Writing Your Book, part VII: The Beginning of the End

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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
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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39 comments to Writing Your Book, part VII: The Beginning of the End

  • Nicely put, David. I absolutely agree on the way Rowling and Gaiman pull stories together. Terry Pratchett is also good at this, particularly in the Sam Vimes novels which use elements of the mystery structure. That narrative form seems particularly well designed to pull polt strands together to solve core questions, but Pratchett is especially deft at weaving ideas and thematic concerns into those plot points. The result is a sense not just of closure but of satisfaction: loose ends tied off, problems solved, but also a sense of emotional journey and character growth.

  • I find good endings in writing are a lot like good endings in music. And I think this holds true for any type of music. Good music has themes and emotions and sometimes even a story. When all come together in the end it packs a punch that is both satisfying as well as offering something a bit unexpected — a new turn on the theme perhaps that brings a greater appreciation to the piece. Writing is the same. When I read a top-notch ending, I find myself smiling at both the tale and the craft . . . then I usually shed a tear in jealousy.

  • heteromeles

    It’s too bad I returned Dianna Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland back to the library, so I can’t quote what she says about this. In the spirit of that book, though I’d add, “if you are a resident in Fantasyland and a hero shows up, start readying your disaster preparedness kit, because the end of the world is nigh. Particularly if said hero is having relationship problems and dark clouds are building.”

    Really.

    I mean, do you really have to keep the world from blowing up and kill the immortal SatanClone (version 17.7 release 3) just so that the protagonist gets the (insert appropriate gender)love interest?

    If you haven’t read the “Tough Guide”, I strongly recommend it, simply for its astringent commentary on standard fantasy tropes.

  • heteromeles

    That said, I agree with David on not over-reaching. But just as sex doesn’t end with a climax, neither should the story.

    To extend the sexual metaphor, there’s a difference between “Wham, Bam, Thank you Ma’am” and cuddling afterwards. To put it bluntly, you’re more likely to get a sequel if you handle the resolution well. (or, speaking as a reader, I’m more likely to pick up another one of that author’s books if I’m not pissed off by the way things got wrapped up in the previous series).

    Guy Gavriel Kay isn’t my favorite for endings. He does great climactic battles, but afterwards? Not so much. I agree with Stuart. My favorite books tug at my heartstrings as they end.

  • Emily

    Het> I believe in answer to your question David said “Your ending doesn’t have to be apocalyptic to be effective; in fact, you don’t want to overreach. ” So no. You don’t. The whole point is about your protagonist being at risk, changing into someone (usually) better, and overcoming something internal and external.

    Then again, a good Satan killin’ can be fun.

  • >>Then again, a good Satan killin’ can be fun.

    Emily, I love it! Back when I wrote myteries/thrillers, I was on a panel and during audience Q&A, the question was asked, why murder? Why do *all* mysteries have to revolve around murder? Um… they don’t. But when they do, the terror is hightened, the suspence is tighter, because the payoff is bigger when the hero finally succeeds against a killer. Much more bang for the reader’s buck than if the bad guy steals bubble gum from the corner store. Same with satan killin’s. Bigger payoff at the end.

    As for my favorite book endings, David, I’ll step out of fantasy (though pretty near fantasy) and point to the Odd Thomas books by Dean Koontz. There is the success of defeating evil, the loss of love, and the character’s acceptance of change in himself and in his world. And the price he has to pay tugs on his heart and the readers’. Delightful books, easy reads, and Koontz walks a fine blade in his writing between psychological suspence, mystery, and fantasy.

  • Thanks, A.J. I’m embarrassed to say that I have never read any of Pratchett’s work. I think it’s time I did. If you have a suggestion of which book I should read first, I’d appreciate it, either offline or here in comments.

    Stuart, I think that’s a great analogy. The best writing I’ve encountered has musical qualities to it — be it in terms of dynamics, rhythm and tempo, repeated themes. It makes complete sense to me that the similarities would extend to endings, too. Great comment. Thanks.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Het. Sounds like a great read. But I have to say that my experience with Kay has been just the opposite. His endings are as complex and multi-faceted as his plots, and they definitely touch my emotions. But to each his/her own.

    Emily, yes, that’s exactly where I was going. Thanks for saying it better and more succinctly than I did!

  • For Pratchett, you can’t do much better than “The Fifth Elephant” or “Thud.” Neither are beginnings per se but they drop you nicely into his world without needing a lot of backstory. As a stand alone, “Going Postal” is gtreat too.

