Hello! Maureen Pratt here with my monthly CAN blog about the craft of writing. This month, some thoughts about satisfying, “gotta read this author again” endings.
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, each piece has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Although they are each crucial to telling a good story, it’s the ending that gives readers the final feeling, the ultimate impression, of the work as a whole. If your beginning hooked them into starting to read, and if your middle was expertly crafted to keep them reading along with your storytelling, then the ending is that wonderful “icing on the cake,” and ideally makes them (the readers) want to run out and buy or read your next work.
But endings can be very tricky. They need to be just long enough, just complete enough, and just resonant enough. What do I mean by that?
We’ve all read books that didn’t know how to end. Instead of tying up the story parts into a neat package, some authors simply over write to the detriment of the piece as a whole. How do you know if your ending seems unending? As you reread your work, ask yourself, “Could I cut this second-to-last scene and still have a coherent story?” Or, cut the last scene from your book and see if the ending works with the deletion. Then, cut the next-to-last scene and examine the book again.
Carefully study your characters’ thought arcs – are they thinking in circles, or is their thought (or prayer) process, leading them to a conclusion? Is the story cycling in the same way, with several scenes that could be worked into only one?
Seemingly endless endings often suffer from lack of energy. Ask your editor or the person to whom you give your “final” draft to tell you where the book might have sagged, and where the pace flagged, toward the ending.
The second thing to gauge is whether your ending is complete enough. Does it convey the end of the story, or does it leave the reader wondering, “what happened to the [ ] back in Chapter Two? Or the character with the long monologue in Chapter Eight?” In non-fiction, if the end of the story is unresolved at press time, tell the reader there’s more to come, or simply that at press time a conclusion to the story was unavailable/had not yet occurred. In a news story for print, one of the things that helps me “end it” succinctly is the knowledge that, if the editor runs out of room, he or she should be able to cut the story at any paragraph (lop it off, in other words), and have it still be a whole story.
Third, does your ending resonate with the rest of your piece? Is the story’s voice still that of the beginning, or has you – the author – allowed his or her voice to creep in at the end? Is your effort to end with a huge climax so aggressive that the end seems to jump off the page as if it were unrelated to the rest?
Just as we study the beginnings of classic literature, to see how authors before us began, so, too, is it helpful to study how our favorite authors tie up the loose ends and allow their stories to bid us farewell.
Finally, if we’re writing from our heart, we will feel a twinge (or more) of sadness at finishing up our work in progress. We might loathe to finish, in fact, and this can lead to some of the pitfalls I’ve tried to address here.
But when (if?) this happens to you, take a breath. Relax. Type that “30” or “The End.”
You can always begin again.
Blessings for your work and life,