It’s been several weeks since my last “Writing Your Book” post. Last time, as you may or may not remember, I wrote about “The End Game,” the devices that we use to set up our endings, and the hints that we plant early in a manuscript. Today I’d like to build on that by focusing on the final chapters of your project, and the elements of storytelling that you ought to keep in mind as you turn your attention to the Beginning of the End.
What makes for a great ending to a book? It’s more than just plot, though of course, tying up those narrative threads is part of the process. A satisfying close to your novel should tie together narrative development in most if not all of your plot threads, character growth among the major players in your book, and larger issues embedded in your worldbuilding or the establishment of your setting. In other words, a good ending satisfies on every level. Just as an effective novel combines character, plot, setting, and other storytelling elements into a coherent whole, so your final chapters should bring together all of those elements and have them peaking simultaneously. (Okay, forgive the aside, but I can’t tell you how difficult it is to write about this stuff without descending into sophomoric jokes about a good climax satisfying in all ways simultaneously…. But a good climax really should….)
[Clears throat.] Well then, let’s start with plot. By the time you reach the final quarter or so of your novel, the plot points should be building toward your climactic scenes. Usually this is the point in the book where things look worst for your protagonist. Her planning has fallen apart, your antagonist has bested her again and again, her romance with what’s-his-name has deteriorated, and the world you’ve created is on the brink of utter disaster. Now it’s time for your protagonist to rally, to bring to bear her resourcefulness, her strength, and whatever other qualities you’ve given her along the way. It’s also the time for the connections between your main plot and your subplots to become more evident. Pacing can vary throughout a novel. At times plot points come quickly; at other times things develop at a more leisurely pace. But this is not a time for the latter. As you move into the final chapters, the pace should build rapidly. Your readers should be left breathless and desperate for more. They should be turning the pages so quickly that they risk tearing each one, and the end of each chapter should be so filled with suspense that they have no choice but to read on, even if it’s four hours past their bedtimes. At times, I have spoken critically of J.K. Rowling’s writing, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. But I think this — plotting the ending of her novels — is something she did exceptionally well in the Harry Potter books, particularly in the later volumes. Her pacing was excellent, she played the end game beautifully, weaving together hints and plot points she had planted early in the books, and she piled one thrilling moment on top of another.
But plot is only a small part of the ending. This should also be when your character finally gets over her fears, her personal shortcomings — whatever has been holding her back. And her growth past this failing should be intimately tied to the plot points that are pushing the novel towards its denouement. Faith and others at this site have written a lot about character growth, and it can’t be stressed enough: A story’s protagonist should not remain static. She/he has to grow, change, adapt. And there should be a symbiosis between this character’s development and your storyline, even if that symbiosis is subtle . If this is the first or second book in a trilogy, then it’s possible that this time around that flaw will keep the protagonist from succeeding. Ultimately though, whether at the end of a stand alone novel, or in the final volume of an extended story arc, your character should face whatever has held her back, conquer it, and prevail. This is something that I believe Neil Gaiman does as well as anyone in the business right now. Read the endings of Ananzi Boys, or Neverwhere, or American Gods, and you will find deeply flawed characters, major protagonists and smaller players alike, overcoming their shortcomings and acting heroically, while still maintaining the essence of who and what they are. Brilliant stuff.
And then there’s your world. In my Winds of the Forelands series, the climactic battle would decide the fate of the Forelands world as my readers knew it. In my newest book, Thieftaker (yes, for now that is the book’s title), which I just finished last month, the future of our world is not at stake. But the future of colonial Boston might well be. In my story “The Dragon Muse” (which appears in the new Dragon’s Lure anthology coming out later this month), the only part of the world really at risk is my main character’s life. But really these three examples are far more alike than they might seem. In all three cases, there is enough hanging in the balance to make my readers care. They have a stake in the ending, either because they don’t want the world to end, or because they are reading a book that threatens our collective history, or because they have come to identify with the struggle of this one man. Your ending doesn’t have to be apocalyptic to be effective; in fact, you don’t want to overreach. The key is to make your reader care about the same things your protagonist cares about. Most of the time, that will tie the reader to your setting as well as your character, and thus to the larger implications of your protagonist’s struggles. My favorite author in this regard is Guy Gavriel Kay. Part of what I love most about his work is his facility for making setting come to life, be it an imagined world, as in Tigana or the Fionavar Books, or a real world setting, as in his recent masterpiece, Ysabel. And in doing this, he ties his characters inextricably to the worlds in which they live. We care about the people, of course, but we also see them as bit players in far larger struggles. His closing chapters bring setting and character together so powerfully that the emotional impact of his endings is increased exponentially.
I will deal with the closing passages of a novel in the next “Writing Your Book” installment. But for now let’s talk about endings, and how they bring together disparate elements of a story. Who are some of your favorite authors and how do they handle endings? What issues are you grappling with as you approach the final chapters of your book?David B. Coe