Monday, April 26, 2010

When Bad Endings Happen to Good Stories

We’ve all read them. Novels that are ticking along, drawing us in. Then we come to the end. And we’re left hanging, or wondering, or just plain miffed.

Sometimes writers don’t realize that their endings are just as important as their beginnings. Recently I talked about what goes into a satisfying ending. This week I’m looking at endings that have gone wrong and what can be done to fix them.

Problem: The story ends with a whimper instead of a bang. You’re reading a mystery or romantic suspense and the tension is building. The author has promised a big payoff in the climax; a secret will be revealed, a quest will be completed, the lovers will reunited. You wait with bated breath for the explosion in the climax and – nothing. It turns out the fight is settled peacefully, or the villain isn’t as evil as we thought. You, as the reader, are left disappointed and are feeling cheated out of the story you’d been promised.

The Remedy: If you promised to give readers an exciting, dramatic story with thrills and danger around every corner, then your end better deliver. The more dramatic the beginning and the middle are, the more dramatic your climax must be. If you’ve spent two hundred pages tormenting the reader about the strange noise coming from the secret room in the cellar, don’t end the story with the discovery that the sound came from the wind blowing a branch against the house. Give the reader the big payoff! Give her at least a demon or two!

In his article “How to End a Novel”, Edward C. Patterson calls this kind of ending anticlimactic. He believes this happens when the scene before the actual climax is more exciting and dramatic then the climax itself. This scene will have to be rewritten to gradually build tension up to the climatic scene. Another problem I’ve seen in romantic suspense is when the romance plot is resolved before the suspense plot. If there’s no tension about whether the two lovers will be together in the end, the story often fizzles once the bad guys are caught.

Problem: The ending goes on too long or the story ends too abruptly. In the first case the author wanted to let everyone know what happened to the characters after the events of the climax. Unfortunately, she took it too far. We don’t need to know details about the rest of their lives. In a romance the reader only wants to know that the lovers are together forever at the end of the story.

In the second case, two things could have happened. Either the author said to herself “I want to finish this novel already! I’m sick to death of this thing.” Or perhaps she wants to leave the future of the characters to the imagination of the readers.

The Remedy: Work on the denouement, that is, everything that comes after the climax. In the first case where the ending went on forever, remember that the denouement needs to be brief. Just give enough information so the reader is provided with closure and knows the characters have made it to their happy endings. In the second case, where the story ends without warning, remember that readers need closure. They want to know what happens to their favorite characters. Give your readers what they deserve in a brief, dramatized scene.

Problem: The Ending is illogical or contrived. It seems to come out of left field and doesn’t feel related to what came before. It’s as if the author had an ending in mind and stuck it in without regard for the rest of her story.

The Remedy: Your ending always has to come from the beginning and the middle. The only solution here is to rewrite your ending so that it feels totally inevitable, given the characters’ personalities and the conflicts and actions of the rest of the story.

Problem: Loose ends aren’t tied up or conversely everything ends too perfectly. If an important secondary character falls ill in chapter ten of your book, but is never mentioned again, that’s a big loose end that needs to be tied up.

The Remedy: Readers are going to want to know if the secondary character lives or dies, so make her part of the denouement scene, and show her on the road to recovery.

Or not. Not every aspect of your novel has to end with a happily ever after. Bad things happen in life and in romance novels. Friends and family pass away. Beloved pets are lost. Sometimes what is lost is a character’s innocence. Depending on the type of book you’re writing, the loose ends do not have be tied up in a happy, perfect bow. Sometimes a somewhat unpredictable ending will give your book what it needs to be special.

But whatever you do, make sure your denouement does not become a long, boring monologue by one of the characters, explaining the ending. Both the denouement and the climax need to be dramatized in scenes with plenty of action. Minor loose ends need to be tied up before the climax. In “10 Problems with Story Endings” Marg McAlister says “Go back over your novel and decide how you can satisfactorily let the reader know the whys and wherefores without dumping it all in at the end.”

Problem: The Hero doesn’t fight his own battles in the end. The cavalry rides to the rescue, taking the ending out of the hero’s hands.

