This question came my way recently from someone who enjoyed writing and wrote a lot … but didn’t know when to stop the story. So he just kept on writing and writing and had a number of novels and short stories to his name that he’d never finished. I didn’t even have to think twice about how to answer him. For me, there is only one way to finish a story:
You have to know the ending before you start.
I’m sure there are other opinions on this. I haven’t googled* it yet but I’m sure, when I go off in a minute to check it out, that I’m going to find all sorts of advice. Some of it might be good. Some of it I might disagree with. Everyone has a different way of writing. It also depends on how well the story is developed in your mind before you start. Or how fabulous your imagination is – the one that miraculously produces exactly the right thing to write at the right time and comes up with a fantastic twist or ending that just works perfectly even though you had no idea that was where you were going. Well, that’s just great! Lucky you if you can work like this! For the rest of us, it’s a slog. And if you don’t know where your story is going, the slog is even worse.
If you don’t know where your story is going, the reader will know and they’ll stop reading.
If you let the story peter out, the reader will be left dissatisfied and disappointed.
If you cobble on some fantastic twist that you just made up, the reader will toss the book aside in disgust. Because readers know. They might not know WHY they don’t like the ending. But they’ll know if it doesn’t work.
This isn’t about creating the perfect ending. It’s just about actually managing to end a book well. I taught myself to structure novels with the book Teach Yourself Screenwriting. Yep. I use the template for a screenplay! I had actually wanted to write screenplays so studied this in minute detail and had a go at it, writing several (I even sent one to a favourite actor at the time – dear me, how embarrassing! Hopefully it was binned before it was ever opened!). The structure of a screenplay really appealed to me. It ordered my thoughts. It forced me to do a great deal of pre-writing, which meant that by the time I sat down to begin a novel, I KNEW the story. I don’t work out every single scene. And I certainly don’t stick to my treatment like glue – if while writing I see something doesn’t work out after all, then I’ll change it and work on the story shape a little more. The thing with writing is that your characters come alive, the story starts to live, relationships grow, it all feels real. Sometimes the way a character develops will dictate changes I might need to make to a story. But it’s very, very rare that I will change an ending. I’m wracking my brains here and I don’t recall a time I changed a planned ending – and they are planned!
I’m going to quote directly from Teach Yourself Screenwriting.
Screenplays are written backwards. That is: the prime focus for both writer and audience is the final climax at the end of Act III. So, having decided on your end climax – where you need to get to – you work backwards to make sure that everything in the plot – other climaxes, set-backs, decisions made etc – work 100% towards that scene and moment. However, don’t get too disturbed if your end hasn’t come to you yet – it will. (Raymond G. Frensham)
Yes, I know novels are different. You probably don’t really need to break the story up into Acts. For me, however, this works. The tight structure of a screenplay gets my story moving. It pushes me away from waffle. This doesn’t mean my novels are short. I used this method with my novel “V. Gomenzi” which is over 190 thousand words long! I mean, it’s massive! It had three threads in it which I had to juggle to keep straight. But in the end, I knew, the focus would be on the main character himself, Vincent Gomenzi. He needed to wrap up the story with a big bang. The loopy timeline of another character (who will one day the main character of the 5th novel in the Fleet Quintet series) had to be wrapped up as well. This was all fine and dandy. I had no problem heading towards this spectacular ending. But I wasn’t going to END the book with these Big Moments: I needed a quiet, thoughtful ending. SPOILER ALERT but I needed him to get back with the girl. It was the moment I most looked forward to. This bloody novel proved to be immensely difficult to write. Totally my own fault for having such complex timelines, those three separate threads which had to wind together, and a massive story. But the spark that kept me going was that final scene. When I got to it, eventually, I screwed it up monumentally. I had her open the door. I had him go into the flat. I had him them talk in the lounge. She was cross and spiky. He was exhausted and had experienced way too much in his battle against evil. The conversation between them was a disaster. I couldn’t get it right. It all went flat. My cherished ending, which I’d so looked forward to, died on the page. And then I realised that, while this was indeed the proverbial happy ending, it was out of step with the rest of the novel. I had to put the future into the reader’s mind, let them imagine it, not work it out for them.
