On endings

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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Okay, I’m going to steal one of the questions from Kalayna’s recent post asking what y’all would like to hear more about and I’m going to talk about endings (thanks Hepseba!).  I figure this is the kind of broad topic that each of us approaches with a different perspective and having more than one of us discuss it might be interesting.

First off, Hepseba commented with the common advice that, “you’re not even *supposed* to start the story unless you know how it ends.”  I disagree.  I very rarely know how my stories are going to end when I start them — I may have a vague idea, but it always feels like it’s way out there in the clouds and I won’t be able to see it until I’m much much closer (which is why I tend to spend a lot of time revising rather than outlining).  There are some authors, however, who must know the ending before starting their books because otherwise they’ll wander around writing word after word after word with little direction.  So really, whether you should know the ending when you begin is just a matter of your own preference and what works for you.

Second, even though the question was more about how to figure out what an ending should be rather than how to write it, I still want to touch a bit on that latter part.  Several years ago I read a book that I thought was quite terrible… until I got to the end.  I’d disliked the writing, the characters, the plot but the ending saved it all — the writing was better, the characterization deeper, the plot more interesting, etc.  And I realized when I put the book down that the ending had left a good taste in my mouth and that’s the impression that has stayed with me.  Which made me realize just how important the ending to a book can be — in so many ways, it can almost define the rest of the book.  

So I started to look at my own endings and tried to figure out how to make them better.  At that time, my second book, The Dead-Tossed Waves, was already in production and my copy-edits were due back in a couple of days.  The ending, to me, was fine — it was realistic (as realistic as possible in a zombie world) and accomplished what I wanted it to, but I worried that it didn’t leave that kind of lasting impression I was hoping for.  Eventually, my husband hit on the problem and said, “You need to make your endings bigger.”  When I asked what he meant, he said, “Think Last of the Mohicans — not just the part where the sister jumps, but think about the “I will find you” scene — that’s what I mean by big.”

With only a few days left to work on the manuscript, I took a risk and went back to the drawing board.  The first step was figuring out what needed to happen in the ending (and hopefully this gets to the question Hepseba was asking).  My basic theory of writing is that every story is a series of arcs, both internal and external.  I’ve posted about that before here, but to recap the main point:

At the beginning of my stories I take the character and force them endure some sort of “test.”  They always fail.  Then, they spend the course of the book going through all of these various experiences during which, hopefully, they learn something.  At the end of the book that character faces another test — almost parallel to the one in the beginning (but not exact) — and he either passes the test (because he learned the skills necessary over the course of the book) or he fails (because he refused to change and grow).

So to figure out what needs to happen in the ending, I look at all the arcs I’ve set up and I determine how they culminate — not necessarily in terms of “what action happens” but in terms of “what does the character have to do to prove they’ve changed or not.”  Maybe at the end of a character’s arc they need to realize they need to trust their instincts above all else— in that case, I know that my ending must put that character in a position of having to choose between trusting their instincts or not.  And I need to put everything on the line: make the character fear that if they trust their instincts they’ll lose everything because I want that character to be in the position of proving they’ve learned their lesson.  Which naturally leads to the question of what’s most important to each character and how can I put that at risk?

Once you do this with all of your various internal and external arcs, you’ll start to see what sort of issues need to be resolved in the end and what will be at risk — that will be your road map.  The question then becomes, what situations can you put your characters in to test them the most.  For me, that comes down to asking myself: “what’s the worst thing that can happen to this character?”  And honestly, figuring that out takes a lot of brainstorming and a lot of list making.  One trick is to actually force yourself to come up with 10 or 15 or 20 answers to that question — eventually you’ll run out of easy ideas and once you start pushing yourself to think more outside the box you’ll be surprised at what you come up with.

A writing friend of mine who is brilliant when it comes to writing craft and structure, Holly Black, has said that the more you can align the internal and external climax, the more powerful your ending will be.  To build from an example she used that really hit home with me: say you have a boy whose parents have recently divorced and he wants more than *anything* else to see his father walk back through the front door again — that’s his internal conflict, dealing with the emotions of the divorce and his feelings of abandonment over his father’s continued absence.  For the external, let’s say that boy is facing down an evil shape-shifting monster. 

Going through the steps I talked about above, let’s brainstorm a bit:

What is the boy’s emotional climax: he needs to accept that his father is gone and isn’t coming back.  

