So, um, how ’bout those endings, eh?
I will confess I’m a bit out of my depth with regards to endings. The thing is, I usually know what the end of my book should be, but how to get there or what happens or why it happens is generally opaque to me.1 It’s the problem I have with middles, even though I don’t really believe “the middle” exists, at least not in my own writing.
For me, the ending begins after the midpoint of the novel. The resolution starts the moment everything changes for my protagonists. From the middle to the last word on the page, that all constitutes “the ending”, the part of the book where I have to take everything I’ve discovered about my characters and mold it into…something.
As I’ve mentioned before, beginnings are easy for me because beginnings are the part of the book where the reader—and consequently, myself—discovers the characters, the world, the stakes. But once you get to know these things, figuring out how to fit them together to make a coherent narrative is hard. For me, the ending only really comes together in the second, third, fourth pass, etc.
They say writing is rewriting, but personally, I loathe revision. I don’t mind making books better; in fact, I enjoy it. What I dislike is the idea of fixing. Fixing doesn’t leave room for discovery; it forces you to work with what you already have. I’m bad at fixing, but I am good at is burning things to the ground and starting over again.
And that’s what I do with my endings: I write them again and again. It’s a bit like pottery, I suppose. Back in high school I did a ceramics segment and we learned to throw plates, jars, bowls, etc. on the wheel. Now, I knew what a bowl looked like. I knew what I was working toward when I pressed my hands to the clay. But it wasn’t until I had practiced and practiced and made and made that I finally produced something worth firing in the kiln. (It shattered, by the way, but at least I knew I could do it!) Between each effort, the clay went back into the kneading trough.
And that’s what writing endings is like for me. I have the end in my mind—the shape of the bowl, if you will—but much of that material is going to return to the kneading trough until I get the ending in the shape it needs to be. It’s all the same clay, after all. I throw out all the words, retype them, rearrange them, rewrite them altogether. I trick myself into “discovering” hidden things about my characters and their motivations because that is the only way it’s going to work for me.
What makes a good ending? That is going to vary from reader to reader, writer to writer. For me, an ending fulfills the emotional promises laid out in the beginning. A growth, a change, what-have-you. A character achieves what s/he has set out to do. A character doesn’t get what s/he wanted, but finds what s/he needed, etc. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, plot is the last bit of a work to fall into place, so I’m less interested in resolving plot twists (although I think plot and character development should inform the other). I’m not particularly “original” when it comes to writing, nor do I think “originality” is a virtue. I’m old-fashioned/conservative when it comes to employing storytelling tropes. A good trope done well is infinitely more satisfying to me than a good trope badly subverted.
Because emotional resolution is the top priority for me when it comes to endings, I’m often stymied in during the first draft. I’ve only just gotten to know these characters; how do I know how to resolve their emotional issues? Endings, like fine wine, need to age. They need to get richer, fuller, with more depth. And honestly? Getting that full-bodied ending we all want takes time. Time away from the first draft, time to get to know your characters better.
That’s all for this week! Next week, tackling VOICE in writing. As always, if you have any questions, sound off in the comments or drop me an ask on Tumblr!
- If any of y’all are A Song of Ice and Fire fans, I have the sneaking suspicion George R. R. Martin has this exact same problem… ↩