(Originally posted on Kalayna.com)
- “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The king’s advice to the white rabbit in the above quote seems too easy, too self-explanatory to be of any use to a writer. And yet, how to begin or end a story is an issue I see discussed and bemoaned on craft loops on a regular basis. More emphasis seems to go into the beginning of a book, as that is what agents, editors, and eventually, readers will see first. But how you leave a reader is as important as hooking them in the beginning. I blogged on beginnings last week, so I thought I’d take a look a endings today.
“Go on till you come to the end. Then stop.” Seems easy enough, right? But I bet we’ve all read a book that left us more than just unsatisfied; endings that just didn’t work. Two examples leap instantly to my mind, and I won’t be naming any names here for various reasons–not the least of which because of spoilers and that it would be in bad taste –but let’s just say both of the following books were best selling novels.
In my first example, I’m going to talk about a book that I personally felt the author stopped before the book ended so that the story abruptly halted. This was a mystery, and the main character finds the very last clue and mentally unravels the mystery of how the victim was killed and by whom. She calls the police right before the murderer walks out and cordially invites the main character into the house.
Then the book ends.
Yes, the mystery is solved–we know who did it and how–but what happens when the main character walks into the house? Does her host realize the police have been called? What happens when the cops arrive? As none of this is in the book, the assumption is that everything goes as clockwork, but I still felt that those scenes were missing. I checked the spine to see if pages had been torn from my book and then went to the bookstore to see if my copy was defective. For me, the book just didn’t end in the right place. It hit the climax and then stopped with no easy down for the reader.
In the reverse, with my second example I feel the author continued to write long after the book had ended. This one was a thriller, and we spent a good three hundred pages invested in watching the main character track and attempt to stop a serial killer. Once he was finally dead, I anticipated a little wrap up and the book to be over.
But no. There were a good fifty pages left.
Every plot thread was fully explored and tied off and a second ‘mystery’ appeared. It wasn’t a bad story–honestly, I enjoyed the book–but I’d had my payoff already in the bad guy getting his; the rest dragged. To me, the book ended in one place and stopped far later.
So then, how do we know where the end of a story is and where to stop? Well, like I said, both of the above examples were bestselling novels, so obviously these endings worked for a lot of people–they just didn’t for me. Which is one of the issues with writing: enjoyment is a person to person experience.
Not so helpful, I know. What it means when you are writing is that you write what you would like to read. Where do stories you like to read end? Where do you feel your story ends?
Personally, I like books where the main plot is solved and the highest tension occurs, and then we have one last chapter that wraps things up a bit. If we were looking at a visual graph of the tension, the very highest point would be the climax, but then we would have a little downward sloping tail before the last page. I like the main characters to have a second to breathe before they let me go, to maybe get a small peek of how their life goes on after all the changes that occurred in the book.
In a series, this small wrap up might also highlight a dangling thread the author left hanging so that the reader can anticipate what might come next. Note that a dangling thread is NOT part of the main plot, but a running or underlining subplot. If the main plot isn’t tied up, you typically have a cliffhanger ending where the action stops at a hook and you have to wait for the next book for the plot to finish. The visual graph of this would have the same arc as the earlier example, except that it would have lines where each book stopped as that one plot would be spread over several books.
That isn’t to say a standalone episodic novel can’t end with a hook (but if it does, it best be a series or your readers will likely hate you.) A book with a heavy hook wraps up the main plot but then, at the very end, hints at or adds in something which makes you want to jump right into the next book. This is another ending which works for me as long as the main plot truly was completed: mystery solved, bad guys caught, crisis diverted, problem solved–at least temporarily.