This rant won by several votes, so here it is. (One nice thing is that I’ve read several examples of how to end and how not to end, recently, so I am all prepared).
1) The ending is not a race to the finish.
The number one defect I’ve seen mar endings and take my pleasure in them away is haste. Not speed; I enjoy a climax that hurls me to the end of the road and then spins into the denouement, which may have scarcely less energy than the high point. But endings that feel as if the author was racing against the clock bother the fuck out of me, because they are so easily preventable.
Per outside circumstances, when there’s a wordcount or deadline to meet, I do think a story can be retrofitted so that the ending still gets the space it deserves. Many fantasies have extra padding anyway, in the form of infodumps and description that never comes to matter and subplots that go nowhere. Cut them out and give that extra space to the ending.
On the other hand, neither do I think that every rushed ending in existence is the product of wordcount and deadline pressures (especially not when it’s a short story just published on the web, or a first novel). Many, many of them feel as if the author got bored, or really had no idea how to wrap up the ending after the climax, and so tossed any old thing on the page in an attempt to close out the story.
How you handle the problem depends on what kind of planner you are. Outliner? Make sure that you don’t, say, build up tension for two hundred pages, handle the trouble in fifty pages, and then toss in a pipsqueak two-page final chapter that’s supposed to tie everything up, and can’t begin to. Outline until you have what you need. Someone who starts with an outline and then abandons it as the story evolves? Remember to work in a denouement as well as the climax, and if you have a brand new ending, then make sure to devote some thought to the details as well as the high points. Jumper into the air and handler of it all as it comes along? It may mean revision, it may mean trusting yourself to hand your conscious mind the ending as well, but please don’t treat this as an excuse to throw everything up into the air and then not watch where it lands. (I’ve seen it treated as an excuse for that. Since I’m someone who writes this way, it pisses me off).
If you’re working under internal and not external pressure, remember that there is no clock. There is no reason to rush through the story just so that you can finish it. And there’s no reason, when you know you’re going to spend time polishing and working on the beginning and middle anyway, to neglect the ending. Endings need love, too.
2) Compromise between perfectly sequential and random orders of giving final details.
Fantasists get criticized for tying things up too neatly in their stories (especially in the case of an epilogue or final chapter that’s nothing but the characters chatting, or an omniscient narrator telling you, what’s happened to everyone and who they married and how many children they have and where the Mystical Objects of Elemental Power are now). On the other hand, fantasists get criticized for leaving endings too open (especially in books in the middle of a series, where they attempt “suspense” and wind up with a dead end that feels as if they drove a train into a brick wall).
For my money, the latter is the greater problem, but neither has to be a problem. A compromise is in order, where you wind up telling everyone everything they need to know, but don’t make it come across as arranged. Organic flowering and building of the detail-giving is best.
Some advice to that end:
- Try avoiding conversations or “explainos” wherein the characters talk each other to death about their own fates and the fates of others. It’s the number one contributor to lists that read like surprise infodumps, as though the author assumes that because she’s got you interested in these people, you are incapable of being bored to death by blocks and blocks of dialogue about minutiae.
- Try for a sense of motion, of directed change, in the plot and the setting. It’s a good compromise; these people haven’t stopped to be frozen in a photograph, but they aren’t darting chaotically all over the map, either.
- -Remember, always, who your viewpoint character is and what they’ll be interested in. If your heroine simply would not care who Random Lord #931 married and who his daughter’s named after, don’t shoehorn it into her head. You can do a split scene at the ending, or you can accept that your readers don’t need to know every little detail. (This is a place to ask your readers how they feel; if they’re united in not noticing a lack here or not caring about Random Lord #931, you can safely cut it).
- I’m repeating this one from the rant about transitions: If you’re in the middle of writing a series, picture the main motion of the plot as a sea and the endings of the books as islands. You should come to a place where you can stop, but where there isn’t the sense that the series doesn’t need to continue. A pause, the taking of a breath, in the motion or the breathing of the beast.
3) Resist, yea mightily, the urge to be cute.
