Monday, 10 September 2012

Good Endings Are Hard To Find



Readers want you to tie up all the loose ends, bring things to a close, make it satisfying and logical, and they want it to feel right.

And they don’t want to hear any nonsense about realism and how sometimes in life there is no answer, no proper endings, no closure. But then, ending a story isn’t about realism.

And they all lived happily ever after... What the hell does that even mean?

The end is just a place for passengers to disembark. Journey’s end. But what you need to have achieved in order to call it an ending isn’t always so obvious.

Often, though, the type of ending that your story needs has been foretold already. In the beginning. It doesn’t really matter what happens in the beginning, but whatever the tone is, whatever the mental and emotional state of your main character, by the end of the story they’re going to be in a different one.

If you start with Little Johnny playing innocently with his friends, by story’s end his innocence will be over (a good example of this kind of book is To Kill A Mockingbird, where the first section is the kids playing in idyllic summer, fearing imagined monsters, and by the end of the story they know what real monsters look like).

Not that you need to go for the diametrically opposite vibe, but for a satisfying climax, the sense of journey and transformation a story requires will be better realised if there’s some distance between MC at the start and MC at the climax.

Because of this, if you know how your story starts you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to end it. And the reverse is true also. If you know your ending, that will give you a leg up on the opening.

Let’s say our story is about Milly and her fianc√©, Dirk. Milly has a terrible temper, always accusing Dirk of things he hasn’t done or complaining about things he was supposed to, until she finally drives him away. She reassesses her life and then meets someone new—Frank. She keeps her temper in check and then on her wedding day she discovers Frank’s been having an affair with her best friend, Gladys. Milly flips out and kills Frank and Gladys and everyone in the chapel.

The story starts with Milly an angry mess, and it ends with Milly as an angry mess. While you could write the story as a dark comedy, as a genuine story about a woman dealing with her insecurity and fears it’s going to feel lacking. You could have saved everyone a lot of time and just have her kill Dirk for leaving her in the first place.

But say you like the opening. Milly’s anger drives men away and she spends the story learning how to cope with it. She meets Frank and thinks all is well with the world, but then discovers his infidelity. If I don’t have her revert to Livid Milly, where can I go? Well, since her personal journey was about learning to cope without anger and fear, I might have her see the situation for what it is—a close call where she almost married a douche. Instead of becoming enraged as everyone in the church expects, she could burst out laughing and wish Gladys good luck with the scumbag.

The events of the story are the same, but the change in her outlook on life informs her reaction.

On the other hand, if you liked the ending of the original example, where Milly loses her mind and kills everyone, then that story should start with Milly as shy and unsure of herself, maybe taken advantage of and abused. Eventually she can’t take any more and turns on her persecutors (an example of this kind of story would be Stephen King’s Carrie).

I’m using quite extreme examples to show the differences in stark contrast, but it doesn’t have to be quite so over the top. The key point is to have your MC changed by the experiences they go through during the story so they end up in a different mental state from where they were at the start.

Often, you will find that the first scene will naturally contain the character’s state of mind, although it may be buried or the scene might be a bit dull. If your character wakes up and feels crappy about going to work, then that shows he is unhappy with his life and feels stuck in a rut. But waking up and brushing his teeth isn’t a very dynamic opening, so the trick is to transfer that same sentiment into a more interesting scene.

Maybe he’s at the office hating what he does—still sounds quite dull. Or he could be out in the field on assignment—opportunities now starting to open up. Maybe he’s in a client’s small plane and the client ahs a heart attack at the controls. My point is his lack of enthusiasm for his job can take place anywhere I choose. And because I have a handle on what the character’s about, even though a reader might not immediately associate a man screaming as the plane he’s in plummets to the ground as being about not liking your job, if I know, then I can use it to create a satisfying ending to the story.

That’s not to say the way it ends is preordained. He could get a new job he likes, he could find a better reason to like the job he has, he could even accept his life as it is because of the things happening in the rest of his life—or myriad other options.

The actual specifics of what happens and how it goes down are still completely open to whatever you can come up with, but knowing where you need to get your character to mentally can help guide you. It’s that process of change that readers react to and find engaging.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


40 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So a lot of it has to do with the overall character arc...

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I think my real strength is in writing good endings.

Ellie Garratt said...

Interesting post. I already knew what the ending to my current WIP was before I started plotting, and for me it is to a certain extent like writing backwards to beginning. As for tying up all the loose ends - I hope I will have resolved enough to leave the reader happy but left just enough unsaid to make the return for the second!

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

The worst endings are those where the book just seems to end at a random place. Like the character comes to a crossroad and can go down one road or the other. Just as he's about to decide...END. (This is most often a metaphorical crossroad, not a literal one.) What's the sense of that? Or like in a couple of movies I watched recently where there's a gunshot and then...nothing, so we don't really know who got shot or if they die or what. Weak, dude. I guess the Sopranos kind of did that and look how that ticked everyone off.

Vero said...

Good endings are always a mirror of the beginning, because they contain just enough of it to complete the picture, but they're still opposites. :)
Great post, Mood.

mooderino said...

@Alex-yes, life is a rainbow.

@Michael-wish I could say that.

@Ellie-sometimes it all falls into place without even trying. So I've heard.

@PT-I agree, if I wanted to come up with my own ending I would go write my own story.

@Vero-cheers!

jnana said...

This is useful, thanks!

mooderino said...

@jnana-YVW

Lydia Kang said...

