Six impossible things

The End

What makes an ending “The End”?

In a word: closure.

At the end of the story, whether the heroine won or lost, she’s not going to get another chance to try. The Evil Overlord is gone for good, the wedding is on (or off), the murderer has been discovered and arrested. There may be some loose ends, but the main thing is over and done with…whatever “the main thing” is for that particular story.

In order to achieve this, the story first has to provide a question that needs answering, or a problem that needs settling. Will the hero get the girl? Will the detective catch the murderer? Will the Evil Overlord get a date for the prom? The ending is the moment that provides the answer, whether that answer is Yes, No, or even Maybe.

That may seem obvious, but a lot of the beginner stories I see fail to present a central problem or a main question, and as a result they have serious difficulty finding a point of closure. Mostly, they end up sort of petering out and stopping, and their authors agonize over their inability to write endings. But their problem isn’t really with their ending — the problem is that they never set up anything that could come to an end point. You can’t close a door if no one ever opened it in the first place. The only fix for this is to rewrite the piece around a problem or question, so that there’s something to answer and a way to end. So that it’s a story and not just an incident.

Other writers overshoot the end because they’re looking for the perfect boffo closing line. It’s lovely when one gets a boffo line to end on, but it doesn’t always happen…and it’s usually much more effective to stop at a reasonable point than it is to make readers slog on through pages or chapters of filler, waiting for a punch line. The flip side of this is writers who cut things off abruptly as soon as the main problem is solved, without providing any wrap-up validation (of which more anon).

Still other writers string their endings out — first the scene with the action climax, where the heroine kills the dragon; then a scene for the big revelation, where the hero tells her he’s not her long-lost brother; then the emotional climax, where one of them proposes; then a scene for the climax of the secondary plot-thread, where the grand vizier runs off with the kitchen maid; and so on. Sometimes one does have to handle each thing separately, but it is often more effective if one can figure out how to bring as many of the threads together in one scene as possible, and tie them all up at once. Unlikely as it may be for the hero to propose in the middle of fighting the dragon while the vizier and kitchen maid try to sneak past the fray without getting killed, it’s often more convincing as a climax or ending scene (if, of course, one can pull it off). At the very least, the revelation and the proposal can usually go in the same scene.

The last mistake I see a good deal of is writers who don’t provide any wrap-up or validation after the big climax scene. Wrap-up is the bit where you let the reader find out how some of the minor subplots turned out, or what happened to other interesting characters while the hero and heroine were busy with the dragon, or where you tie up any loose ends that are still flapping around now that the main plot-problem is solved. Validation is something to let the reader know that it really is all over now; they really did succeed. In my standard plot outline, the ending is usually described as “there is a big fight and the good guys win; this is followed by awards and weddings, as appropriate.”  The “big fight and the good guys win” is the action climax; the “awards and weddings” is the validation. If you get a medal, it means you really did win…for this book, anyway.

11 Comments
  1. Thank you for this. Now that it’s been pointed out, I can see my problem is the `string the problem out’ variety. Making the climax answer several story problems at once is a good idea. I shall have to play with that. 🙂

    • Chicoy – Think of the ending scene as the point where it all comes together. Earlier in the story, you can have two or three or a dozen different plot lines running parallel: = But as you get nearer to the end, they start coming together, until they meet at the climax: > (Sorry; I can’t do diagrams with this interface.) I think my best crack at this was the climax of Mairelon the Magician. OK, it was two chapters long and had sixteen people all trying to talk at once and was, erm, not easy to write, but it answered or settled a ton of plots and subplots, from who stole the Saltash Set (and why) to what was really going on with Freddy and Marianne, and at least half a dozen others.

  2. The story question is often set up right in the first chapter. and it’s *not* always the obvious plot element. If the question is ‘will the heroine find happyness’ then it becomes mostly irrelevant that she’s killed the dragon – in order to get closure. the reader wants to know whether she’s taking up dragonhunting professionally or settling down with her girlfriend or _something_.

    And sometimes – particularly in a long and complex story – wrapping up all subplots would be wrong; life *isn’t* that neat (and you want to leave room for sequels). Finding and answering the main story question will end the story without being too glib and too coincidentally partnering up everybody and solving every mystery.

    (In an unrelated note, if you ever want to do a post about plotting multi-strand epics, PLEASE DO because I am completely and utterly at my wits’ end.)

