Monday, March 29, 2010

Great Endings

Last time I talked about Great Beginnings for our books. I’ve also blogged about Middles, Part 1 and Part 2.

Now we’ve come to The End.

No two words are sweeter for the writer to type. The End means you’ve finished your novel. But is the ending as satisfying as it can be?

I’ve recently read some books whose endings let me down. The opening held much promise, the middle was exciting, but the end left me unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem so I thought I’d do a little investigation.

At the beginning, a story makes a promise. In a romance that promise is to show two people overcoming obstacles to get to their happily ever after. The middle develops those characters and the conflicts they face, showing them coming closer and closer to collision. The ending must use those same characters and conflicts/problems/tensions to show us this collision at the climax.

In “Beginnings, Middles & Ends” from Writers’ Digest Books, Nancy Kress warns that the writer deviates from this pattern at her peril: “If the ending tries to use different characters (such as the cavalry riding over the hill at the last minute), the story will fail. If the ending tries to switch to some other last-minute conflict, the story will fail. If the ending tries to evade the promised collision (by, for instance, a peaceful compromise in which no one loses anything), your story will fail. You cannot, in other words, promise apples and deliver oranges.”

In other words the ending must be true to the beginning and the middle of your book. How you accomplish this is by controlling the two parts of the ending: the climax and the denouement.

The climax. The climax is whatever big event the forces in your story have been building toward. If a character is going to change, some experience at the climax will show that change. If a problem needs to be solved, this is where the protagonist solves it. This is where the villain makes his last stand, the lovers are united, family troubles blow up, the quest reaches its goal.
To succeed a climax must do four things:

The climax must satisfy the view of life implied in your story. In a romance the lovers overcome the conflicts standing between them. In a mystery justice is served. Whatever is promised by your genre and your book must be satisfied here.

A climax must deliver emotion. A climax without emotion will feel flat to readers, a letdown. The reader must feel whatever the characters are feeling, and if the characters aren’t feeling anything, this is not the climax.

The climax must deliver an appropriate level of emotion. The level of drama in the story must match the level of drama in the climax. For instance, if I’m writing a romantic comedy, I’m not going to going to end with a climax in which there is a big emotional upset, such as a death or a betrayal. However, if I’m writing a romantic suspense containing war, murder and all manner of angst, a big emotional, dramatic climax is called for.

The climax must be logical to your plot and your story. The climatic scene must grow naturally out the actions that preceded it, which in turn must have grown naturally out of the characters’ personalities. The climax cannot depend on some outside force like a random accident, instant enlightenment, or the cavalry riding over the hill. Don’t rely on a coincidence. The climax must be plausible for the story and must feel inevitable.

The climax must be in proportion to the length of your story. In novels, climaxes are usually a chapter, but sometimes several chapters. In any event, the climax should not be rushed. If you have many pages setting up a tense situation, the resolution should not speed by in a couple of paragraphs. It won’t feel important enough.

The Denouement. Everything after the climax is the denouement, whose function is to wrap up the story. It shows us 2 things: the consequences of the plot and the fate of any characters not accounted for in the climax. A successful denouement has three characteristics: closure, brevity and dramatization.

Closure means you give your readers enough information about the fate of your characters for them to feel that the book is really over. I often end my novels showing my characters together and happy, and looking forward to the future. In my WIP “Welcome to Paradise” the denouement shows Jack and Bridget celebrating Jack’s daughter’s birthday and their wedding with all their friends in Paradise. I wanted to show them committed and happy and part of the community. Don’t leave readers hanging, wondering what happened to characters they’ve come to care for.

Brevity is important to a denouement because if goes on too long, it will leach all emotion from the climax. A too-long denouement will also feel anticlimactic.

Dramatization ensures that your denouement feels like part of the story, not a chunk of exposition tacked on the end. For example, in the above denouement from “Welcome to Paradise” I show the birthday party/wedding as it happens. If I had told this bit of news in the internal monologue in Bridget’s head, I think it would be less satisfying for the reader and would feel pasted on.

There's no doubt that a sparkling opening is necessary to interest readers/agents/editors. A fast-paced middle where characters and conflicts are explored and developed keeps them reading. But a well-written ending that has the proper level of emotion and drama and length will satisfy readers and make them look for your next book. Next time I’ll look at some common problems of endings and how they can be fixed.

Have you been let down by the ending of a promising book? Do you spend as much time on your endings as you do on your beginnings?


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great summary, Jana. I think one of the biggest traps people can fall into is when they can't figure out how to get their characters out of the situations they've created, and they shift the whole story toward another theme/conflict/character involvement to resolve it. This is also why it bugs me if a story has focused the whole time on a strong main character (ie: the female lead) and then she gets saved by someone else at the climax. People should be involve in their own endings, rather than being handed a resolution.

One of the biggest pitfalls in fantasy is the tendency to not resolve things, or barely resolve them, with the intent of sequels on the horizon. Any story in a series should still stand on its own, insofar as telling a satisfying story, unless it's one long story broken into three, which was the case with Lord of the Rings. Too many things wrap up only the bare minimum, if that, to ensure ample sequel-bait.

I think the worst I've seen lately though have been in video games. They can get away with doing things differently, but ending a game at what feels like an abrupt half point with no resolution and little progress just doesn't fly with me. It's intended to leave the player hanging and rushing to buy number 2, but honestly, it's just cheap. Too many games lately have essentially forced people to pay more money to get the actual ending to the story.

Janet said...

Another great post to bookmark, Jana - thanks! As I was reading through, I was thinking of Lady Bells and trying to determine whether or not I had a good ending or a great ending. I know there's one issue I need to resolve because I did what Hayley talked about and created an open ended plot line for a sequel (must sell first book before thinking about a sequel ;) And that issue is one you mentioned in your critique. I'll work on that.