More short stories than novels fall down here. It’s one thing to write a humorous short story, or to build up to a punchline that, say, will explain the story’s title or clear up a minor mystery. It’s another thing entirely to sacrifice the tone, purpose, or relevance of your story to cuteness. It almost inevitably leads to triteness instead.
I still remember one short story (web-published, amateur) that I read two years ago, and probably wouldn’t remember if it weren’t for the ending. The story itself was about an apparently serious initiation quest, where the boy seeking initiation had failed to solve a riddle his taskmasters set him. At the end, the writer undermined her whole plot, turned the tone of her story on its head, and made her writing look extremely stupid by revealing that the answer to the riddle was a pun—an English-dependent pun, to add to the pain—and the boy gave it by combining two words in his answer to the last question his teachers asked him. So he got to be initiated and join the secret order after all. I was quite impressed, albeit in the “Dear gods, why did I read this story again?” way, rather than the good way.
Look. Way too many people write humorous fantasy assuming it’s easy. I can only assume these people took a few too many knocks on the head as children, or think that because Terry Pratchett can do it, anyone can. I would claim that humor is harder, not easier, than making your hero the typical abused orphan with a heart of gold and a telepathic animal. Don’t write a story where the whole point is to end humorously or cutely. The story should have intrinsic value outside of that.
And if you set up the story to lead the reader in a different direction entirely, then spring the “humor” in the last few sentences, don’t be surprised if your audience is Not Amused.
Related to that…
4) At some point the revelations have to cease.
This means that springing a huge epiphany on your characters in the last few paragraphs, after they’ve already encountered numerous epiphanies and settled them, is generally a no-no. I can think of a few books that did it well, but in each case those books had the other side of the equation: characters constructed in such a way that the readers knew what they would do with the new information. They could imagine it without having to see beyond the ending. If I have no idea what these people would do, or if the author pulls the utterly cheap trick—almost on the scale of a Grand Cop-Out—of handing the revelation to the characters and then killing them, it’s a no-no.
This is particularly the case with books where the secrets revealed are genuinely devastating and have changed the characters’ paths each time they appeared. Mary’s already gone through learning that her real parents are still alive, that she has magic that can save the world but will require a blood price of seven thousand lives, and that her best friend was a traitor. In each case, she’s cried and stormed and shouted and worked it through, but come out on the other side deeply different than what she was before. Does the author reallyneed to hand her the revelation in the last few paragraphs that her other best friend, whom she’d looked forward to reuniting with, was part of the blood price in the wave of magic she unleashed to kill the Dark Lord?
No, no, and no. I don’t know how Mary’s going to react, given that. If her friend was all she had to live for, she could commit suicide. She could work through it and emerge on the other side a different person again, but this time I won’t get to see the person she becomes. She could flee in shame and horror, withdraw to some hermitage, and insist that no one bother her ever again. She could deny it and refuse to believe the messenger, clinging to desperate hope. All of those are possible, given the author’s track record with previous revelations. And I think it’s stupid to insist on tossing a bomb like that into the ending, just for the sake of “drama.”
At some point, hold the revelations. Make the Big Final Secret the Big Final Secret. Or resign yourself to adding on more to the ending so that we can see how the character handles the epiphany. Remember, there is no clock. (See point 1).
5) “Avoid the obvious and proverbial.”
This is the advice I give my freshman students when they end their essays. This is one place where nonfiction writing advice makes good fiction writing advice, too.
I’ve seen some good stories with moral lessons worked in. (Fewer, I would still insist, than good stories whose main purpose was to entertain and not drive home some Message). But they all wove the lesson it throughout the story, and they all had some value—clever language, humor, interesting characters—apart from the lesson they were trying to impart. They did NOT (notice the NOT?) hurtle through and then end the story with a “profound” quote from one or another character, which quote just happens to match a proverb or “profound” piece of wisdom from our own world.
A couple that I could stand never to see again, either in freshman essays or fantasy stories:
- “Why can’t we just all get along?” (You raised the question, you answer it).
- “The color of your skin doesn’t matter.” (Has become banal through repetition).
- “It’s not how you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” (Problem of banality again. Also, I can’t actually recall meeting one person outside of fiction who has genuinely and all the time believed this).