What’s important to this character: family, friends.  

How can I put that at risk: put their lives in danger.

What’s the worst that can happen: the boy has to come face to face with his worst fear — his father never coming back — and only through accepting that can he save his friends and family.  If he refuses to accept it, everything else he cares about is at risk.    

What’s the plot climax: dealing with the threat of the monster.

Then, play through various scenarios of how to incorporate all of that.  In Holly’s example, at the end of the story as the threat of the monster looms, the boy’s father walks through the front door and the question is whether it’s the real father or the shapeshifting monster.  

This is everything the boy has wished for and he desperately wants it to be his father… but he knows it can’t really be his father because his father isn’t coming back.  He’s gone, which is a devastating realization for the boy to have to accept but it’s what is necessary to complete his emotional arc.  That’s how the boy figures that it’s the monster and that he has to kill him.  But it’s not just killing the monster — he’s kind of killing his father as well because that’s who the monster looks like.  Devastating!  In that one climactic scene you have the culmination of the internal (my father is really gone and not coming back) which leads to the culmination of the external (therefore this is the monster and I must kill him while also symbolically killing my former image/hope of my father). 

In terms of what aspects of your story need to be resolved — this varies from author to author.  Some like to tie up all the plot threads, others like to leave a few left open.  To me the key is that the ending must be emotionally satisfying to the reader, but that can be a difficult balance to figure out.  Blake Snyder in Save the Cat says that we need to see the protagonist living their new life — that’s not just the protagonist’s reward for their growth and change, but the reader’s reward as well.

There are other things to keep in mind with endings as well.  One making sure the main characters have agency.  This is where the character takes charge of their world and they need to be the one driving the decisions and actions and not just reacting to what’s going on around them.  Another is making sure not to rush the ending — you don’t want it to drag, but this is the culmination of what the entire book has been building to internally and externally and you want to milk it for all you can.  Finally, try to make it appear that success for your character isn’t a guarantee — even in a romance that guarantees a happily-ever-after, there’s still that moment where the reader thinks it can’t happen.  Even if the reader knows there will be success in the end, they don’t necessarily know *how* it will happen and that creates suspense which keeps readers turning pages.

For now, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head (I’m sure I’ll come up with more as I get closer to writing the ending on my current WIP :).  I’d love to hear what y’all think makes a good and/or a bad ending and how all of you go about figuring out the endings to your stories.  

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19 comments to On endings

  • sagablessed

    This goes to my ‘pickle chiffon pie’ comment. Take something from a new angle. I admit, I was a bit obtuse.
    And you hit the nail on the head.
    I tried pantsing my current work, but it started to meander and I feared I would never see an end. Now that I have plotted, it is working out better.
    Bad ending: Twitlight part 4. It just left goign “So?”
    And my last WIP. Ending was sappy sweet, but not memorable. Not sure how to end current WIP, beyond it isn’t all happy-happy-joy-joy. It does not feel ‘finished’ to me, and I don’t know why. So reading this, I need to hit the plot-line.
    Good endings: Mists of Avalon and The farthest shore. They just stuck with me.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay! Thank you Carrie. This provides *lots* of good ideas for how I can go about tackling the endings I’ve been trying to figure out. And thank you for confessing that you are also not an ending-knower. That has been one of the toughest pieces of writing advice I’ve had to work around for a long time.

    Interestingly, I think you’ve hit on why I so loathe the ending of the spielberg War of the Worlds. He had to face the fact that they were in an *awful* situation, that he couldn’t control things he wanted to such as forcing his son to stay safe, and he had to persevere despite that. Having his son show up alive at the very end turned that from a hard but powerful lesson into little more than a temporary one.

  • Ken

    What makes a good ending for me? Closure. Even if you’ve got a series going, you’d better tie off the meat and potatoes part of the current book. I’m fine with leaving some things unresolved across multiple books, just as long as you touch on those unresolved elements so that I know that I can look forward to seeing them tackled in the next book.

    What makes a bad ending for me? When it either happens too suddenly and I don’t get a chance to enjoy it…or…Deux Ex Machina that suddenly makes everything all better. I can’t think of a recent example of the former. David Weber’s “Out of the Dark” is a pretty good example of the latter. Of course your mileage may vary and I don’t want to spoil anything so I won’t go into details.