  • Faith, you posted at the same time I did. I agree about the Satan thing, but I also think that Het makes a decent point in his aside about “SatanClone” in his first comment. There are so many of these evil characters in our genre that if you can’t do it well, it might not make sense to do it at all. My evil in the new series isn’t this kind of villain at all, and that works for me. I don’t do the Sauron/Rakoth Maugrim evil entity well. I’m just not good at it. But I am good at the flawed human villain, so I stick with that.

    And thanks for the book recommendation. Koontz is another who I’ve never read. I need to get that on my list, too. –Sigh– As if I have the time….

  • One of my favorite beginning of the ends was the finale of Stephen R. Donaldson’s The One Tree, at the time the penultimate book of the Thomas Covenent series.

    I had one of those rare cathartic moments when I read the ending to that book. One of my favorite things about the Covenant books is just how much everything that happens actually matters. Everything has consequences.

    And when I read the ending of that book it was like I could see everything that had built up to that moment all connected back to each other, going all the way back even to the very first book.

    There was still an entire book to go at the time to finish the story, but the end of book 5 really was the beginning of the end and brilliantly done, in my opinion.

  • CE, I agree with you about The One Tree. I didn’t find all of the endings to the Covenant books satisfying, particularly in the first trilogy. But that one worked beautifully, as did the ending to White Gold Wielder. Thanks for the comment.

    And A.J., thanks for the recommendations.

  • One of the best endings I ever read was Tim Powers’ The Drawing of the Dark. The protagonist enters the book riding in a Venetian gondola, comfortable with who he is, even though he’s past his physical prime and staring mortality in the face, on his way to a meeting he doesn’t know will change everything. He becomes burdened with a responsibility almost too great for any man to carry, yet he manages. When the conflict is over, he’s earned a certain contemplative peace, and he leaves the book in another sort of boat, disappearing over the water in much the same way another hero once did long ago. It’s a gorgeous ending, one that can make me cry just remembering it.

  • heteromeles

    That’s it, David. Aside from the giggle-factor of killing an immortal (the definition of immortal is…), look at the phrasing: defeat SatanClone(tm) forever to get the girl (or boy). I’m sorry, no one’s worth that much suffering, even after the second date.

    A bigger point is one I use frequently in my other life. I first learned it from a pop-spirituality book, where he said one of the best meditations he’d ever had was sitting in an urban mall, finding the beauty in a used styrofoam cup and a pair of cigarette butts. I’ll explain what this has to do with writing in a second.

    I have to do something similar often in my environmentalist-persona. People always want to see and save El Capitan, Yellowstone, and other spectacular places. They don’t want to worry about the 2 inch high endangered plant out behind their houses. That 2″ high plant has a gorgeous flower, but you’ve got to teach people to see it, to value it, and to finally love it and protect it. And you have to do this over and over, place by place, generation by generation. It’s the same as that meditation. You have to teach people to love the world around them, and not just blindly search for the next spectacular stimulation.

    There’s a lot of beauty in the world, and there’s a lot of drama in the world too. That’s why it’s kind of goofy to go after the biggest evil you can think of. It’s that trap of wanting spectacle, because you can’t see what’s right in front of you. SFF writers make fantasy worlds, but the spectacle trap is the same.

    If you’re looking for good endings, I’ll point to the Sam Vimes procedural mystery books by Terry Pratchett. To my mind, they’re better than Pratchett’s Rincewind stories, where the world really is at stake.

  • Thanks for the recommendation, Misty. I know you love Tim’s books. I’ve not read that one yet. I’ll look for it.

    And Het, thanks for the comment. I tend to agree with you, although I’d add that some do spectacle very well, and it’s fun to read their stuff. But there is definitely a place for more proportional evil and story lines.

  • David, sorry I didn’t read this post. I actually believe I missed ALL of these and I’ve been away on vacation and playing catch up all last week. I’m going to go back to the beginning and catch up here now 😀 It may take me a little bit, but I’m sure I missed a lot of good stuff.

    Hope everyone here is doing well!

    Happy writing

  • Thanks, Hinny. Glad to see you here again. The Writing Your Book series is something I’ve done periodically since the beginning of the year, so in going back to find posts you might have to go back as far as January.

  • At least it’s not September then!

  • But Het, David — few people want to fight the good fight about the small flower in the someone’s backyard when the bigger fight (Yellowstone or whatever) looms. Just as no one wants to read books about dull characters who never do anything except go about a daily life. Conflict and interesting characters are why we read books. People who write big conflict well (as David did say) are great reasons to read. And while I agree about books with a pseudo-Satan antagonist, the big fight is where the money tends to be. Not the little flower.

