Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The End of All Things: Getting from the middle to the end, and closing your story.

Over the past few weeks I’ve brought up the two of the three basic components of a story: The Beginning, and The Middle. Today we’re going to wrap up the storytelling trifecta discussing the words all writers are aiming for… The End.

There are two ways to look at endings. First would be the ending of a standalone story. Second is the dual ending that indicates a series. We’ll step into some detail about both of these types of writing.

Whether it’s a novel, a short story, or even a flash fiction piece like those from last week’s competition. Standalone stories are those that are told from start to finish in a single book. They are stories that need to be wrapped up satisfactorily such that the reader feels like the story is indeed over. These stories may be part of a series, but can still be classed as standalones in that each book does not require a previous story be read to get to know the characters. Examples of basic standalone novels would be Stephen King’s or Sandra Brown’s books. Standalone series writers include folks like Lee Child, whose Reacher series or Ian Fleming’s Bond books. Those can be picked up at any point in the series and read as individual stories on their own merit, or read in any order without ruining the story line.

Having a good ending in paramount in any novel. Notice: Good Ending does not necessarily equal Happy Ending. This is an important distinction to remember depending upon the format, the audience, and the genre of the story.

Format is important because depending on the length of the story (novel, novella, short, flash, etc) you may or may not have room to build a happy ending. But an ending that leaves most of the closure to the imagination, preferably in an easy to imagine way, can be just as satisfying.  Not all genres demand a happy ending either. Quite often thrillers, horror and crime stories end with a good, but decidedly unhappy ending where the good guys are badly injured or perhaps even die, the town is destroyed, etc. The old Twilight Zone episodes were terrific for this type of satisfying but not very happy ending where the viewer was left with the knowledge that rather than things going nicely for the hero of the story he/she ends up going mad instead and being carted away in a straightjacket. The classic William Shatner Episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is a perfect example of this.

One the other hand some books in those same genres are perfectly good with happy endings. It all depends on the preferences and style of the author, and what you want your audience to feel when then put the book down at the end. The point here is that you don’t have to end with everyone smiling and hugging and rainbows in the sky for it to be a satisfying ending. One of my favourite books of all time, and probably the closest thing to a romance I’ll ever admit to reading, is The Thorn Birds. No spoilers here, but that book had one of the least happy, yet most satisfying endings I’ve ever enjoyed.

Ongoing Series

Now, for series books the rules above apply, but there is the additional aspect that the story does not end at the end of the first book. The reader is left with that ever popular dilemma know as … Duh, Duh, Duuuhnnn … The Cliffhanger!

Ongoing series books are those that carry a single story, and usually multiple side stories, from one book to the next building on each preceding story usually with the characters growing or otherwise changing throughout the series. Great examples of this type of building series include writers like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, or Ken Follet’s Centuries Series where we watch the characters grow from young to old over the course of three, four, or more books. One of my favorite historical fiction writers, Bernard Cornwell, took twenty one books to lead Richard Sharpe from being an illiterate private in Wellington’s Army in India to retiring as a highly literate Colonel after the Napoleanic Wars. In each book Sharpe grew older, wiser and stronger. But each individual book in the series also had to have some sort of ending that closed that story satisfactorily.

The key with keeping an ongoing series running yet having that good ending to each book is to have multiple simultaneous endings for each title.  This also means having multiple plot lines for each book. One plot line would be the main theme that carries on throughout the entire series, in Sharpe’s case watching him grown from slum kid to famous soldier and wondering how he will survive each thing as he moves through, this will be the cliffhanger that makes the reader want to learn more about the character of your story.

In addition to that main theme there has to be a more urgent plot line that runs through only the one book and has all of the ups and down and twists of a standalone book. This theme, it could also be multiple themes, should have closure by the end of the book.  For example the first book of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has three minor theme endings:

1. Robb becomes King of the North

2. John ‘takes the black’ and joins The Wall

3.  Daenerys becomes The Mother of Dragons

Those minor endings each close out the book with a sense of satisfaction, while still allowing the cliffhanger that will introduce the next books…still in the making.

So, there you have it. Endings are uber-important.

Whether your books are individual episodes with no expectation of ever meeting those characters again, or if they are ongoing series that will pull readers back time and again, you have to end each book with a bang that signals the party is over.

Next week …. How to make your stories seem alive AKA… “Show Don’t Tell”.

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  1. This is great, Basil. I have always remembered those Twilight Zone episodes. Whew. Talk about the shivers. I'm working on at least one piece goes in that direction. The endings seem to come up out of nowhere and smack you in the head with something totally creepy.

  2. That's what I loved too, the unexpected endings. One of my other favourites was Time Enough at Last, where the last man in a destroyed city finds reason to live by gathering up all of the library books to read, only to have his glasses smash to bits. That was reason enough for me to make sure I always have multiple pairs of glasses nearby.