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.