Since I couldn’t name this post “Happy Endings” without a few snickers from the uncivilized masses, I guess this will have to do. Who doesn’t like awesomeness anyway? (Neil Patrick Harris = awesome)
The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.
Well, here we are at the end of this 3-part series on story. In case you missed it, check out the first 2 parts:
While most self-help “on writing” advice will tell you that your beginning is the most important part of your novel, I disagree. That advice comes from the assumption that your beginning will need to not only hook your reader, but a potential agent/publisher. While you should certainly have a “great beginning,” I believe the ending is what creates that lasting impression in the reader. The ending is what they takeaway from your story. You will impress your story upon their heart and it will be… wait for it… Awesome!
So, the ending of your novel is the topic of this week’s ramblings on writing. And I have some endings to consider:
The Resolution. Did your character(s) find what they were looking for, change what they wanted to change, overcome their obstacle, meet their goal(s)? If so, how does this affect them now? If not, what have they learned? How have they changed? What sort of impact did their choices have on the world around them? Did a new ‘cycle’ of some sort just begin? Were questions answered?
Most of these questions should at least be orbital to your resolution, some of them the main focus. A resolution doesn’t happen to an inanimate object – it affects a character! Show the impact. Savor the taste. Even if it’s only a few lines or paragraphs, make them count! Eden ends with perhaps one of my favorite all-time quotes, and those 9 words carry so much meaning because they were positioned by the 100,000 words that came before them.
Tragedies follow the “resolution” form, but they typically don’t leave us with hope or a fist-pumping ending. They typically teach or warn while entertaining us. Or, if the writer is a maniacal douchebag, they are meant to just depress us or leave a gaping hole in our hearts. Things are certainly resolved, but much to the detriment of our hero(es). If you are a hero on your way into a tragedy, you should read the warning label:
“Danger: this story contains high volumes of despair and pain, up to (and including) untimely death. Enjoy!”
So, be sure to have some concrete resolutions right there at the end. I admit, I’m guilty of the “run on” story. I never want stories to end. If I find a place I like, I typically want to stay there forever. Try to avoid this trap in your own stories – we humans like closure and a clearly defined “end” is a valuable milestone for your novel. Let the reader be fulfilled with a satisfying and unmistakable resolution.
The Payoff. Some stories are setup to reward the reader at conclusion. Romance novels, thrillers and mysteries come to mind as perfect examples of a story with a promise: if you stay ’till the end, dear reader, I will reward you.
The girl gets her man, the plot reaches its twisty climax, a surprise is sprung (thank you 6th Sense for restoring my faith in “The Surprise”) or the true killer is revealed. There are other ways to reward your reader, but these are amongst the most common. It’s also no surprise that these are the top-selling fiction archetypes – we all like to get paid.
If you are writing a novel with a payoff, be sure to deliver. Don’t endlessly dangle and then deny (you cock-tease). Your reader expects to be rewarded, so show them some love!
The Battle. Sometimes this is a grand clash between armies or personalities, or perhaps it’s within a character’s head/heart/soul. There’s something that needs defeatin’ and it’s up to our character(s) to fight the good fight. A battle for the sake of battle doesn’t work, but an epic end conflict where the stakes are palpable and meaningful can be a powerful ending.
I’m actually not a huge fan of this one. A final fight to give us closure seems too easy to me. Life rarely boils down to simply going to war against something externally or internally and then receiving a resolution because of that do-or-die conflict. Sure, a battle can be part of a resolution, but that outcome shouldn’t alone dictate the course of things.
I’ve read many endings to novels and watched battles play on the screen that have left me empty. Yeah, the battle is over and your hero(es) won, but what about X, Y and Z? Are we just to forget about these other influences and accept the notion that the battle solved everything? Gimme some resolution too! Or a payoff (he had what was comin’ to him).
Summary. A list of events which transpire after the “action” in your story ends is a lame way to end your novel. If you summarize things you are violating a sacred storyteller rule: show, don’t tell. While the summary trick may work for nonfiction, if you are writing fiction than I suggest you avoid it like you would a buffet next to a senior citizen center at 3:30pm.
Summary: Since this blog only qualifies as fiction to anyone reading it (and not in my own little mind), I shall end with a summary! Write for resolution, answer the questions you pose, stay true to your characters and try not to resolve things with conflict alone. Also, keep this important question in mind as you glide through your ending: “Who’s book is this?” If you are writing for story, your ending should appear as a mirage taking shape at the end of a long, lonely trek.
I’ll leave you with the worst ending I can think of: