I really struggle with endings. Like Russian literature, I have a bad habit of pursuing consequences as far as they can possibly go, which ends up with everybody dead. There’s a place for sad endings, of course, but mostly people want to end on a high note and with a sense of closure. Bittersweet, at best. The books I reread and keep on my shelves all have happy endings. If I want my books to be reread and kept on other people’s shelves, I need to learn the art of writing an upbeat closure.
I actually asked for tips from one of my favourite authors, Joanne Harris, and she replied with this:
Unfortunately, whilst the advice is lovely it doesn’t help all that much. So, what about practical advice?
Find the Mice
Orson Scott Card said that the point at which your story ends is intrinsically linked with the type and sub-genre of story you’re telling. He called this the MICE Quotient, and I’ve talked about it before. If you’re writing a travel story, the ending is when your hero arrives at / leaves / decides not to leave a place. If you’re writing about an idea or question, the story ends when the question is answered. An event/adventure story ends when the event has taken place or the adventure is over. A character story is the trickiest to determine, but is essentially when the character accepts the change they have been resisting or achieves the change they’ve been seeking.
This is a fine theory for the broad strokes but doesn’t really help on a detailed level, particularly not if you have an ensemble cast. Look at the trouble Tolkien had wrapping up The Return of the King. That was, what, four endings? Five? There’s a trick to finding THE point of closure, and leaving some of the loose ends to the reader’s imagination.
That said, it’s important to identify which loose ends are unimportant enough to leave and which must be resolved in order to provide closure. Plots and sub-plots must be resolved; major character growth arcs must be completed. Who inherited the dead man’s tea-pot isn’t important unless the tea-pot contains the key to lost treasure or the secret code for the next apocalypse.
Epilogues are an indulgence, much like prologues. If you can afford to lose them, do so. Especially in these days of multi-platform publishing options, where you can always write a short story and put it online for those readers dedicated enough to want to hunt it down. Kelly Armstrong, writer of the Otherworld series, does this really well by releasing epilogues in a newsletter to fans who sign up for it.
On the flip-side of that equation, there’s the need for giving your reader a cool-down period. Especially if the finale of your story is a grand action-filled or emotional scene. Ending straight after that leaves your reader all wound up with nowhere to go. This is what the denouement tradition of older crime mysteries is for – we have the great chase or reveal of the criminal, and then the detective sitting down with his pipe and smoking jacket to explain his thought processes to the admiring friend. The reader is wound up, talked down, and goes away happy.
So when does a cool-down become an epilogue? Usually an epilogue is set some time after the main events, or told from a different character’s perspective. If the information contained within it is essential to the overall understanding of the plot, try and include it within the structure of the main story. But Resist the Urge to Explain.
Deus Ex & Twisters
Deus Ex Machina is when an unstoppable and overpowered force (not necessarily divine, despite the name) swoops in at the last minute to save the day. This feels like a cheat to the reader, unless the set-up is really good. And I mean REALLY good – like, characters-died-to-make-sure-the-heavy-cavalry-arrived level of good. They have to earn divine intervention. It has to have emotional weight. Basically, what makes a DEM is the lack of set-up. Tell it right, weave it into the story throughout, and it’s fine.
The Hulk, by way of example, is an unstoppable and overpowered force. If he just pitched up at the end of the Avengers to help out, he would totally count as a deus ex machina. But because Banner struggles with controlling the Hulk, and because he flipped out and fought the other Avengers on the helicarrier, he’s already woven into the story as an earned ally. Banner’s sudden ability at the end to release Hulk on command, and then fight with the rest of the team, is a bit deus ex-y but “I’m always angry” is such a cool line that we mostly let it slide.
Twists, a la M. Night Shyamalan, are equally tricksy beasts. If the set-up is good, the twist makes sense within your plot but doesn’t telegraph itself ahead of time, go right ahead. Readers tend to really enjoy a twist, provided it’s done well. If you can pull of a twist that makes a rereading of the story change the reader’s understanding completely, even better. That gives your book longevity.
Twists mostly come out of unreliable narrators. In fact, some authors believe it’s pointless to have an unreliable narrator without one. A twist that can be predicted, or doesn’t make sense, or is just there for sensationalism, though – that’s a not only going to annoy your readers, it’s also going to weaken the entire story. Instead of having a mediocre end, you’ll end up with a mediocre beginning and middle into the bargain. If you’re going to have a twist, you’ve got to do it right. And there are plenty of lists of films doing it wrong available on Google.
All of the above pretty much comes down to one thing: foreshadowing. The ending can’t be written in isolation. You need to know what the final point is when you write the beginning, in order to tie it in right. That said, you can (and many people have done, including Sir Terry Pratchett and if it’s good enough for him it’s good enough for me) write the first draft without a clue what the ending will be. Then you painstakingly add in the foreshadowing when you rewrite.
This doesn’t, however, solve my fundamental problem of writing positive endings. In the spirit of frankness, I find them hard to write because I don’t believe in them on some fundamental level. I guess this is one of my personal learning curves: start with tragic (Spiritus), progress to pyrrhic (Corpus), then bittersweet (London Under). Maybe the next project over the horizon will achieve happiness. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.