Six impossible things

When is it over?

When is the story over?

Really over, I mean, as in “this is the last paragraph, and what comes next is ‘The End’ at the bottom of the page.” This is usually some way after the big climax in which the central story problem is solved (they kill the dragon/blow up the Death Star/arrest the murderer), but how long after?

The answer, as usual, is: it varies. To some extent, it depends on the length of the story – a five page short story may be too long if there’s more than half a page after the climax, but nearly every reader I know would feel that having only a page or two of wrap-up to a trilogy just wasn’t enough. Similarly, if three pages out of the five are wrap-up, there’s probably something wrong with the short story, while it may take five or ten chapters or more to do a proper job of wrapping up a complex trilogy.

The two obvious problems are stopping too soon, and carrying on too long. On the whole, I tend to think that too little is better than too much. A reader who finishes a book wishing there’d been just a little bit more is a reader who is likely to come back for the next one; a reader who gives up with a bored sigh two pages before “The End” appears under the last line of text is a reader who is likely to avoid the next one like the plague. And it really hurts to discover that you have overshot the end of the story by two or six or ten chapters, and that you must therefore cut all that material. For most of us, it’s a lot easier and less painful to add a scene or a chapter than it is to cut one.

Nevertheless, most novels need a certain amount of post-climax wrap-up to be satisfying. A novel is a long haul, and many readers need to be eased out of it gently, so to speak. If it’s a complex novel or a multi-book series (trilogy, quadrology, innumerable-fat-books-a-la-Jordan/Martin-series), there are likely to be a bunch of subplots and loose ends that need wrapping up, because they couldn’t all be tied up neatly as part of the big climax. And since most novels follow the classic plot structure (a series of attempts by the protagonist to solve bigger and bigger problems, where each try ends with the protagonist in a worse situation than ever, until the very last one finally succeeds/fails for good), they need something at the end to reassure the reader that this time the protagonist finally pulled it off, and there isn’t some nasty surprise waiting to turn the “ending” into a cliffhanger.

And finally, this part of the story – the part between the climax/solution and “The End” on the last page – is about consequences. This is the part that leads a lot of writers astray, I think, because in a lot of books the consequence of the protagonist’s actions is that he/she moves on into a new life (or returns to an improved version of the old one). This looks and feels like a beginning – and it is. But it’s the beginning of a new and different and unrelated story. The writer is allowed to tell that story, of course, but in the next book. The bit that goes at the end of this book is the acknowledgement that things have changed.

For instance, one writer I know was working on an action-adventure of the sort in which the protagonist is a junior space officer, faces a crisis, succeeds while annoying the top brass, and is “rewarded” with the captaincy of the worst ship in the fleet, posted to the worst spot in the galaxy, as a way of getting rid of him. Naturally, he goes on to shape up his new command, defeat new enemies (and make more political ones), and so on.

The problem was that this novel was approaching half a million words and the writer couldn’t figure out how to cut it. But it didn’t need cutting; it needed splitting into the several books that it actually was. The writer had run right through the ending of his first book (which occurred a quite reasonable 100,000 words or so into the story) and on into the next. All he had to do was stop at the point where the hero was notified that he was being promoted and given a new ship, but before showing the rust-bucket full of misfits that was his new command.

Part of the difficulty here was that the writer was so caught up in the “show, don’t tell” advice that he thought he had to show the new command, which led directly into the next story, leaving him no good break point. But the other part was that after spending 100,000 words and many hours working on making the characters “feel real” and planning all the hero’s future adventures, the writer had made them too real in his own head. Real people’s lives rarely divide themselves up into neat episodes, and their stories don’t end until they’re dead.

The second reason too many wrap-ups drag on is that the writer is trying to give attention to every single subplot and character individually, one scene or chapter per subplot. This is as unwise as it is unnecessary, especially in a book with lots of characters and subplots. A lot of long goodbyes and subplot finishes don’t make these things seem more important; they make the scenes feel thin. It’s often more effective to pack two subplot resolutions and a couple what-these-characters-do-next into the same scene, and then do some summarizing, than to have four or five long scenes to show each character moving into his/her new life and another three or four to resolve subplots. Alternatively, a series of mini-scenes – a two-to-three-paragraph look in per character to hint at where they’re heading now – can be very effective for a complicated, cast-of-thousands book or series, as long as they’re mini-scenes.

Finally, a lot of writers keep going in search of the boffo ending line, sometimes whole chapters past wherever the story should have cut off. Don’t do this. Just don’t. It never ends well.

  1. The brutal Aeneid-type ending (roughly, from memory, “And Aeneas’s avenging sword fell again, and clave Turnus to the core, and Night crashed down upon his eyes, SPLATTUS! – The End.) is unforgettable when pulled off correctly, even when there is no violence in its chop-off; but almost nobody durst even attempt it. Alan Garner pulls it off several times, with the most wrenching success in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – the second time I’ve had that called to mind today!