    For my own work, the ending of a story is an unknown until I start outlining. Then it becomes this slippery thing that I try and pin into place via the outline, and, even then, it usually escapes and gets caught somewhere else when I’ve actually got the first draft done.

    I’ll probably jot these tips down and stick them on the “Wall of Stuff to Ignore at your Peril” for reference when I get to the revision stage.

    Thanks Carrie!

  • Carrie, I’ve ended books lots of ways, but I have two favorites:
    1. the circle endings, where you take the character thoughts and emotions back to the beginning of the novel and tie it all up in a nice circle-bow. This can be done with a character’s emotional angle, a sort of an “I feel better now,” thing or thinking that things are better (or worse) now. Or
    2. The old set piece. I try not to use them too often, as they are pretty formulaic if overused, but I’ve always liked them. I ended my next book with a sweet set piece in the Epi, and my mom called with an “Awwwwww” when she finished. I think readers will remember that one. :)

    And — I am one of the ones who have to know the ending to write the book. Otherwise I go wandering, just like you said.

  • This is a brilliant post. Really. I’m one who has to have a pretty solid notion of how my project ends before I can begin. When I wrote the Forelands series, I knew the ending of book 5 before I started book 1. I didn’t know HOW I was going to get there, but I knew the ending point, and that made it possible for me to find a path to the conclusion that tied together all the threads of my series. What I love about your post is your focus on the internal and the external, the recognition that endings are about character as well as plot. That, it seems to me, is something that gets lost too often. Great stuff, Carrie.

  • Carrie – Thanks for another great post! I’m a person who always has to know the ending before I can begin writing, but I often find it a challenge to pack in the emotional wallop I’m looking for. Your very clear example about character resolution and plot resolution has me dramatically tweaking my WIP — and that’s a very good thing. Thanks!

  • Ken – you raise a good point about ending individual books in a series! I think each book needs to have its own arc that has closure while the series arcs may or may not have closure. If you look at the Harry Potter books, each one has a problem to solve in that book, but also deals with the larger issues of good vs. evil, identity, etc.

    I also agree with you on the deus ex machina — I dislike when the book sets up a problem to be solved and then doesn’t give the reader what they need to solve it. For example, the MC getting a clue off screen that the reader never gets or, even worse, the MC “suddenly remembering” what they’ve spent the entire book trying to figure out. It feels like a let down!

  • Sagablessed — I’m someone who tends to start off pantsing, but a lot of times I’ll start outlining as I get farther into the story. That def makes a lot of sense!

    Hepseba – I’m glad this post was useful! I also don’t like endings where the MC doesn’t have to sacrifice anything. Even if it’s an emotional sacrifice or sacrificing an old way of thinking, etc — it needs to be there.

    Faith — those are both good ways to end. I usually start the wandering around aimlessly at the 20k mark going into Act 2 — if I can make it past that, often I know where the end will be. And sometimes I do start out knowing some of the ending — in my current WIP I know how the MC has to change emotionally and so I know to drive her in that direction at least!

  • David – I’m jealous! I’d love to know how a series ended when starting the first book — it would make it that much easier to make it seem like I planned it all – lol! Instead I often don’t know where I’m going and end up doing something in an earlier book that makes life way too difficult in later books!

    Mindy — glad it helped! When Holly used that example with me, it was like a lightbulb going off! It’s difficult to execute, but just keeping it in mind affects how I approach endings.

  • Perfect timing for me on this! A writing buddy and I just talked this morning about endings, and I couldn’t articulate what bothers me about my ending. What you said about the character having to prove she’s changed clarified the problem with the ending, and I made a note to come back this post when I’m ready to revise the ending.

  • Agency! This is one of my big problems! Also since I have one of the main characters possessed and helpless, agency becomes a bit difficult to find. I also, after finishing the story, found myself having to write the ‘living the new life’ scene. It makes it real, somehow. And it does the job of leaving the good taste in the mouth. Those are the scenes that can make me cry, especially if the character has been through the wringer.

  • Hey Cara — it’s really easy to be writing along and belatedly realize that you haven’t given your character agency. I constantly have to say to myself, “Make the MC act!” I’ve heard someone talk about Hunger Games in terms of agency because that book is all about someone else doing things to the characters and their theory is that the characters had to have active reactions. And of course, at the end the MC does take action — she takes everything into her own hands.