- “Peace is better than war.” (No shit, Sherlock. Perhaps you can explain to me why your characters fought the war anyway, instead of trying something to prevent it?)
- “The journey is more important than the destination.” (Depends on the character).
- “All you need is love.” (Who let all those fucking bluebirds in here? And when did the violins start playing?)
These are obvious. These are proverbial. These are fucking platitudes, fucking clichés. Why the fuck are you ending your fucking story with fucking clichés?
Rephrase. Make sure your story has intrinsic value other than the moral lesson. Put your lesson in the story, in some form or another, long before the ending suddenly springs it. Realize that, if you really do want your audience to believe what you’re preaching saying, your first task is to be convincing. That means not creating straw-man villains, weak characters, or a stupid setting just to pound the lesson home, and not making an obvious and proverbial hash of your ending.
6) The ending should have at least one layer of obvious meaning.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret now: I favor clear writing. I don’t like writing where the author wraps what’s happening in obscurity for its own sake. I don’t like story endings where the author leaves everything very “literary,” and the key to comprehending what happened depends on symbolism, or a cultural background that I may or may not share, or my knowledge of the author’s inner demons. I don’t like endings where it feels as though the author is trying to show off how cool and smart she is, or even trick me, at the expense of letting me know what the hell just happened.
That doesn’t mean the writing has to be quiet. It may be full of sunlight and triumph; a lot of endings to fantasy trilogies are like that. It may be nearly as wild as its climax was, if the author chooses to end on a high point (and has set up a high point that can be ended on) rather than trying for a denouement. It may contain plenty of descriptive detail.
But, consider first of all:
- What ending does the plot have? What happened? Will the readers be able to tell?
- In what emotional state do/es the major character(s) end up in? Is it clear from where that emotional state sprang?
- Does the ending have intrinsic value and meaning apart from whatever symbols, in-jokes, or allusions the author’s decided to include? Or does the whole thing depend on being part of a secret club?
- What level of destruction/purity/newness/stasis has the setting wound up in? What in the ending indicates that?
I say: Go for endings with multiple layers of significance, by all means. But make sure there is at least one that’s obvious to anyone who reads the story—that is, the surface meaning. If they get nothing else out of it, they should at least get a good story. If you can’t offer any answers to the questions above that don’t depend on the reader being experienced in rock music or a reader of Sherlock Holmes or Christian, then the story’s ending is lacking.
(This, by the by, is why I tend to avoid retold fairy tales that are written in a literary style. I’ve been told that Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” and Lisa Goldstein’s “Breadcrumbs and Stones” were marvelous stories. So far as I’m concerned, their plots went nowhere, none of the characters’ major issues were resolved, and the endings depended on one bit of symbolism that I didn’t get. There’s something about fairy tales + literary style that seems to mess with authors’ heads.)
7) Build on what came before.
This is so obvious I hesitate to mention it, but I will give it a wee mention at the very end of the rant.
Out-of-the-blue endings are nobody’s friend. They spring from authors’ attempts to write “surprise” endings, the same way that trivially cute endings come from authors’ attempts to write humor. Since a surprise ending may be even harder to write than humor, it’s probablynot a surprise that so many of them fall flat. What I truly don’t understand is when the author tosses in something that the audience would have no way of predicting, like the main character having lied all along, or the princess going home and getting married when the whole story was her attempt to avoid doing just that. It’s utterly senseless, and it often leaves the audience feeling tricked.
Be careful. Weave clues into the body of your story. Hint that not all is what it seems. Make sure that your second—or third, or whatever—layer of meaning is there and moving from early in the writing, even if you’re not ready to reveal just what it is yet. Avoid deus ex machina endings (which I already did a whole rant about, so they are not included here). Achieve the difficult and tricky balance of the mystery writer, which is to include a whole second explanation for events in the story, and then prevent the reader from looking at it until just the right moment. In a sense, this kind of story is a mystery, and you have to write it as one. You can’t blame the audience for not getting it if you didn’t put in any clues.
*checks poll* It appears that ten alternatives to writing a ‘character learns a lesson’ story are next. That one ought to be fun.