The Remedy: A hero needs to be active. No one wants to root for a passive hero who lets others fight his battles for him. After feeling his pain and cheering him on throughout the story, the reader wants the hero to pick himself up and solve his own problems. Go back and rewrite your climax and make your hero the star of his own novel.

Your novel’s ending requires patience and perseverance, and it is just as important as your beginning. Think about it; would you read a second book by an author who disappointed you with the ending of her first book? Do you have trouble with endings? Do you have examples of other troubled endings?


Liz Fichera said...

Endings are hard because sometimes I think writers get so attached to their characters that they don't want their stories to end. Still if you're going to get your readers emotionally invested in your characters, you have to give them a satisfying ending--and that doesn't always mean a happily ever after--but there has to be closure.

These are great tips!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Liz,
Yes, we writers spend a lot of time with our characters and we get quite attached to them. Still, our main concern should always be delivering a great story to our readers. And that includes giving them a satisfying ending. It'll keep 'em coming back for more, hopefully!

I hope you can use some of the tips.


edwpat said...

Great article

Edward C. Oatterson

steph said...

Very nice article. I've run into those problems especially in early drafts of writing. The re-writes and deepening POV usually helps me to round out an ending. I prefer the 'us vs the world' sort of conflict so that makes building to the ending more of a challenge. Thanks for sharing the wisdom :)

Judy Griffith Gill said...

Good blog. Something I plan to recommend to a couple of my authors.

Judy, editing for Champagne Books

Mary Ricksen said...

Great information. The ending means even more in a series where there will be a sequal@

Karyn Good said...

Great post, Jana. I should bookmark it with your other post on endings and refer back to it. Endings can be a challenge!

Karyn Good said...

I meant to type I shall...!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

This is a great breakdown, Jana. An excellence reference for any scenario. I'd also add that if an ending comes out of left field, the author may need to go back through the MS and layer in more indications of a twist or sudden shift to come, depending on the type of ending. Even if an ending comes unexpectedly, but we can look back and go, "Oh yeah, I should have known," it'll stand on better footing.

And LOVE what you said about heroes starring in their own novels. What are your thoughts on if a novel gives equal emphasis to a hero and heroine? (as opposed to it mostly being her story or his story) If one of them dominates the climax and the other does little, is it still a satisfying ending, or is it just a step better than cavalry riding over the hill?

Jana Richards said...

Hi Edward,
Thanks for dropping by. I enjoyed your article too.


Jana Richards said...

Thanks for stopping by Steph. No matter what kind of story you write endings can be a challenge. I don't know how wise I am, but I'm happy to pass along some hard won information :)


Jana Richards said...

Hi Judy,
I appreciate you recommending the article to your writers. May I also suggest another article I wrote on endings


Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
Yes, the endings in a book series are very important. It depends on what kind of series you're writing. Do you leave the reader hanging, waiting for the next book to find out how things end? Or do you end each story individually, but hint at the next story in the series? Personally I don't like having to wait for the next book to find out how the story ends, and I have been known to never bother picking up the next book, so it's not a course of action I would recommend. I guess the best answer is to ensure you give the reader a satisfying conclusion in each book of the series.



We can all use this information! Thanks for pulling it all together in a neat, easy-to-read blog!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I hope it's information you can use as you revise your novel.

And I know you meant shall! :)


Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
If an ending comes out of left field, or just doesn't seem to fit, a writer is definitely going to have to go back and layer in motivation and clues. There's no getting around it; there's going to have to be some rewriting.

Your question about whether the hero or heroine need to be equally active in their own ending got me thinking. I'm going to say that both main characters need to take an active part in achieving their happy ending. Perhaps it doesn't necessarily have to be equal; sometimes one of them needs to do more work to get to where they need to be. But I think readers want characters who are responsible for their own success and happiness.


Jana Richards said...

Hey, Got Erotic Romance! Thanks for dropping by! I hope this is inforamtion you can use.


Gail Pallotta said...

Hi Jana,
I'm a whole day late, but I enjoyed your post about endings. You created a good check list to use. Thanks for sharing.

Jana Richards said...

Better late than never Gail! Thanks for dropping by.