Polaroid photograph.

Amir follows his servant and witnesses something so shocking it will forever after define him as a person. He has the chance to step in and protect Hassan, but in cowardice he chooses instead to run away.

Many years later, grown and living in America, Amir begins the walk toward redemption through his efforts to help Sohrab, Hassan’s war-scarred son. In the book’s final scene, Amir and Sohrab are at a kite-fighting tournament. Amir turns to the troubled boy.

“Do you want me to run that kite for you?”

His Adam’s apple rose and fell as he swallowed. The wind lifted his hair. I thought I saw him nod.

“For you, a thousand times over,” I heard myself say.

Then I turned and ran.

A simple phrase that resonates with meaning, because we know all it signifies to the protagonist. Regret and redemption, past and present: all brought full circle in those few significant words.

  1. A resonant action

Early in Dale Cramer’s novel Bad Ground, the character of Snake shares a childhood memory of sitting at his mother’s feet while she plays with a hank of his hair, circling her fingertip round and round a single spot on his scalp. It’s a caress that holds significance because she uses it only with him.

At the end of the novel, the same character is so badly burned he has no hair. His mother has been paralyzed for years, incapable of communication or movement beyond the occasional raised finger. Snake, fully grown now, sits on the floor at his mother’s feet and places her hand on his bald head. Slowly, very slowly, the paralysed woman begins to trace circles on her son’s bald head with her finger, just as she used to do to when he was young.

I’ll admit it – the scene brought tears to my eyes. Without the earlier emotional set-up, a simple action like this would not have resonated so deeply with me as a reader.

  1. A resonant image
At the beginning of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, a snowstorm forces Dr David Henry to deliver his own twins. The little boy is born normal; the girl has Down Syndrome. In a split second decision that will change all of their lives forever, the father asks the nurse to take away the disabled child and put her in an institution, telling his wife that the baby died in childbirth.

At the end of the book, the existence of the lost sister, Phoebe – now a young woman – is finally uncovered. Paul, the twin who remained, takes Phoebe to visit their father’s grave.

Everything slowed, until the whole world was caught in this single hovering moment. Paul stood very still, waiting to see what would happen next.

For a few seconds, nothing at all.

Then Phoebe turned, slowly, and smoothed her wrinkled skirt.

A simple gesture, yet it set the world back in motion.

Paul noted how short and clipped her fingernails were, how delicate her wrist looked against the granite headstone. His sister’s hands were small, just like their mother’s. He walked across the grass and touched her shoulder, to take her home.

It’s a simple image that brings closure. More than two decades after the baby girl was sent away from home and family, in secret, we are left with the image of the young man finally taking his twin sister home. The symbolism resonates with us because we’ve walked the journey of what came before.

  1. A resonant emotional arc

In The Secret Life of Bees, fourteen-year-old Lily craves one thing: the love of her dead mother. Her journey takes her to the home of three beekeeping sisters, where she finds acceptance. In the final scene of the novel, after a confrontation with her abusive father, Lily says:

I watched till he was gone from sight, then turned and looked at August and Rosaleen and the Daughters on the porch. This is the moment I remember clearest of all – how I stood in the driveway looking back at them. I remember the sight of them standing there waiting. All these women, all this love, waiting.

Then, in the last lines of the novel, the author draws the connection with Lily’s emotional journey to create a final note of resonance.

This is the autumn of wonders, yet every day, every single day, I go back to that burned afternoon in August when T. Ray left. I go back to that one moment when I stood in the driveway with small rocks and clumps of dirt around my feet and looked back at the porch. And there they were. All these mothers. I have more mothers than any eight girls off the street. They are the moons shining over me.

In those last lines, we see the significance of the story. It’s always been about Lily’s search for a mother. And there they are. They’ve been there all along. It’s a profound realisation.


In each of these examples, the author has taken the time to lay the emotional groundwork early on. Then, when these motifs are revisited at the end, they hold an instant and powerful significance to the reader. This brings a fullness and richness to the final scenes – a resonance – that cannot be achieved any other way.

Let’s talk. Which endings have resonated with you emotionally? Can you tell us why? Do share! 

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after three small children, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.


A story is only as good as its ending. 4 keys to achieving emotional resonance in your final scenes: Click to Tweet

The best endings contain something of the beginning. They give us a sense of completion – of coming full circle. Click to Tweet 

For an ending to resonate emotionally, it needs to work in frequency with notes played much earlier in the story. Click to Tweet 


Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Karen,

Glad you had a great holiday and that you're back safe and sound.

This is such a good post. I've been disappointed so many times with blah endings. And now I know why. They didn't resonate emotionally with me! Lately I've been reading some really good books with very satisfying endings and - again - that's why. They resonate!

Now to figure out how to do that in my books!! A goal to aim for!


Pepper said...

I love reading your eloquent posts, Karen! Wow! Definitely emotional resonance here, and a vital detail for closure to an emotional journey.

I want the ending to hover around me for a while like savoring the smell of a lovely fragrance or delicious aroma.

Robin Lythgoe said...

Beautifully written! This gives me something solid to look at not only when I'm reading, but when I'm writing as well. Thank you!