As I said, definitely a post I will return to over and over again. And, yes, I have read a few books that made me mad when they either didn't resolve the major plot line or they 'brought in the cavalry'. I love to exhaust an author's booklist - but this one book I read made me so mad I refuse to read anything else with that author's name on the cover. Even refused to see the movie - they changed the ending and made it more like what the book should have been, but I was on my own little protest, so no movie for me!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I totally agree with your points. You can't build up a conflict for 3/4 of a book and then shift it to something else at the end because you didn't know how to resolve the first mess you got your character into. That's cheating the reader out of the payoff they've been promised. And I absolutely agree that a hero/heroine has to be involved in her own ending. She has to actively participate in solving her own problems or else she's really not much of a heroine.

I don't play video games but I'm sure if I did those abrupt non-endings would totally irk me and I don't think I'd be rushing off to buy #2. I get the need to sell your next book/video game/movie but please give me a satisfying ending!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Yes, I know I gave you grief over your ending in Lady Bells. I know you were interested in a sequel to the story, but story #1 has to have a satisfactory ending first. I wanted to see the villainess get her just desserts because I really hated her by the end of the story. As a reader I needed closure.

Have you thought of telling Hugh's brother's story without having the same villainess involved? This would mean creating a whole new scenario for the opening of the sequel. But in this second story Hugh and his brother would develop the kind of bond they once had but lost, and the brother would learn and change and grow through love. Just a thought.

I admire Suzanne Brockman's series because they always completely tell one couple's story. However, she interweave's the conflict of another couple's story into the first story as a subplot. So while the primary couple's story ends completely and satisfyingly, she's laid the foundation for the next story and the reader has that to look forward to.

All the best,

Vince said...

Hi Jana:

I don’t like it when the author cheats on the reader. This happens when the story line draws its energy from a conflict and then that very conflict is not resolved.

Below is the most common disappointing story line I have found in romances.

The heroine has to choose between marrying the hero or keeping her career but she cannot have both. (Very good reasons are given for this, BTW). The whole book oscillates between the two options making each even more compelling. My interest as a reader is in how the author is going to work this out? When the story ends, the hero and heroine marry, and they lovingly say they will work out the career problem later. Book ends.

I consider this cheating the reader and I will not likely read that author again.

I think this is a ‘pantster’ problem. The author just writes along thinking she will solve the problem later. But 'later' never comes and too much time has been invested in the WIP. Solution: cheat the reader. (BTW, I find this most common with published authors with many books. A new author would have trouble getting such a story published.)

A plotter would have invented a sensational resolution to the problem first and then wrote the book towards that great ending.


neecy said...

Hi Janet,
I've have to share a story with you. We had an agent from Knights Agency at our RWA meeting a couple of months back. She said the first thing she does is read the first and last chapter of a book. If it falls under romance and it has a sappy ending she usually chucks it. You've made some good points here and just recently I've read Monique De'vere book, called Divorce Etiquette it was clean and had so many fine qualities you've spoken about. This was a great post. Thanks for sharing.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Vince,
Well, I think I know where you stand on the pantster/plotter debate!

But I totally agree with endings needing to satisfy the reader. The last thing you want to do is to alienate the reader so much with your ending that they never read one of your books again. When I read a story similar to the one you talk about here, I always assume that the woman will have given up her career for her man. And then I can't possibly think that they will have a happily ever after because sooner or later that woman is going to resent that man for making her give up her career. Or maybe that's just the way my mind works!

Thanks for weighing in on this Vince. Love your comments!

Silver James said...

Jana, great advice! An ending has to be satisfying to ALL parties: Reader, H/H, AND the author. I also like to end with a bit of a twist...something no one was expecting, but still leaves the book "resolved."

Jana Richards said...

Hi neecy,
Thanks for joining us here on the Prairies. Editors and agents have to know that a writer can carry a book all the way through to a believable, plausible, satisfying ending. Even if the story has a wonderful opening, if the ending doesn't work, they're going to pass on it. A writer can't get by on a great premise and a snappy opening alone.

Thanks for commenting.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
Yes! You bring up a good point. An ending must be plausible and believable, but that doesn't mean it can't have a bit of a twist, something that makes it unexpected. But that said, the seeds for this twist should be planted somewhere in the middle. The reader should be able to say, "I didn't see that coming, but it totally makes sense."

Thanks for pointing that out Silver.


Debra St. John said...

Thanks again for the great post. I'm going to print this out and have it join the "great beginning" page I printed out a couple weeks ago!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Debra,
I'm glad my blogs can be of some help to you. Next week I'm talking about common ending problems and how they can be fixed. I hope you drop by again.

Thanks for commenting.

Karyn Good said...

Fabulous post today, Jana! I will definitely be referring back to it when I'm in the midst of ending or resolving the, well...the end :D

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
When you need me, I'll be there for you in the end!


Margaret Tanner said...

Great article Jana, I feel a good ending is crucial. I know it is cheating, but I have to say that I often check the ending before I buy a book, if I don't like the ending, some might see this as ridiculous, but I don't buy the book.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Margaret,
I don't generally read the endings, but I can understand why you'd do it. You want to know you're getting a good read. But it's hard to know if the ending works by reading only the last couple of pages. I'll stick to reading the whole book to see if the ending works with the beginning and middle the author has created.

Thanks for stopping by,

Yunaleska said...

Great post here, Jana, thank you. In drafts I'm prone to letting the ending go. And my betas tell me off for it. Now, I'm trying to make them have an impact as much as I can.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Yunaleska,
You definitely want your endings to have impact. As the saying goes, your opening will entice the reader to read your book and your ending will make her pick up your next one.

Best of luck,