Endings, Again

I'm only a couple of days out from finishing Air Pirates. It's exciting (obviously). On the other hand, this last chapter has been taking longer than the others because it's the end. It has to be good. To do that, as Natalie said in her post on endings, I have to take it slow.

So obviously I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what makes an ending good. I've mentioned before that I have a problem with endings. I think I'm starting to figure out why.

As a writer, one thing you have to realize is that while you're telling your story, you are making certain promises to your reader. Some of those promises are inherent in the genre you're writing: if you're writing a murder mystery, you promise the reader will learn who did it and why; if it's a romance, you promise the right people will get together in the end.*

But genre aside, every story makes promises, and it's your job to give the reader what they want. That doesn't mean you have to be predictable, but throw in the wrong kind of twist and your reader will throw your book across the room in frustration.

Let's look at an example. Halfway through Back to the Future, everything's set up for a big climax. The two major conflicts (will Marty get back to the future? can he get his parents together so he still exists when he gets there?) are set up so that Marty's only chance at both is at the same time: the night of the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. How does this have to end? You might think there are a thousand ways it could end - after all, anything's possible - but the truth is that the viewer is expecting a very limited subset of what is possible.

In BttF, the viewer expects Marty to get home and his parents to get together. Why? Because it's a light-hearted, funny movie. From the very beginning, the movie sends subtle clues that this will be a fun story, which implies a happy ending. There are a number of twists that can happen, but if Marty dies in the end, or gets stuck in the past forever, the viewer will be upset.

BttF also sent signals about what kind of climax it would be. Because there are action scenes (the Libyans attacking Doc Brown, Biff and his goons chasing Marty), the reader expects not just similar, but bigger, action for the climax. Because the movie is funny, we expect a little comic relief from the climax (or at least aren't blind-sided when it happens).

There's more. Marty's dad didn't have to become confident, did he? Could Marty have gone home and found everything exactly as he left it - loser parents and all? He probably could have, but we're all glad he didn't, because the viewer expects the characters they care about will not only win, but win big (or, if it's a tragedy, lose big). It's not enough for George McFly to get the right girl, he has to become more than he was before Marty interfered. Marty doesn't just come back home, he comes back to something better (a new truck, Doc Brown lives and is a closer friend to him than ever).

I'm not saying all endings have to be happy and predictable, but they have to be satisfying. They have to be bigger and better than anything that's happened in the book so far. If you twist it, the twist should be better than the straight-forward ending would have been - don't twist just to be unpredictable (woah, that advice came out of nowhere, and I realize I need to follow it!).

This post is long already, and there was something else I wanted to say about cliffhangers. I'll put it off for another post. In the meantime, ask yourself, what has to happen in the end? Twists and details aside, where do the characters have to end up for me to be satisfied? That's where the ending needs to go.

* These rules aren't strictly true 100% of the time, of course. They can be broken, but if you don't know what you're doing, nobody will put up with you breaking them.


Natalie Whipple said...

Great post, Adam! It's like the smarter version of mine. You are so right about twists. I constantly feel the pressure to be clever, but the twist must be necessary or it's just annoying.

Hilabeans said...

I agree - great post! In Plot & Structure by James Bell, he puts it very simply - there are 3 main ways you can end a book (dependent upon genre, of course): Happily, Ambiguously, and Negatively. With any of those, whatever you choose, it has to be BIG!

In my latest novel, Autumn Leaves, I went for big, but left some room for the next book. It is a series, after all. Also, I enjoy a little room to wonder. I hate it when I finish a book and very tiny little thing gets tied up so much, there is nothing left to imagine.

Just my ramblings… thanks for listening? ;)


Hilabeans said...

Today is typo day - it should read EVERY tiny little thing... forgive the gratuitous use of adjectives too.

Adam Heine said...

Thanks Hilary and Natalie.

Natalie, I swear I wasn't trying to stomp on your post. I tried very hard to say different things. I liked what you had to say very much :-)

Hilary, I'm gonna touch on that in the next post. The WIP I'm almost done with is potentially first in a trilogy, so I've been thinking about how to satisfy and leave room at the same time.

fairyhedgehog said...

I need to take this on board when I get to the end of anything I'm writing.

First though, I need to write some middles.

Natalie Whipple said...

Ha, I didn't think you were stomping. It's the perfect addition!

Renee Collins said...

Congrats on almost being done! (You, Natalie, and I are all finishing within a few days of each other. Fun. :))

Anyway, you articulated many of my thoughts about endings. They pretty much freak me out. So much rides on the ending. It's crazy!