So this is what I did. When our heroine (she was the main character of the 2nd in the Fleet Quintet) sees our hero, she hugs him. He hugs her back, relieved. And then I go into future tense. This is what it looks like:
When she opened the door, she stared at him, speechless. He could not think what to say. He could not say hello. It was too little. He put down his bag on the doorstep. Warm air flooded out onto the cold landing. It smelled like freshly baked biscuit. Then she stepped into his space and wrapped her arms around him, tightly and fiercely. Relief ran through him, through every vein, down every neural pathway, and he pulled her close, his hands in her hair.
In another moment, she would step back and invite him in.
That conversation they are supposed to have in the lounge? It’s all in future tense. You know what she’s going to ask him. You know how he’s going to have to answer her. But then their embrace breaks and he realises he’s going to have to ask for her forgiveness on the doorstep. So now we have the thought: oh, he’s not going to get to go and sit in her lounge and explain stuff. He has to do it here, on the doorstep, where it’s cold. Then a small child appears in her nightgown, the daughter our hero did not know he had. While our heroine puts the child back to bed, he steps into the apartment and closes the door. The future has arrived and we’re no longer sure if it even contains that proposed scene in the lounge.
This is my favourite ending of all my novels and I love it because I worked towards it through TWO novels so it took YEARS to get there. It had gathered so much poignancy along the way that the fewer words I used, the better it was.
Let me give you a much simpler example. Not everything I write is huge and enormous and takes years! A short story I wrote recently called “The planet with too much zap” comes in at under 2000 words. For me, that’s barely a paragraph! I didn’t have to do much structural work to it and it didn’t require weeks of editing. But I knew the ending before I started. I knew it even before I sat down to write the “treatment” which was all of 500 words long, barely a page. The whole story leads up to that ending. Without it, the story would have fallen flat on its face.
Another successful example: I recently started work on the 4th in a series of seven. Before I began I already had a whole lot of notes and ideas, written down as they occurred to me while writing the previous books in the series. I already know what each book is about and I definitely know how the whole series ends. I have a Huge Reveal in the final novel which I’m really looking forward to! But I don’t know the fine details of each book’s story until I sit down and begin the pre-writing. I was doing just that when I reached the paragraph in my textbook: WRITING BACKWARDS. Aargh, I thought. I don’t have my ending! I had to go off and think about it for a day or two. At that stage, I barely had the story. I knew who was in it and what the bad guy does and the amazing find in the book – but I had no idea how to bring all these factors together.
So I worked on that Act III climax. This was not to be the final scene but it would most certainly dictate what the final scene will be. As it was, the ending came to me quite easily – I decided to go for a big action climax and managed to find one. The most important thing to note here is that by working on the ending, the story itself – still an amorphous mass of unrelated ideas at that point – suddenly began to form.
Find the ending and you have found clarity for your story.
What if it all goes wrong? This happened to me recently and it still hasn’t resolved. (I’ve written about it in another blog – see link below). Why did this story go wrong? Why have I abandoned it? Why was I tortured by it for months, losing sleep over it, losing my confidence as a writer, losing focus on what the story was supposed to be about? In retrospect, I know exactly why: I never knew the ending. I thought I did. I knew the main character had to meet up with another character and that they had to, um, talk. Gosh wow exciting. Not. So despite some good writing in it and despite many rewrites and much editing, it still doesn’t work. I still can’t get the ending. Ironically, it’s the last story in the second collection of Exodus Sequence stories, so NOT being able to find an ending for it is absolute disaster!
My advice? Walk away. Do something else. Write something else. Leave it alone. Don’t go back to it until you know. And then consider how much pain you would have saved yourself if you had thought up the goddamn ending FIRST!
*I have now googled this concept but Google has decided to misunderstand my question no matter how I phrase it. So I think I should probably take a moment to emphasise that this blog is NOT how to end a story by finding the perfect ending. Nor does it discuss all the different types of ending. This blog is aimed specifically at those writers who tend to waffle on and on with no know goal and how to prevent that from happening. If you know where you story ends, you’ll know how to end it.
You can read about “V. Gomenzi” here
You can read about The Fleet Quintet here
“The planet with too much zap” has been published here
You can read the blog post “The story that refused to write” here
Teach Yourself Screenwriting is available here