  • Faith, I agree with you. But I think that money is where the writing and the storytelling is good. I don’t write pseudo-Satan, and yet I’ve done okay. I’m not convinced that had I made my villains “bigger” I’d do better. Maybe I’m kidding myself, and the new series isn’t going to work because my evil isn’t bigger, but I have to write the books I write, and so I have to believe that there is room for other kinds of villainy. This isn’t to say that I’m writing about the single flower, or the styrofoam cup for that matter. But my villains are as human as my protagonists, and I think that kind of story still works.

  • Great post, David. It definitely squares with my feelings about stories(as in, not just books) that I have really enjoyed. It also mostly fits with my feelings about stories I didn’t like.

  • David, I seldom think bigger-is-better in terms of antagonist. I still think like a mystery writer — solve the crime and catch the bad guy. Writing and characters are what count. And I believe in anything you write. Your feel for character and the internal struggle balanced against the external conflict makes great reading, and I can’t wait to see what you do with it in a UF setting.

    But about satan? Some bad-guys just need killin’.

  • Thanks, Atsiko. Glad you found the post interesting.

    Faith, I appreciate the kind words. And I do agree: watching a great character put some whup-ass on a Big Satan — awesome.

  • What do you do when you learn you don’t have the beginning of the end, but a new beginning?

  • Alan, you have post-apocalyptic fantasy. Like my Rogue Mage novels… And speaking of the Great Satan… (grins)

  • I’m thinking that Alan was asking more about creative process — what happens if instead of your book moving toward the beginning of the end, it seems to be moving toward the beginning of a new book. Is that right, Alan? If so, I’m not quite sure what to tell you. Obviously, you follow that new inspiration, but you also need to finish the book you’re working on. And so what I would try to do is figure out where the two intersect. Where does the ending of the WIP intersect with the beginning of the new idea? And, just as important, how do you create a transition between them that will give the WIP a satisfying ending while also hinting at the story to come? I’m not sure I have answers for you, but those would be the questions I would be asking myself in that situation. Is that at all helpful?

  • Great post. Great discussion. Late as usual. ‘nough said.

  • heteromeles

    Actually Faith, you’d be surprised how many people will fight for that 2″ flower in their back yards. It took me a week to recruit my 30 with no more than an ad.

    Besides, what have you done for Yellowstone lately?

    This is actually relevant to what we write: you might want to have this huge spectacle of someone else defeating Evil (e.g. SatanClone) somewhere else, to make the world safe for you so you can just keep living your safe little life.

    Doesn’t happen that way. Evil occurs everywhere, in every life. As you know as a mystery writer, you can write a wonderfully compelling piece about someone confronting the evil in their own life and overcoming it.

    Getting back to David’s original post, my grump was about the stereotyped massive climactic battle, wherein all problems get resolved by defeating some huge and stereotypical evil.

    While the climax scene is built into our form of literature, it can get silly and contrived if you use one scene to wrap everything into a nice package. Moreover, if you’re telegraphing so much that all the supporting characters would making disaster preparedness kits as soon as they saw your protagonist–if you let them, that is–then the story has even worse problems. David’s talked previously about the utility of surprise, and that feeds in here as well.

  • Het – when the defeating Satan story is done right there really is no all is well with the world once more ending. The world that is left is so drastically changed from what it once was and the reader understands there will be years of mopping up work to still be done.

    Part of Gail Z. Martin’s Summoner series deals with the aftermath of the initial antagonist’s defeat. (Though this story doesn’t have the Satan level enemy.)

    To go back to Donaldson’s Covenant books, often the worst consequences come from the aftermath of the good guys actually winning.

    It’s pretty easy to do a really bad Defeating Satan epic fantasy story. When done right, however, they can be powerful and quite a journey.

    I think the best ending for these types of epic fantasies is for things to be written well enough so how each person meets their fate (be it to live or die) feels as though that was the only way it could have been.

  • Thanks, Dave.

    Het, I have to begin by asking that you leave the snark at the door. “What have you done for Yellowstone lately?” Totally unnecessary and not funny. It just sounds insulting, and Faith doesn’t deserve snark; she deserves respect for her skill and accomplishments, and courtesy from those who visit this site, where she is one of the hosts. I’m going to assume that the “you” in the third graph is generic “you” as opposed to being aimed at anyone in particular. As to the rest, I agree with you, but I think you’ve set up a straw man. I have read few successful fantasy writers who wrap up everything with a huge, climactic battle and then have the world go back to a happy status quo. You read Kay, Donaldson, Gaiman, Martin, and a host of others, including Tolkien, and there is a cost to all that has happened. Healing begins, but the process promises to be slow, and difficult. I know this is true in my work and in Faith’s as well. The “all-wrapped-up-in-a-ribbon” happy ending is usually a sign of poor storytelling.

