Writing Your Book, part VI: The End Game


For those of you who have been following this “Writing Your Book” series from it’s inception, please don’t panic.  If you began your novel when we started the series in early January, no one expects that you’re just about done.  Writing a novel takes a while, and every writer works at a different pace.  That’s why this post isn’t called “Finishing Your Novel” or “The End” or something of that sort.

It’s called “The End Game,” because even if you’re only a third of the way done with your book, it’s never too early to start thinking about how you’re going to tie off loose ends and build to that stunning climax.  We give you a lot of “writing is like…” analogies here at MW, and I’m about to give you a few more.  Any one of these “game” analogies applies, and you should feel free to use the one that most closely mirrors your interests.  Baseball fans:  Writing is like pitching.  When a major league pitcher goes through the batting order the first time, he doesn’t just look for ways to get batters out.  He also tries to set up the next at bat and the one after that by showing certain pitches and holding others in reserve.  Chess players:  When a master plays, there is more to each move than a grab for momentary strategic advantage.  A great player plans her attacks three or four or five moves in advance.  She lays the groundwork for a series of moves, and (she hopes) for eventual victory.  Golfers:  A weekend hacker plays each hole one shot at a time, hoping that he won’t dump his ball in the sand or water with one of those swings.  But a great player approaches a hole with a plan, so that one shot sets up the next.

The writing end game is not so different from any of these. Even if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, you still need to lay a foundation for your narrative progression.  Like a golfer standing on the tee, you should know how you’re going to get from your drive to the final putt on the green.  “But,” you say, “as writers, we don’t want to give away too much to our readers.”  And you’re right.  Like pitching or playing chess, the end game in writing is not just about setting up the climax, it’s also about misdirection, about keeping readers somewhat off balance.

My goal for the endings of my books, is for my readers to say “Oh!” and then “Of course!”  In other words, I want them to be surprised, but I also want them to be able to go back over the book and see that I left them clues along the way, and that the surprise ending wasn’t just something I made up on the fly.  Why?  Because when it comes right down to it, readers love to be surprised, but they don’t like to be manipulated or deceived.

Of course, it’s not just about the actual ending; it’s also about the build-up, that ratcheting of the tension that makes a good book so much fun to read.  That’s part of the end game as well, and it, too, needs to begin early in the book.

Let me give a couple of examples from my WIP, hopefully without giving away any spoilers.  One of my subplots, established fairly early in the book, is actually a red herring of sorts, something that later serves to misdirect my readers as they try to figure out who my villain is and what s/he is up to.  I planned it that way from the start and worked those clues into the story at intervals to keep my readers guessing.  But at another point I realized midway through the book that I needed to have my hero do something dark and painful in order for him to survive a particularly difficult encounter with said villain.  I hadn’t realized this until the midpoint of the book.  And so I had to go back through the early chapters of the book and plant the seeds for this very emotional moment in the book.  The clues I planted were subtle — early on they will seem like throwaways to my readers.  But they are crucial to the impact of the plot point in question.

My point is this:  You don’t have to use a book outline to work on the end game of your book.  There is no reason why you can’t surprise yourself when you finally figure out that perfect ending to your book.  But when revising your book, you might need to go back and add a few lines here and there to set it up.  This is the advantage we have over the golfer and the chess player.  We get to amend and adjust.

The important thing to remember about the end game is that, contrary to what many non-writers believe, writing is, in fact, an interactive art form.  The interaction may come later, after the creative product is finished, but that doesn’t make it any less real to our readers.  They want to play along.  They want to have a chance at figuring things out.  Last week Misty commented on a book she was reading that disappointed her because it was too predictable.  She had figured out where it was going and though she hoped she was wrong, she wasn’t.  There’s a lesson there, obviously:  You don’t want your set up to be so heavy-handed that you telegraph the ending.  But there’s a second lesson as well:  Misty was playing the game, trying to figure out the mystery.  She didn’t want to finish the book and say, “Yup, saw that coming.”  At the same time, though, I’m guessing that she also didn’t want to finish it and say “He cheated!  There is no way the story could end that way!”

The end game is a balancing act.  Yes, a good ending surprises, but it also satisfies.  Play the end game right, and you should manage to do both.  You may not get it right on the first try, and this is where Beta readers come in.  Your first draft might give away too much; your second might be too opaque.  Be patient.  The end game is one of the hardest parts about writing a book.  It’s also the most gratifying once you get it right.

