Are your endings two-faced?
A Roman god shows us how to write an epic conclusion
The Roman god, Janus, from which we get the name January, is often depicted as having two faces: one looks back into the old year, one looks forward to the new. When my students ask me how to write good conclusions to their essays, I tell them to follow Janus’s example! They should draw together the points they have made, then pan out to give us the bigger picture.
The technique works for fiction writing too. Novelist Emily Brontë knew nothing of filming technique, yet she gives us a brilliant example of looking back into the story then out into the world beyond. Here is the ending of Wuthering Heights:
My walk home was lengthened by a diversion in the direction of the kirk. When beneath its walls, I perceived decay had made progress, even in seven months: many a window showed black gaps deprived of glass; and slates jutted off here and there, beyond the right line of the roof, to be gradually worked off in coming autumn storms.
I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.
I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
In the second paragraph Brontë, through her narrator Lockwood, summarises the essence of the story through description of the three graves – passionate Cathy buried between her two loves, the mild, cultured Edgar Linton and tempestuous, dangerous Heathcliff. The novel centres on the tension between them and how it determines their fates. That’s the looking back.
In the third paragraph, she looks forward, pondering ‘how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’ There is a sense of time moving on and the anticipation of future visitors to the makeshift graveyard, and their reaction to the headstones.
She has moved from ‘close shots’ – the missing slates, the gaps in the windows, to a long shot – the benign sky, the soft wind. And the semantic field of peace (‘soft’, ‘benign’, ‘breathing,’ ‘quiet’) leaves the reader knowing all is well. The result is satisfying and, somehow, epic.
So in this first brave month of 2019, let’s remember Janus (and Emily Brontë) by honouring the past and anticipating the future in our writing. Sometimes being two-faced can be a good thing!