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 http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net