Endgame Part 1

>> Monday, April 25, 2011

So you know what an ending is supposed to do, barest minimum: resolve things and bring the story arc to a close. But is that enough?

Not hardly. The ending, like the end game in chess, makes a hell of difference on the caliber of the game. Leaving the story arc unresolved may ruin the story, but making an ending that totally rocks can mean the difference between a "not-bad" book and "the best book ever!"

If it's the second kind you're shooting for, you'd best aim to do more than just resolve a few loose ends and write "THE END." Endings can have tremendous impact and power, can really reinforce the sense of the story, set a tone, add dessert to the meal of the book as it were and even set the stage for future work (or just a future for your characters). But that doesn't just happen. You have to make it happen. To do that, you have to know what you're trying to do with your ending.

For instance, in a high-tension thriller type novel, you might want to be keeping the reader guessing until the last minute taking the climax to the very end. Something like:

Mickey smirked as the last of his shots echoed and faded. Cautiously, he approached the figure sprawled face down in a muddy puddle rapidly turning red,. His smirk turned to a grin as he saw the gaping red holes in the black duster. The bastard was dead for sure.

Mickey kicked the corpse for good measure. "Prick," he said around his cigarette. "You should have killed me when you had the chance."

"True," he heard behind him. Mickey swung around in disbelief and hardly had time to register Lamont was alive behind him before the top of his head was blown away.

"Wrong prick," Lamont said, holstering his weapon. He walked away without a glance behind him for the dead.

This kind of ending is terrific for a short story, where you don't have much to clean up and the impact of the ending is enough to flavor the whole story. You can use it for a novel too as long as you've already resolved anything else that needs cleaning up. If not, don't use it. And, if you do use it, leave it as close to the climax as you can. Don't succumb to the temptation of going back and adding more. This kind of ending is most powerful if you end it like I did without extraneous winding down like describing him getting into this car and having some philosophical thoughts. You can end with philosophical thoughts, of course, but it's no longer a climax ending.

If you need a minimum of clean-up to your climax ending you can do the mystery staple, a denouement ending wherein the climax comes only a handful of pages from the end but is still centered on shock and awe, before explaining why it ended the way it did:

"In the end, the real murderer was his apparently innocent teenage daughter, frustrated beyond belief at the limited number of text message she was allowed on her cell phone. Driven to madness by being able to text only once every other minute, she killed her father by sliding her nail file into his ear so that the wound was hardly noticeable, especially after the car accident."

[Then explain, explain, explain, perhaps some tearful remorse by our teenager, now faced with the prospect of jail where she'll be stuck with a corded phone shared with twelve other inmates. Maybe our detective with smoke a well-earned pipe.]
The tighter and shorter you make the after explanations/winding down, the more impact it tends to have, so open questions and resolutions are often crammed in there willy nilly. Mysteries tend toward this model because you don't have to tie up loose ends as you go, it keeps tension up until nearly the very end and, well, it's easy. Let's face it, it's a formula that's been played until cliché. You can use it for non-mysteries, of course, but you need to be careful. Cleaning lots of stuff up neatly in a couple of pages often feels contrived and bewildering. It can be done, cleverly and so tidily that you impress the reader instead of bore them, but it takes a crisp conclusion that tidies itself to really make it shine. Otherwise, it tends to sound slipshod and clumsy.

More to come.

[Wow, a whole blog post without mentioning manga!]


  • Jeff King

    Great points... I need to rethink my ending. This will help me see how to end it with an impact. And that’s what I’m (and every writer) is looking for.

    I’ll be waiting for the next installment.

  • Project Savior

    The easiest way to tie up all the loose ends briefly is to ramp up the scale of the conflict. If your character lives to save the Earth from the evilest man that ever existed, pretty much all other loose ends, like if he can get the homework assignment he missed while saving the Earth, fall to the way side.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Jeff, these aren't the only endings out there by a long shot, but they are among the most dramatic.

    Project Savior, yes and no. Even though I have fairly straight line books myself, I rarely have a single story or issue going on at a time. Admittedly, little stuff can fall by the wayside, but it's nice if some of the side threads can be tidied along the way as well.

  • Nilofer

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