    CE, I agree with you, and I suppose I have simply repeated much of what you said in your comment. As you say, when the big ending is done right, nothing will be the same again, but a new equilibrium is reached. Thanks for the comment.

  • heteromeles

    I do apologize for the Yellowstone snark. Then again, most areas in the US have non-monetary resources for conservation (people, expertise, local knowledge) on par with third world countries such as rural Colombia.

    That’s the offensive part of Faith’s remark, and yes it was offensive. For far too many people, the environment is something you save somewhere else, such as the tropics, coral reefs, or (yes) Yellowstone. I think the people in those Third World countries have a good point when they ask us why we aren’t saving species in our own back yards, while asking them to make large sacrifices for us. Certainly, the ranchers around Yellowstone do have problems with wolves, grizzly bears, and bison. While I disagree with their actions, I understand why they hate and scorn coastal urban environmentalists like me.

    This doesn’t justify my snark. You are correct. It is also off topic on this thread.

  • Hey, saying “I do apologize” followed by “then again” is not an apology. It’s compounding the ugliness. Either remember the manners I’m sure your mama taught you or keep quiet.

  • No, Het, there was nothing offensive in Faith’s comment. There was no attack in it, and it wasn’t about you or me or anyone else. It was a comment about writing — the flower and Yellowstone comparison was intended to make a point. You made it about something else when you should have stayed with the thread. Your “apology” was combative and failed to acknowledge the fact that you are a guest at this site. Please act like one. We don’t want to block anyone from Magical Words, but we also don’t want this to become a place where our other guests or even we feel bullied and abused.

  • Alan Kellogg

    David,

    You answered my questions quite nicely, thank you.

  • Alan Kellogg

    On the subject of great Satans, I once plotted out a bit of fanfic in which Sauron is saved by the love of a good woman, Aragorn tosses himself and the ring in the Crack of Doom because Frodo had to be killed at Weathertop, and Faramir becomes king of Gondor. In keeping with the topic, the story ends when Sauron returns to the Undying Land to continue his healing.

    Yes, I am big on redemption.

  • David, you make me want to change my post for tomorrow. I’ve been thinking about how cliffhanger endings fit into what you’re saying, because I don’t think they do what you say (with which I agree, btw), and yet they are frequently used and often bring readers back, possibly against their wills on some level. I think I need to write a post about that . . .

  • Thanks, Alan. And I love the Sauron rewrite. As always. Your ideas just knock me out.

    Diana, I think that a post on cliffhanger endings would be wonderful and totally apropos. But if you have another post prepared, I’m sure that one will be great, too. In fact, its hard for me to imagine you posting anything that wouldn’t be great.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Diana,

    But watch out for false cliff hangers; situations where it looks like you can set up one, but where the story basically comes to an end because it’s time for the story to end.

    Dave,

    Remember that ideas can’t be copyrighted, so if I say something that sparks something in you go ahead and follow up on your notion.

  • David, my biggest struggle seems to be tying those threads back together to make for a proper climax. It’s not that some of the threads are unnecessary (though I’m sure there are always going to be a few that don’t need to be there), it’s that there are so many that I get overwhelmed and can’t seem to work them back in. Example: when working toward the climactic battle and the main character’s allies from the course of the book come out of the woodwork, I felt like there was so much going on that I couldn’t devote enough time and attention to all of them without making the story drag.

    My WIP was actually a stand-alone until I realized that in order to give these threads more attention, I had to split the manuscript into three. That solves part of the problem, and maybe by the time I get to the Book 3 rewrite it won’t be the same, but it’s still frustrating. I have enough of a problem dealing with multiple characters travelling together; sometimes one of them doesn’t say anything because there’s no need for them to say anything (again without making it drag), and then I get asked by a Beta Reader where the heck that character went.

  • Thanks for the comment, Moira. With the plot threads, I have to admit that this is the reason I tend to outline at least a bit. To me, for a tread to have a place in the book, it has to play an integral role all the way through the narrative. Even if that role is kept secret from my readers until the very end, I should have some sense from the outset of how the various threads come together, even if it’s very vague at first. In planning my ending then, I know that each thread provides a component of the whole, and I need only fit them together into a coherent whole.

    With the second issue you mention, the character who “vanishes” for a scene or two — silence, facial expression, gesture. All of these can tell loads about a character’s response to things without burdening him/her with dialogue. And these things serve to remind readers that the character is still around.

    Hope that’s somewhat helpful.