I’m done with a lot of travel and can get back to writing posts — but then I just looked at the calendar and saw how quickly the holidays are approaching, so I think this may be the last “official” writing post this year. I’ll take a bit of a hiatus and come back in January with a lot of new ideas (I hope!). But I do hope to be better about blogging about other things. I’m just trying to avoid having scheduled obligations.
So, to conclude the series on parts of the story, let’s talk about endings. I’ve heard it said that the beginning is what sells this book and the ending is what sells the next book. The ending has to take care of a lot of things. That’s where the climax of the story goes — the peak action, where all seems lost until the hero prevails (or fails entirely). It’s also the culmination of the hero’s character arc, when he has to make some kind of change in order to prevail or perhaps because he prevailed. It’s when the loose ends are tied up, relationships secured (or ended), and we see just enough of the new normal in the aftermath to know how things are going to look for the hero going forward. If there’s a sequel, the seeds for the sequel may be planted to tease readers into coming back for more.
At the end of the middle, our characters have recovered from whatever their big midpoint ordeal/midterm exam was. Now they need to gear up to deal with things once and for all. They may have to return to the point of their failure to try again, they may have to race against the villains to get somewhere first in order to take care of business, or they may have to go where they will confront the villains. However it goes, it needs to be (at least figuratively) do or die. If this attempt fails, all is lost. There may not be another chance. This is also a moment of truth for our hero, who’s been resisting the kind of internal change she/he needs to make. If she doesn’t make this change, she probably won’t be able to succeed, but making that change is scary and leaves her feeling vulnerable. There may also be a moral choice — do things the right way and there’s a chance you won’t win, do things the wrong way and you might win, but there will be a huge personal cost. Making the right choice is a leap of faith. This is when the hero will be tested again on whatever he might have failed in the middle of the book — if he failed because he was too impulsive before, now he has to be able to wait for the right moment. If he failed before because he wanted to go it alone, now he has to trust in his team. It works best if whatever the hero needs to learn is closely tied to what he has to do to win.
Even though in genre fiction we’re pretty sure the hero is going to win, you have to trick the reader into wondering if maybe this time is going to be the exception and the hero will lose. The odds have to look bad, and there needs to be a good chance for failure. Victory should come at some cost. Secondary characters who are important to the hero may die. How far you go with this depends on the tone of the book you’re writing.
And then, victory! It’s best to end the book as soon as possible after that climax so there’s not a huge letdown, but you do need some winding down because readers want to savor that victory and see how it affects the characters. There may be celebration or mourning. We need to see at least a glimpse of what our hero is going to be like now that she’s been transformed. How will that affect her relationships with other characters? What do other characters think of her now? How have these actions and events changed the world of the story? You probably don’t want more than a chapter or so of aftermath, but you need enough to reassure readers that everything’s okay and all is right with the world (at least, until the sequel, and then you need to leave just a little bit that’s not entirely right). How you wrap things up depends on the effect you want to have — do you want to leave readers sobbing or sighing?
One common way of showing how things have changed is to reflect the beginning. In a quest, the character may have returned home, and we see the contrast between the hero and his surroundings. How is he different from the person who left? How has his view of his home changed? Will he be happy there? Or you can reflect an incident from the beginning and show the changes. In my Enchanted, Inc., the book opens with the heroine seeing strange things on the subway that no one else seems to notice, and it bothers her. At the end, she’s on the subway seeing strange things again, but now she understands them and is part of their world. You could do something similar with an encounter between two characters that goes differently or by showing the character facing a similar challenge in a different way. Or the character may have embarked on an entirely new life, so we need a glimpse of how she fits into that new life and new world and how it’s different from her old life.
Some genres have specific expectations of what happens in the end. A mystery requires the hero to find and unmask the killer, who’s brought to justice, and there often isn’t much aftermath wrap-up, unless there are relationship subplots to be addressed. A romance requires some kind of emotional commitment between the characters, so that you know they’ll be in a relationship going forward.
One of the best ways to learn to write a good ending is to look at the books whose endings have stuck with you and see if you can analyze why you like those endings. How many pages are left after the climax and main plot resolution? What events happen? What emotional tone is struck? That will help you figure out what you need to do.
In general, it’s a good idea to leave readers wanting a little more — give enough to be satisfying, but not enough to start to get boring. It’s better for readers to wish for just one more page than to have them flipping ahead.
And with that ending, I’ll close out the writing posts for the year.