So what are some of your favorite endings to books?  An what are you doing to set up your End Game?

David B. Coe

27 comments to Writing Your Book, part VI: The End Game

  • Dino

    The last three chapters of Bonds of Vengence, the thrid book of your Winds of the Forelands series.
    To this day, those three chapters envoked more emotion out of me than any thing else I have read.

  • Another sports analogy for you — pool. A good pool player will think ahead several steps, so that when he hits the cue ball he will a) sink the shot, b) put the proper spin on the cue ball so that it will roll to the best location to make the next shot easy and c) (with a true expert) have picked the best next shot so that he can easily set up the third, fourth, and fifth shot. The end game is always on the mind of the pool player to the extent that if he cannot make a shot, he will make sure to place the cue ball in the worst position for his opponent. Of course, in writing we don’t get to “punt” when things go bad — but then again, we kind of do because we can go back and fix problems so that we’re not in the bad situations later. 😉

  • Indeed, Dino. I still haven’t forgiven David for what happens there. *grin*

    I am working my End Game with two seemingly different plotlines which build independently of each other coming together for an explosive ending. I hope it comes off as I am planning.

  • Emily

    David> What? No football analogy. *hangs head*

    My WIP is building up to a dragon. I want to say the groundwork I ladi early on was deliberate, but it was a recent decision to make a bigger ending (higher stakes). I found that I’d done stuff early on that would work that I hadn’t realized I’d done at the time. Like character names that suddenly make MORE sense. It makes me feel alternately unconsciously clever and consciously dumb.

    I’m, in the end, NOT a “pantser.” I like my outlines, I like knowing where I’m going (even though it changes). So when I realize I was planning for something other than what I thought I planned for, well, it just is puzzling–and I have to go back and consider what my unconscious is doing. Freud anyone? Does my id want to get out and set fire to the world? Hrm. Psychoanalyzing one’s self based on one’s own writing is dangerous….

  • Thanks, Dino. If I’d had more time I would have talked about the end game for a multibook project. The chapters you talk about were the pivot point in the series. Up until then, everything had been going one way: all bad. Those chapters marked the turning of the tide, though of course they carried large costs for all characters concerned. But that change of momentum is part of the end game, too.

    Stuart, yes! Pool is a wonderful example. Better than golf, probably. But I’ve always really, really sucked at pool…. But that’s how writers need to think in a novel-length project. It should all be geared toward building to that emotional and narrative payoff.

    Mark, that sounds like a terrific approach; not easy to pull off, but wonderful if you can make it work. Best of luck with it. I look forward to buying my copy and reading it!

    Emily, no, I don’t think of football as being the same sort of cerebral exercise as the others. But that’s just my opinion. I hope you’ll forgive me…. I have often discovered that I’ve been laying down the foundations for the end game unconsciously. It’s actually a really cool feeling. I think I offered the example in an earlier post of giving characters in my first series colors for their magic and having it turn out that a character with blue and a character with yellow worked together with a character with green. Totally “unplanned” but it happened, and I must have known it would on some level. Sounds like you’re experiencing something similar, and that’s a good thing. That said, I don’t think we should be held psychologically responsible for the workings of our imaginations. I certainly don’t want to be. Too weird. Too dark. I don’t want to go there….

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter


    Nicely put. This is my favorite part of writing. I think of it as weaving. Going back and adding this threat, another stitch of that “color” to make sure that the end is supported but not predictable.

    I think J. K. Rowling did this very well, especially in her middle books. You could not figure out her main mystery from the clues as you went (well…I couldn’t anyway, and I really tried. 😉 but once you reached the conclusion, the end was well supported…once you looked at each individual clue in a new light. I think the place she really does this the best of all is in the identity and behaviors of the villain in the fourth book. Behaviors the reader witnesses in both his identities take on a new meaning once you know what was really going on.

    I had something funny happen along these lines once. I accidently saw a review of my book early on that wasn’t meant for my eyes. One thing it mentioned was the predictability of the end events of Book One. I looked at the book and realized that what was now the end had originally been a middle scene. I had set up expectations for what was to come at the end of that particular scene right before it happened, because it had not been an big issue.

    Now, however, it was important that the end was a surprise. I had to take out the clues that revealed what was to come and weave them back in chapters and chapters earlier, where it would be present but not on the readers mind when he reached the end scene.

    I was very grateful I’d stumbled upon the head’s up for this, because it was an easy fix and one I would really have regretted not doing.

    Thanks for your thoughts. 😉

  • David, I want to play!

    I kayak, so I wrote a kayak analogy, but the language will mean nothing to anyone but another kayaker….

    Know the flow, follow the green, take the tongues, beware the strainers, if you do a fish-count keep tucked and roll, and eddy out at the end for a high-five.

    See what I mean… Sigh… Makes sense to me. (grins)

    Great post. And I have to say, you are a master at endings. I still remember a certain crystal (blue?) and my feelings as it all came together. It was flawless, and a reading experience that stayed with me.

  • Gah! Writers and their damn analogies!

    Faith, I think I got most of yours. Really funny, if a tad esoteric for most people.

    David, as much as I despise analogies, I think you’ve used them to good effect. Presenting writing as an interactive art is something I wish I saw more of. I’m hell to watch movies with because I play the Game out loud, and I’ve ruined more than one ending for family and friends. (Hello, Avatar…) It’s almost sad to be a writer, and put your practice laying groundwork to use for the opposing team. 🙁

  • Thanks, Jagi. I’ve likened the process to weaving, too! It’s a nice way to describe it. And I agree that Rowling did this beautifully in the later Potter books. The change in your book that you describe would actually be a helpful exercise for people to try, even if it wasn’t necessary, as it was in your case. Planting clues is a delicate exercise, and one that writers should work on. I may have to work on something like this for future workshops….

    Faith, I love the lingo! I have no idea what you said, but it sounds cool. I think that, as with other aspects of my writing, sometimes I get the endings right, and sometimes I don’t. I writing an ending right now, and I HOPE I’m getting it right, but I’m not sure yet. Thanks for the kind words, though.

    Atsiko, the way I see it, analogies are like contact lenses…. Okay, not really. Just giving you a hard time. Thanks for the comment. My wife and I are both pretty good at figuring stuff out ahead of time in movies and books. So we’ve both learned to keep our mouths shut when watching stuff together or with friends. But every once in a while, one of my kids will tell me about the set-up for a book or movie they love, and just to mess with them, I’ll describe what I assume the major plot points and ending will be. They just look at me like I’m a freak of nature and walk away muttering to themselves.

  • Wolf Lahti

    “Readers love to be surprised, but they don’t like to be manipulated or deceived.”

    Ah, but it is the job of the writer to manipulate the emotions of the reader. We just have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t feel as though that’s what we’re doing. 🙂

    “Writing is, in fact, an interactive art form.”

    Earlier writers have said as much, but Algis Budrys encapsulated this idea nicely in explaining that people often mistake the manuscript for the story. The story is actually something that takes place between the manuscript and the reader. Understanding that was what finally propelled me from writing “events” to writing “stories”.

    My own approach is decidedly anti-outlining/pre-planning. If I know what’s going to happen, writing turns into mere typing. And knowing the outcome ahead of time would rob me of one of the greatest pleasures of my writing – realizing why I wrote that scene back there, and of course that’s what X and Y were really fighting about! My subconscious somehow knows how to set up my red herrings and my legitimate plants; sometimes I wish it would let me know, too. (Interestingly, it is when I do not have faith in my subconscious to manage the whole mess that things fall apart for me.)

  • I enjoyed this post David. I especially appreciated the point you made about writers having the opportunity to “amend and adjust” their stories.

    My greatest “amending” challenge right now is that my WIP is a story that will span more than one book. I find I’m constantly jotting down notes for the later books and more than once have realized I need to plant some of the seeds for those books in the current one for them to flourish the way I hope they will when I finally sit down to write them.

    How have you handled doing this with your different book series?

  • Thanks for the comment, Wolf. I like the distinction between writing “events” and “stories”. At this stage of my writing career, I outline much less than I used to and rely on my subconscious to set up the end game for me. Still, when I’m done, I spend a good deal of time going over my plot points and making certain that what I’ve put in place actually works.

    Thanks, John. Glad the post was helpful. I know exactly what you mean — when working on a multi-book project I often put in small details that don’t have huge ramifications for that particular book, but will come into play later in the project. The way I’ve always handled, it (and this is just my approach — no doubt there are other ways, better ways) is to let those details stand on their own in the first instance, but have something happen in the later book to stir a character’s memory of that moment, or line of dialogue, or whatever it is. The reader will need reminding, and so the character’s memory serves to bring that buried detail to the surface once more. This way you can use a light touch in the first instance, which maintains the surprise for the second. Does that make sense?