I agree with your assessment. Another excellent post, Moody. I know I don't tie up all loose ends but I do make sure that certain main goals set up at the beginning have a resolution. Whether or not they're happy is another issue!

Gina Gao said...

This is very helpful. Excellent post.

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

Diane Carlisle said...

I've posted before about the no resolution resolution. It's not okay for me to see a character to the end only to be disappointed because the ending had no closure. If it doesn't have closure, for me, it's not a story.

mooderino said...

@Lydia-I think there are two endings in each story, the completion of the task, and the transformation of the characters.

@Gina-YVW

@Diane-I agree. Although if there were no open-ended stories English teachers would have nothing to talk about.

Denise Covey said...

Even top writers can write a so-so ending. I think writers are so exhausted by that opening scene, that opening chapter, then traipsing through the saggy middle, that when they see the end in sight they just drop the ball. The editors don't always pick it up. They're probably exhausted too, lol!

mooderino said...

@Denise-I think they also convince themselves it's more meaningful to leave it open at the ending, which it isn't. It's just more annoying.

Elise Fallson said...

Actually, I wish I could start my wip at the end. It's the beginning that's giving me fits...

Medeia Sharif said...

I'm always rewriting beginnings and endings. I have a few drafts brewing and I'm still tweaking to get them right instead of so-so. It helps to have CP's with suggestions for revising the endings.

mooderino said...

@Elise-no reason why you can't write the whole thing backwards.

@Medeia-I find it easier to spot somoeone's ending isn't working than to offer a solution how to fix it. I suppose that's sort of helpful.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Excellent excellent explanation, Moody. I'm a fan of happy endings, but happy endings can really be just the character's state of mind about what happened during his/hers journey. Everyone doesn't have to still be alive, a satisfying end is imporant to me. I was not satisfied with the ending to Mockinjay because there was enough about the healing in the end (it felt very rushed) considering the amount of trauma the mc (and reader) had gone through together.

LD Masterson said...

I hate stories that leave me hanging. It's all build up and no payoff. And I agree the ending has to be someplace different than the beginning; otherwise, we've just read in a circle so what's the point.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I hate stories with lame endings. Good endings are extremely important. They ensure that readers eagerly await the next book by the author.

mooderino said...

@Donna-I wonder if they'll change the ending in the movie version. I would.

@LD-It's weird though, some stories have very odd endings but they work. Others, not so much.

@Rachna-true, the ending is the last impression you make on a reader and probably the most important if you want them to read the next one.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood,

Good post on endings. I agree a good ending is necessary. There is NOTHING worse than plotting along in a book and end up dissatisfied because of a bad ending.

I like your examples on how to change a characters's perspective. LOVE the Mily killing everyone at the church. Talk about "anger" issues. lol.

mooderino said...

@Michael-cheers!

Duncan D. Horne - the Kuantan blogger said...

Interesting thoughts about beginnings and endings. I wonder a bad ending with one of the main characters being killed off would go down?

mooderino said...

@Duncan-I don't think killing one of the main characters makes a difference, it could be good or bad.

Jess * Jessie * Jessy said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and pointing me to this great post. A satisfying ending is so important. The story I'm writing--and any story I read--is ruined if I don't feel satisfaction at the end. Reading your post, I realized that all my characters have changed and grown--except my MC. Thanks for "pointing" that out. :) A new thought for me to explore.

nutschell said...

Endings are very important. The books I pick up again and again, are those that give me a satisfying ending. If I come across a book whose ending is completely unsatisfying (even though the beginning and middle were enjoyable to read), i find that I never pick up the book again.

Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@Jess - my work here is done.

@nutchell - I think we respond to completeness in fiction because it's so hard to come by in life.

The Golden Eagle said...

I have trouble with endings--I hadn't thought of it this way before, but part of the reason might be that I'm not fully picturing the character growth from the beginning to end.

Empty Nest Insider said...

I always look forward to surprise endings. I agree that characters need to evolve. Julie

Jay Noel said...

This was my one big issue with the whole Hunger Games Trilogy. The main character doesn't change at all. From the very first sentence down to the last - she's static.

mooderino said...

@Golden-the good thing is it's easy to check just by looking at the start and end scenes.

@ENI-I like a good surprise ending, except when it's really, really surprising (i.e. unbelievable).

@Jay-but she did change from single to married, and isn't that the most important change of all? (j/k)

Margo Berendsen said...

Cool one sentence summary of To Kill A Mockingbird!! (and Carrie for that matter too)

Karen Lange said...

I agree, a good ending is hard to find. Mulling over some things along these lines for the WIP. Thanks for the great info! :)

mooderino said...

@Margo-If only i could summarise my own stories so easily...

@Karen-YVW.

cleemckenzie said...

You're so right about that ending being important. I just read a book that I thought was great up until the last chapter, and then it fizzled! In fact, it fizzled so badly I almost threw it across the room. How dare that author do that to me after I'd spent hours reading his prose?

Great post.

mshatch said...

I don't care if it's a good/happy ending just as long as it's a satisfying ending.

mooderino said...

@lee-coming up with a perplexing problem is a lot easier than providing a worthwhile solution. Sadly. a lot of books seem to be headed somewhere really interesting and then fall right at the last hurdle.

@mshatch-By good I mean satisfing, not happy.

Lauren said...

It's not just a matter of winding up all the threads, either. You can get everything tied up nice and neat but have your readers close the book going "Huh? What?"

Curtis Albert said...

Often, though, the type of ending that your story needs has been foretold already. Thanks a lot for sharing! writemyessaybay.com

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