Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Happy Endings

I was so very good yesterday -- wrote nearly 5,000 words. Now that I'm done tinkering with the beginning, I may start making real progress.

The last writing question I was asked was about how to finish a book. I already dealt with how to write to "The End." The other side of that question is how to go about ending a book. I don't know that I'd call myself an expert, other than that I have actually ended a number of books. These are just some of my thoughts on the matter and are by no means definitive. I will add that my thoughts mostly just apply to commercial or genre fiction. "Literary" fiction is an entirely different thing.

The ending of a book has two parts -- the climax and the resolution. The climax is the big moment that resolves the main story question -- the big showdown between the hero and the villain, the solving of the crime, the realization of love, the final battle. It's the biggest moment in the book. Then the resolution ties up the loose ends and tapers off the story. The resolution also gives the opportunity to show how the experiences of the story have changed the hero permanently and establishes the new "ordinary world" that follows the events of the story.

The climax should answer the main story question -- the "can he win/discover/find/learn/defeat?" question that drives the entire story. In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain has an interesting take on this. He says that the hero starts with an infinite number of possibilities of things he can do or choices he can make toward his goal. As the story progresses, each choice he makes eliminates a lot of other choices so that his options narrow. When the story reaches the climax, the hero only has two choices, usually between the easy but wrong way and the hard but right way. The climax comes when the hero makes that choice and finds the resources to prevail.

How much resolution a book needs after the climax depends on the story itself and the genre. In a romance where the climax is the realization that the hero and heroine really love each other, you may not need a lot more resolution than that, other than perhaps an epilogue to show that the couple really does get together. Think about most romantic comedy movies -- they tend to end with that big moment where the hero and heroine say "I love you" and fall into each other's arms, with perhaps a closing credits montage showing their future life together. A fantasy quest story may have a longer resolution in which the hero returns from his quest and we see how he interacts with the folks back home now that he's a changed man because of his adventures, and his various questing party cohorts peel off to wherever they end up after the quest is over. An action story that also includes internal conflicts may also need a longer resolution that includes the "climax" of the personal stories -- the hero defeats the bad guys, and then is able to resolve his relationship issues and otherwise set things in his personal life right.

The resolution may bring the story full-circle -- returning home, going back to the beginning to see how much the hero or the world has changed. Think about Dorothy getting back to Kansas with an entirely new appreciation for what home really means. The place is the same, but she's changed. Or the resolution can show how the world has changed because of the actions of the hero -- the rejoicing Ewoks after the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, finally living in a world that's safe for innocent little furry things (yeah, gag, I know). One way to create a satisfying ending is to repeat some symbol or image from the beginning that shows how things have changed. I did that in Enchanted, Inc., which begins with the heroine taking the subway to work and freaking out because she's seeing magical stuff that no one else seems to notice. The closing scene after the big, climactic battle involves her heading to work and acknowledging the magical world that she now is a part of. The resolution can also show that things that have broken are now being fixed -- if the hero is wounded during the climactic battle, we might see his wounds being tended (like the end of The Empire Strikes Back and seeing Luke get the replacement hand) or if something in the hero's world is destroyed, we might see it being rebuilt (like the ending of the movie Serenity, with the montage of repairing the damaged ship while we also see the crew healing emotionally).

In general, we want some kind of proof that something important has changed because of the events of the story, whether it's the characters who have changed because of their experiences or the world that has changed because of their actions (or both). If nothing has changed, then what's the point? (And that's why what I'm saying doesn't necessarily work in literary fiction, because sometimes that's all about the fact that nothing changes.)

You don't want to drag out the resolution or else the book becomes anti-climactic. End as close to the climax as possible while still wrapping up the important loose ends. The book starts to lose energy after the climax, and you want to end before it all fizzles out. This is where the show-biz adage "leave 'em wanting more" applies. I like to think in terms of showing just enough of a hint of what the new "ordinary world" will be like for these characters that readers can then take it from there and imagine what their lives going forward might be like. I do think it's important to tie up minor story questions that have been raised (unless those are plot threads setting up a sequel), but not absolutely everything has to be tied up neatly. I tend to get annoyed with books that seem to require that absolutely everyone end up paired off, for instance.

The final thing to remember about an ending is that it's probably what sells your next book. People likely buy or get into a book based on its beginning, but the ending will determine whether people want to get your next book. That's the lingering impression left in readers' minds -- even if it's not a series and they're dying to know what happens next, a good ending creates a sense of trust. A bad ending just leaves a bad taste.

Any other writing questions you want me to address?

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