  • Yes, it does. Thanks David.

    I’m actually more concerned right now that by the time I get around the book three, I’ll realize I needed to have put something into book one or two to really get the most of out of it, or perhaps for it to work at all, and it will be too late.

    Has that happened to you and if so how did you write your way around it?

  • heteromeles

    Again, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert, but I will pitch the opposite version, just to be contrary.

    Let’s start with a sentence: “Writing is like having sex, because….” I’ll let you finish that. Here’s a question: if it’s done competently, is the ending in doubt? No? So if there are no surprises, why read/write/have sex at all?

    Right. It’s fun. And satisfying. And getting there is a big part of the fun, even if the climax is average, rather than mind-blowing.

    There are literary forms where the ending isn’t in doubt: Romance. Standard mystery. Heroic quests. Tolkien rip-offs. That series of modern reworkings of classic fairy tales. You know what’s going to happen, roughly when, and to whom. The reader’s fun is in getting there. The writer’s art is in making it fun and novel (in several senses) for the reader.

  • John, what you describe has happened to me, and sometimes there’s really not anything to be done. If the first book is published you’re just out of luck, and you have to find ways to weave in the clues to those volumes that are still available to you. You adjust. You make the progression of events, conversations, observations, etc. meet your narrative needs and your writing realities. There have been times when I wished I could go back and change things. But you have to deal with it and make it work. Ultimately this is your creation, and while we strive for that organic development that we at MW like to talk about, it’s not always possible. So you fit in what you need to and move on. Harsh, I guess. But that’s the reality.

    Heteromeles, I’m all for being contrary and prompting interesting discussion, but I can’t tell exactly what you’re arguing for here. That sex is fun? I’m with you on that one…. 🙂 Are you saying that there is no need to worry about keeping the ending a surprise, that it’s okay to be predictable as long as the journey is entertaining? Yeah, I suppose. But as a reader I prefer to be surprised; as a writer I strive for the “Wow!” at the end of a book. I guess it’s a matter of personal preference. Thanks for the comment.

  • Great post, David. Re. the drawing together of strands late in a book or indeed a series, I think it worth pointing out that much of what seems like brilliantly planned and coordinated strategy at the end of a book (or series) wasn’t necessarily written with that end in mind. I was chatting to Douglas Preston at a convention about developments in his recent (with Lincoln Child) Pendergast novels and he admitted that–like many of us–what looked like complex development of carefully placed clues in earlier books was actually just making stuff up as they went and then finding ways to tie it back to what had gone before. The result looks carefully planned from the beginning, but it wasn’t actually executed that way. Rowling does the same in the last Potter books, I think, tying up loose threads in ways that create the illusion of planning. That’s what it looks like when it’s done right, of course!

  • Yes, it’s a bit like the tricks of a magician. Done well, end game clues of this sort can make it seem to the reader that every plot point has been placed just so as the book was written. Many of us write in a linear way, and certainly readers experience our books linearly. But revisions don’t happen that way, and that’s where the illusion you speak of comes in. Great comment. Thanks, A.J.

  • heteromeles

    Hi David,

    Here’s what I’m arguing. Surprise? Frodo lived. Sauron was defeated. Sam lived happily ever after. Is that why we like Lord of the Rings? Not really. Personally, I like Lothlorien and Fangorn forest better than Mordor, and even more importantly, LOTR would have been a crappy book if (surprise!) Frodo had failed. I’ll even argue that, had Frodo managed to throw the Ring into Mount Doom of his own volition, it wouldn’t be that much weaker a story. The reason we like LOTR is because of the characters and the journey, not because of the surprise at the end.

    I’m saying that, more important than surprise, as a writer, you want people to like your story. Sex without a proper climax is frustrating, but sex that marches through mechanically to that climax isn’t much better. If you’re contrary enough to say that writing is like sex in that it ends with a climax (ideally several) and a happy afterglow, then you’ve got to admit that the climax isn’t surprising.

    I’ll even give you the penultimate sentence in the manuscript I’m working on:

    “I love you,” he said, as she opened her arms to embrace him.

    Okay, so I have a romantic subplot that doesn’t fully resolve until the end. Is the ending a surprise? I hope not! The point of this romance is what they have to go through, and I’m hoping that the readers are pulling for both of them the whole way. And furthermore, I guarantee that I’ve given nothing away about all the surprises in the story by giving away the ending or the subplot.