    I tend to lean towards the other extreme, the longish or even Tolkienesque unwinding; and I think that’s because I find the idea of consequence (as opposed to simple continuance) frequently more interesting than the bare idea of success. I once wrote a novella in which the heroes offed the Big Bad two-thirds of the way in. It wasn’t by accident: the unwinding was, for good or ill, a great deal of what the story was about.

    If on the other hand the problem is that the great arc of the current story is really over, but its right true end has not appeared, I think of this as a sign that what is wanted is not further explanation or extension, but a purpose-made coda to bring home the ending. The secondary resolutions therein may then be better implied than described, the mode of the coda not being an expansive one.

  2. I never thought that showing instead of telling might get in the way, but it’s true that some endings (when there is a series involved) do better to end before things are properly wrapped up in an elaborate way. It would be better if they make you think that things will end happily ever after, only to find out later that there was a hitch.

    I definitely agree though – I would rather have something end too soon, leaving me wanting more, than dragging on to infinity.

  3. As an avid opinionated reader this may be unrelated, but I wanted to share this. When you end seems to me to be very much involved with how you end. Your ending can be a tragedy or a new dawn, true but the key to the ending is the ever after. You need to prove that ever after against external and internal threats. The classic example to my mind is Tolkien’s LOTR ending, I, at least, felt completely left out of the ending. I spent three books being invested in a couple of characters for a certain purpose and I am suddenly supposed to accept that they will be fine with an ending that had never been developed as being important for their characters except for Sam. They might be happy ever after but I won’t be. Then you have Harry Potter, we see the characters are happy in the family arena, but there is no evidence that they can actually adapt to a normal life after what they went through and accomplished. The Dragons series has a nice global ending, although I would love to know how Mendanbar and Cimorene adjust to each other after a 16 year absence – that cannot be easy, so we are kind of left guessing if they will truly be happy ever after. In its defense, I think it was written first so when it was ending the story had not fully existed yet. Finally, of course the term ever after is fake, but the idea is that we are left confident that the characters have the skills and support to face whatever challenge comes to them in the anticipated life remaining to them. So, I’m just saying that when you end has a lot to do with how you end it. If the characters are secure in some path, then that seems to me to be an ending.

  4. You stated in your blog that:

    “The second reason too many wrap-ups drag on is that the writer is trying to give attention to every single subplot and character individually, one scene or chapter per subplot.”

    My husband reads George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, which every chapter in the beginning books is a character point of view. Martin is aiming I believe for a 7 book series, but the way he has presented characters and their subplots seems to be exactly what you’re talking about here. It is dragging on. What do you do if this is your story? Do you have any predictions as to what Martin might do to wrap his series up?

  5. Thanks for the insights. For myself, I find endings much harder than writing beginnings, but before this post I don’t think I had ever seen any writing advice on endings.

  6. Hm…. maybe another way to tackle this problem is to practice telling a true story from your life. Where do you leave off? When everything is ‘normal’ again. It may be a new and different normal – but normal is back.

  7. Good explaination of endings. Though I’d like to add a point (only a month after you posted this! But hey. . .lol). As a reader, I tend to prefer books that have an ending leaving me feeling like the characters move on with their lives and go on to live, perhaps not so exciting lives as this story was, but at least reasonably normal lives once I close the covers of the books. So many books I’ve read end up a little *too* abruptly and leaving you wondering ‘what happened’ to those people after the story? Did they die, did they go on to live ‘normal’ lives, did they go on to other adventures?

    Personally, I go for ‘happy’ endings, myself. I feel life has enough tragedy in it that I don’t need tragic endings in my entertainment too! But I definitely won’t like a book unless it leaves me with some sense that the people in those pages ‘live on’ after I close the book.

    One author I enjoy, Lori Wick, has a general habit of ending the story, wrapping it up satisfactorily, then having an ‘epilogue’ ending picking up a few years later giving you a glimpse into the characters lives as they are some time after the adventure. The fact that the characters are married, they have children now and are more or less leading normal, happy lives. Its not terribly exciting, but each epilogue is only a few pages, and gives you enough of a glimpse to leave me feeling satisfied that while I am leaving the scene the people are going on, somewhere. These are also nice because you can ‘end’ the adventure a little sooner, while giving a ‘wrap up’ glimpse of how it all turns out too.

    Granted, this approach may not work for all genres or styles but it is a nice approach for these romances, anyway. 🙂

    As a writer, I try to keep this in mind and wrap up my stories similarly. Sort of a ‘do it as I wish more writers would do it’ approach. As a writer, though, I really do hate endings. No matter how I do it, it feels odd.

    But, yeah, I suppose there are different approaches this is just one I personally favour. Cliff-hangars/abrupt endings aren’t too bad when there are sequels, though. Assuming you have the sequel on hand to read within a reasonable amount of time after the first is finished.

  8. I was always partial to the CS Forester and Jim Butcher style of ending a story. Protagonist has a vague goal from the start. Tangential story plays out. Protagonist’s vague goal is still vague, but thanks to his moral choices throughout the book he’s rewarded with a satisfying short-term goal and/or the benefit of a new relationship for that warm and fuzzy feeling inside. Kinda formulaic, but the sign of a good writer is using/making a formula and getting the reader to think you’re not.

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