Endings are hard.
A couple of days ago, I wrote about the struggles I’m having with the ending to my work in progress, and hinted at a few of the reasons why I think it’s not working. Since then, I’ve made some progress, but it’s basically like having a pipe full of frozen molasses – you can grab a knife or screwdriver and pick away at it, you can thaw it a bit at a time, or you can just . . . walk away.
Yeah, well, I’ve come too far to walk away.
The ending to my second book is good. I mean, really good. So good, in fact, that it’s hard for me to remember that it took me about two years and 40 drafts to get it that good. Not only did it change location, but the roster of characters also changed. So did the motivations (which, yes, meant rewrites to the rest of the novel – which were what allowed the ending to be written). I keep thinking I have to get this one right, right out the gate. 100% there. No problems, no issues, no rewrites.
HAH! To paraphrase Shakespeare, what fools these writers be. It’s up to me to give myself the freedom to screw up. And I have, and I will again.
Endings need to accomplish certain things, like I said before. The basics of a good ending are that they:
1.) Answer all the questions – or the main ones, anyway. If you’re writing a series, then you may have plot lines that continue across several books, not being resolved until the end of the series, or at least, in a later book. To do this, you have to think about why you started this novel. What were the things your characters, especially your MC, were struggling with? This usually includes both their external and internal conflicts. If they’re afraid of snakes, put them in a pit of snakes before they can save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis. 🙂
2.) Wrap up all the loose ends. Raymond Chandler once famously forgot about a character – the chauffeur who gets killed and stuffed in a trunk in The Big Sleep. Don’t do that. Readers are still griping about that chauffeur. They’ll gripe about your loose ends, too. I promise.
3.) Are a result of the actions of your characters, especially your MC. Every choice they’ve made, every action they’ve taken – including the mistakes! – have to lead to this moment. This goes for both your antagonist and protagonist. Remember, your protagonist and antagonist are in opposition to each other. One of them wants to blow up the White House? Then you’d better have the other one risking everything to stop that.
One other thing bothers me about the ending I’m trying to write, as I realized late last night: My MC, Erin, isn’t able to do much in the ending. And that frustrates the hell out of her and me both! It’s something we’re both going to have to think about, because the ending really belongs to another character, Rebecca. She wants revenge, and she’ll have it – and Erin can’t stop her. Truthfully, Erin isn’t even sure she wants to stop her. Erin’s job – her goal – is to bring the truth of Rebecca’s death to light, and then let Rebecca cross over. (Erin sees ghosts. She hates that I’m telling you that, by the way.) But Rebecca’s goal is revenge. Once Erin tells her how she died, and why, Rebecca has no intention of crossing over peacefully while her murderers are still out and about.
4.) Satisfy the promise you made in the beginning. In Chapter 1, you made a promise to your readers as to what this book would be about. If it’s a romance, you promised there would be a happily ever after. If it’s a murder mystery, you promised to bring the killer to justice. Renege on that, and your readers will throw your book across the room – and then, onto a bonfire.
5.) Let your MC uses all his skills and knowledge – including any he’s acquired since the book started. In Angels and Demons, Robert Langdon learns, in an early chapter, how to create resistance to air flow. It sees superfluous at the time, but it saves his life when he’s tossed out of an airplane at the end of the novel. (No, I don’t know if it’s accurate, and I don’t really care, either.)
6.) Don’t let the characters act out of character! I think this may be the most important thing, because remember, your ending has to be a natural outgrowth of the rest of the novel. If your meek, quiet, pacifist heroine suddenly pops up with a broadsword, screaming like a banshee, and kills a dozen bystanders, you’re going to get hate mail – unless you’ve somehow foreshadowed this. Is it a spell? Trauma? This rule goes for ALL of your characters – secondary, main, and antagonists.
7.) Allow at least one character – which had better be your MC – to acquire what they wanted. What motivates your MC? Are they after a treasure? Knowledge? Revenge? Love? There are books I absolutely despise and would cheerfully burn every copy of because the MC’s motives change at the end. One of these is a horrendously awful YA book called Sky, about a spoiled teenage girl who wants a horse, finally gets the horse, then sells the horse to the meat truck guy when the horse breaks her leg. The author who wrote this hideous goat shite should be beaten. Repeatedly. I volunteer.
Now, I will say this: sometimes, it’s the antagonist who gets what they want instead. Are you ready for that?!
7.) Satisfy the reader. You can’t satisfy all readers. I get that. No one can. But you need to satisfy most of them, or your novel isn’t going to get that word-of-mouth buzz that can make or break best sellers. How do you satisfy them? See 1-7 above.
So as I review these rules, I remind myself that endings are hard. For me especially. One early story stumped me for nearly a year before one day, in a flash of insight, I realized how it had to end. I had three main characters. One had fallen by the wayside. He chose to make a comeback and take responsibility for his actions, in order to save the other two. It fit perfectly with his sense of honor, and no one acted out of character.
The other thing I have to keep reminding myself is that it’s a draft. Only a draft. The more I get down on paper, the better I can alter the structure later. I may throw away huge entire chunks of it. That’s what rewrites are all about. But I may find little nuggets of dialogue, or insight, that I can keep and build on. My setting’s not there yet. It feels more like dialogue exchanges right now. But it’ll get there. I have to keep reminding myself of that. It’ll get there. That’s what rewrites are for.
In fact, I’m finding that nearly everything with this novel is about rewrites. I don’t know why I think the ending should be any different. I’ve had to revise for character motivation, and focus. Holes I thought I’d patched have sprung leaks again, and new holes have been discovered since I’ve struggled with this ending. Character motives maybe aren’t as clear as I’d once thought.
But I’ll get there. Endings are hard, after all. But they’re worth it.