  • David said, But there’s a second lesson as well: Misty was playing the game, trying to figure out the mystery.

    Indeed I was! There’s nothing I like more than immersing myself in a story so deeply that I’m no longer just reading, and that requires great subtlety. For the writer, that’s no easy task. As you mentioned, placing the clues carefully enough that they feel natural and don’t stand out, but are still memorable when the end is revealed…that’s a terrific skill.

    There are quite a few books I’ve closed with that sigh of satisfaction and longing, because it was such a good story and I’m sorry it’s over. I know I mention him too much, but Tim Powers’ award-winning novel The Anubis Gates was just such a one. It was the first time I read a time travel book that closed every loop, even one that was so slick most readers would have forgotten until that wonderful ending. When the character involved in that last loop appeared, and I realized who it was, I literally screeched in my excitement. It was such a good ending that I reread the book from time to time, even though I know good and well what the end will be by now.

    My hope is that when readers read what I write, they’ll feel just that way. 😀

  • And I forgot…I meant to mention that writing is also like dance. The moves you choose when planning your choreography have to logically flow from one into the next, or the dancer ends up looking ungainly and confused. The steps have to build, one on the next, to the big finish. The events of a novel have to move just as smoothly and build to that satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader breathless.

  • H, thanks for the clarification and the thoughtful comments. I think there’s some truth in what you’re saying. Certainly I’m the first person to say that strong characters are the backbone of good storytelling, and I’ll even agree that a good story well told can overcome a predictable ending. But I would add that when I write, I want to surprise my reader. When I read I want to be surprised. And I know that a lot of readers and writers feel the same way. My post was aimed at offering some pointers on how to achieve that effect. I’d also say that I disagree with your take on LOTR. You may be right that we all knew Frodo would live and Sauron would be defeated. But I think that without Gollum’s role in what happens on Mt. Doom (which did surprise me the first time I read it), that part of the ending doesn’t work. And without the circumstances leading to the Scouring of the Shire, which ARE a surprise, the book would fall flat. Yes, the facts of endings are often predictable — Good prevails, evil is defeated, blah, blah, blah. But getting there should be filled with unexpected twists and turns. That’s what I was getting at. Thanks for a fun and thought-provoking discussion!

    Misty, I haven’t yet read Anubis Gates, but I love the ending to Expiration Date. Powers is a terrific writer. I play the game whenever I read; that’s part of what I love about books, reading them and writing them. And yes, I can totally see that dance would be another wonderful analogy for what we do.

  • heteromeles

    Sorry about the italics, and I think we agree more than not. If nothing else, I’m suggesting that focusing on a plot-twist ending can be limiting. Look at what happened to M. Night Shyamalan in Hollywood.

    I’d also agree on the Anubis Gates–I’d forgotten about that one, and it’s a good book. My (counter)example is Cryptonomicon, which has something like a twist ending that left me scratching my head and wondering a) what the heck was going on and b) once I figured it out, whether it would work. Earlier in that same book, Stephenson pulled off not one but two impossible escapes that did leave me breathless.

    You’re absolutely right. Surprise matters.

  • Great post, as usual. I’d really like to see you expand this to end games for a series as mentioned above. Speaking of the series, a post on planning your way through one would be great, or even series length character arcs. 😉

    As for favorite, memorable endings I’d have to say Paul S. Kemp’s Erevis Cale Trilogy. Yeah, I know, it’s shared world fiction, but Kemp hits the heartstrings and leaves the reader punching the sky and cursing the gods at the end of the first book. (I advise having the second book on hand or you’ll be cursing me.)

  • Thanks, H. I’d add that you’re absolutely right, too — the journey is key.

    Dave, thanks for the future post ideas. Maybe next week. Certainly soon. Haven’t read Kemp’s book, but I will add it to my ever-growing TBR list.

  • David, one late postscript —
    I just finished AJ’s The Mask of Atreus, (my first AJ book) and I played the game (the who’s the bad guy, what plot point will come next game) all the way through. And though I got some right, the ending was a total surprise. So, I went back to the beginning and searched for the plot threads. It was all there. An ending where it all comes together like that is such a delight!

  • Not surprised, of course, but I’m glad to hear that. I’m looking forward to reading all of A.J.’s books.

  • Thanks Faith! Glad it managed to surprise a bit.