“Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You try to tie up every loose end, but you never can. The fans are always gonna bitch. There’s always gonna be holes. And since it’s the ending, it’s all supposed to add up to something. I’m telling you, they’re a raging pain in the ass.
No doubt – endings are hard. But then again… nothing ever really ends, does it?”
These are the immortal – yes, I said immortal – words of the prophet Chuck, from Supernatural. “Swan Song” is probably my second-favorite episode of that show, in part because of Chuck’s narration (Chuck is a prophet – well, a bit more than that, really – and chronicles the Winchesters’ lives in a series of tawdry books).
I was reminded of these words tonight as I struggle with the ending of my current work in progress.
Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible. You know a writer wrote that! And it’s so true. Beginnings are easy. You’ve got your characters. They’ve got problems. You chronicle the problems. You watch as your characters solve one thing, only to have two more issues pop up. Characters come onstage. Characters die. They get ever-closer to what they want.
But endings are impossible.
Endings should be natural. We hear that so often. They should be the organic outcomes of every decision your characters have made. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, that’s exactly how it goes. You’ve written the novel so well that there can be only one ending, and it flows right out of your keyboard like water from a bottle. Maybe you tweak a word here or there, but then – you’re done. You’ve tied up the loose ends, answered all the questions, given the characters their happy-ever after (or their just desserts, whichever).
If this ever happens to you, please let me know which alternate universe you’re living in, so I can come visit. Because this is NOT where I am!
I’m working on rewrites to a novel I drafted a couple of years ago. The rewrites keep going well, but now it’s time to draft the ending. My beta readers had issues with the ending. They believed that it was weak, that it didn’t solve anything or answer any questions. I had to agree. I never liked the ending, to be honest. I didn’t mind that some loose ends weren’t tied up – but it was weak, and I hated it.
So what are the elements of a good ending? Think about an ending to a novel that you’ve never been able to get out of your head. What makes it so strong? J.K. Rowling writes fantastic endings. Take any of the Harry Potter books. Read them through. Mark all the questions you have as you read. Then, ask yourself how many questions are left at the end. She’ll always leave something up in the air – it has to lead into the next novel, after all – but all the Big Ticket Questions are answered.
But more importantly, nothing is left to chance. Rowling lays the clues down one by one, so subtly and thoroughly that you always smack yourself in the head for not seeing the ending coming, even as you’re on the edge of your seat, begging Harry to win. Think about Goblet of Fire. We knew all about Portkeys, and wand duels, and of course, we loved Cedric. (cry!) So when the Goblet turns out to be a Portkey, we’re shocked – but we know what it is and we know what’s about to happen. And where did we first encounter Portkeys? Oh, that’s right – in Chapter 1, where they’re an integral part of the plot, a means to get everyone to the Quidditch World Cup. See how neatly she did that? (I highly suspect this was the result of rewriting, but – you know what? It works.)
Setting your readers up for the ending is a challenge, and one I’m facing right now. I’ve been trying for a week to figure out precisely why the old ending was so weak, and what I have to do with the new one to make it work. The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events. Let me say that again:
The ending has to be a natural outcome of the previous events.
Here’s some problems I’ve seen with book endings:
1.) They’re too long and boring. Wuthering Heights comes to mind. Who gives a flying monkey’s butt about Heathcliff and Cathy’s children? I sure didn’t. Although come to think on it, I didn’t care about Heathcliff and Cathy, either.
2.) The promise of the book isn’t delivered. The Lovely Bones. I literally threw this book across the room because of the ending. Susie remained as a ghost to see if her killer would ever be brought to justice, and nothing happened! The killer isn’t even brought to justice by Susie, her family, or anyone else; his death is a random event. Hated this book because of the ending.
3.) Something is tossed in at the last second to save the day. Either the cavalry comes riding in (which denies your hero his moment), or some random knowledge/ gun/sword/superpower is suddenly discovered that gives the hero the edge. You think Harry ever had that? Nope! When he pulled the Gryffindor sword from the Sorting Hat, that was foreshadowed. Whatever your hero needs to defeat the enemy or accomplish his goal, you have to foreshadow it. Otherwise, the reader will be cheated. Not feel cheated – be cheated.
4.) There’s no logic to the ending. Again, the ending is a product of the rest of the book. Every choice your characters make, every scene, every bit of dialogue, are leading to this. Your MC can’t act out of character, either.
5.) The MC or hero isn’t the catalyst for the ending. The ending has to be because of your hero’s decisions. It also need to be affected by your secondary characters, especially your antagonist, but the MC has to be driving it. Again – when Harry calls out Voldemort at the end of Book 7, it’s his choice. He knows there’s like a 99.9% chance he’ll die. But he’s going to do his best to take Voldemort out with him. If your MC has made mistakes, or wrong choices – those have to bring about your ending. In one of my early stories, my MC’s hubris led to the death of someone he was supposed to be protecting – and, in turn, led to his imprisonment. Your characters aren’t perfect. They’ll make mistakes. Use those to create a tension-filled conclusion.
6.) And oh, yeah – there’s no tension. If you’re writing a suspense novel, there’d better be real questions about whether your MC will make it out alive or not. A romance novel better have a real question about whether your happily-ever-after will happen or not. Your characters have to face some kind of risk of death – which can be a lot of things. Death of a career, a dream, a love – or their lives. It’s life and death. Make your readers believe that. How? By emphasizing – in the rest of your novel – how important this is to your MC. Again, the ending has to be the logical, organic outcome of the rest of the book.
And ultimately, I think that’s where my problems lie – although my manuscript is a lot better, it’s not perfect, and I’ve still got a few holes that weren’t apparent until I started trying to draft the ending. That’s when all my characters took a step back, raised an eyebrow, and said, “You want us to do WHAT?!”
I tried! I tried to write it. And the first part is good. It’s everything that comes after that isn’t coming. My characters are acting like puppies put in a collar and leash for the first time – throwing themselves on the ground, growling, whining, jerking backwards. Resisting. Because I didn’t do my job completely, they can’t do theirs. So now, my job is to go back through the manuscript and revise specifically for the ending. It’s a bit odd, I admit – and in the end, I still may not have a workable thing. But I feel, for now, that this is the best way forward for me.
“No doubt – endings are hard.” Yes, Chuck, they are! But maybe I’ve got a bit better handle on mine, now.
Here’s some links to articles and stories about endings (and how to write better ones):