  3. I have to say, the big scene at the end of _Mairelon the Magician_ is positively the BEST OK-let’s-tie-everything-up-at-once scene I’ve ever run into. Just when you think it’s as complex as it can possibly get, yet ANOTHER character walks in and it gets even funnier. That must have been great fun to write. (Also, probably, a lot of work.)

  4. Isn’t there sort of a ‘change of pace’ thing too? If the characters have been on the jump or under pressure for a while, and then the real threat is finally disposed of — then a short quiet scene or two can demonstrate that new peace to the reader, while tying up a few loose ends.

    Cf end of DEADLY HALLOWS, last part of LOTR….

  5. I think green-knight right about identifying the story question, which is not always the same as the plot. Like in `Magician’s Ward’ where the question at the beginning is whether Kim can settle in to her new high society life, and the story ends with the engagement and job offer. If the bad guy had just been defeated without the wrap-up, the story would’ve felt really unfinished because the core question wouldn’t have been addressed at all.

  6. Trying plot threads off separately can work just as well if you do it in such a way that each minor thread tied off makes the main event even more fraught. If the grand-vizier runs off with the kitchen maid BEFORE the dragon is slain, and does so on the magic carpet that the other characters had planned to use to get close enough to the dragon’s head to whack him somewhere he could actually get hurt, for example. That way instead of detracting from the impact of the climax, you enhance it.

    • green_knight – You’re right about where the story question/problem usually is, but I was thinking of some of the “short stories” I’ve seen that are, well, incidents. They have NO central question or problem, not even “Will the protagonist have maple syrup or strawberries on his waffle?”

      I should also point out that some writers never consciously identify their central problem or story question, and this works just fine for them. I rarely, if ever, actually lay it out in those terms. But if something’s wrong with the ending, and I can’t figure out what, then going all analytical and figuring out whether I’ve solved my central problem is often very useful.

      And what sort of problem are you having with your multi-strand epic?

      Chris – Thank you! It was both fun and tearing-your-hair-out work.

      Tess – What you’re describing is what I call “validation” – the fact that you see the characters at peace at last “proves” to the reader that it’s really over. It’s usually a change of pace in an action-oriented novel, but it doesn’t have to be if it’s a comedy-of-manners or an introspective, character-oriented piece.

      Chicoy – Oh, good point! I forgot that one – the folks whose endings don’t work because they provide closure for the wrong thing! This gets exceptionally tricky when the writer thinks the main problem is one thing, but the reader thinks it’s something else.

      Michelle – Yes; getting the minor plot threads tied off in advance of the climax, in such a way as to make the climax worse, works brilliantly sometimes. I tend to think of it as kind of an advanced technique, though, because if the writer isn’t careful the subplots can feel as if they’re still unfinished, or even end up detracting from the big climax instead of building it up.

  7. I second green-knight’s suggestion for plotting out a multi-volume work. The monster-behemoth-thing I’ve been working on for years had turned into a trilogy but material for the middle volume was scant, so that all got shoved into an epilogue where the rightful king has been crowned and everyone was set up to live happily ever after. But then I still am not sure how to segue from there to the last volume, where the king has somehow been stranded on an island for the past 16 years, is rediscovered, and reclaims his throne (again). And at this point, I’m much more interested in the 2nd half (where the king reclaims his throne after a 16 yr absence) than the first half, but the 2nd half can’t stand by itself because that would be just wayyyyyyyyyyyyy too much backstory to shove into one volume. The backstory wouldn’t necessarily be relevant to the current plot, but it does explain how all the characters got together in the first place.

    My other problem is that the 2nd half is told in first person by the king’s 16 year old son, and I am neither 16 nor a male, this poses problems, but has nothing to do with endings. So I shall end this.

    • acco_aqualung – You actually have two problems: 1) writing from the POV of someone very different from yourself, and 2) exactly what story you’re going to tell and how you’re going to tell it.

      If you’ve already written the first half, good…but I get the impression that you haven’t and at the moment you aren’t interested in it. If that’s the case, don’t write it. Do the king-coming-back-after 16 years story. And if the backstory isn’t relevant LEAVE IT OUT. Yes, it’s interesting (enough that you originally thought you’d make a book of it), but that doesn’t mean it belongs in the story. Put in as little as you can get away with and still have the reader understand the current action. You can always write a prequel later, if you get interested.

  8. Chicoy,
    I have Mary Gentle to thank for that, and if anyone is an expert in Very Long Books, it’s her 😉

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