    SiSi — glad it was good timing! I like to think of it as saying to the character, “Ok, you say you’ve learned your lesson and changed — now prove it!”

  • Razziecat

    I’m finding that I tend to enjoy writing more when I don’t know how the story’s going to end…when I just say, “Let’s see where this goes…” It’s easy to get lost that way, of course, but if I waited until I knew the ending of every story before I even started writing, I’d never write anything. After writing a bunch of short stories and several longer, more sort of novella-length pieces, I finally know the end of all the story arcs in my space opera stuff, and it does come full circle, ending where the major story arc began. For me, a story ending is most satisfying when the MC solves the main problem because he or she has grown and changed enough to so; and when he or she gains something (not necessarily the thing they initially thought they wanted) that makes it all worthwhile. Something has to be lost, too. Because very little in life that’s worthwhile is all gains and no losses.

  • Razziecat

    Ooops, that should be “grown and changed enough to do so.” :P

  • quillet

    I usually know my ending in advance, but I don’t always know how to get there. I really like this idea of character arcs, and the first failure mirroring the final success (or failure). That’s the spine of a plot, right there! And the connection between internal and external climaxes is so important. Something I think I sort of kind of knew but never saw articulated quite this way. Very helpful, thank you!

  • [...] Today I read two blog posts on writing, and the topics fit so nicely around one another, ouroboros-like, that I thought I’d post my own thoughts inspired by them. The first post, by Terri Windling, is on beginnings. The second, by Carrie Ryan (blogging at the awesome Magical Words), is on endings. [...]

  • Razziecat — I definitely also like when the character gets what they need and how often it’s not what they wanted or thought they needed. To me that also shows the growth and change of a character. I’m also like you that if I know the ending, sometimes it’s hard to write any farther because I feel like I already know the story. For me part of writing is figuring out what the story is – telling it to myself at the same time I putting it on paper. That’s another reason I’ve learned not to talk about my plots too much too soon or else I’ll already feel like I’ve finished with that story.

    Quillet — a friend of mine says that she knows where her endings are and maybe a few stops along the way, but not the whole route. She compares it to driving cross country: she may know she’ll start in DC and want to end up in LA and maybe go through Chicago and Vegas along the way, but otherwise, she figures out the more details route as she goes. I like that idea of outlining — it’s one that’s worked for me.

  • ajp88

    Anything that moves me or makes me think qualifies as a good ending for me. I don’t care if it’s a downer for the characters or an upper, I just have to be moved.

  • I don’t always know the entire ending in advance, but I at least know some of it. A snippet of a scene, a direction. I also use both abrupt ending schemes and the seeing the character living their life scheme, depending. Sometimes a slightly more abrupt end seems to be a better fit. I’ve read novels where I became bored and just skimmed the rest reading the “journey home” sort of ending, the one that drags on for two more chapters even after the plot has been resolved satisfactorily. I guess I don’t necessarily need to see them living their lives, I just need to be assured at the end that everything’s going to turn out alright. Unless it’s like Elric of Melnibone, and then I expect a tragic hero to have a not so happy ending. ;)

    My sci-fi novel has a more abrupt ending with the hero and heroine looking out the viewscreen at the aftermath of battle, after the big bad is taken down and the enemy surrenders, knowing that they have a longer road of negotiations and restructuring to ensure peace but knowing that come what may, they would do it together. It felt right and tied the end up in a neat little bow. It’s more like the Return of the Jedi ending after they’re back on Endor, short and sweet, you know things are going to turn out alright for them, and nothing else is really needed.

    My noir UF I’m writing now will have a longer ending, more like the tying up a couple loose ends and living their life sort of deal because it feels like a better fit for the kind of story I’m writing. The whole story is dark and I’ll need to end a little more upbeat, the silver lining sort of thing. And the character needs to come to grips with his life, such as it is, at the end. I have an epic fantasy trilogy that will probably have a longer wrap up to the end as well, because I’ll have a number of character threads to resolve.

    For me, if the resolution can be wrapped up quick in a neat bow, I don’t need to see the two chapter journey home or the flash forward scene to their new house in the country with their playful dog and 2.5 kids. I’d rather have a more abrupt ending that makes me go *Siigghhhh!* with relief and satisfaction than one that goes on too long and has me going *Siiigghhh!* … *siigh.* … *…sigh…* …hmph…

    Balance in everything, says I. :)