The End of Everything

First off, a bookseller who’s a friend just sent me this link, which I believe most of you are too old for, but you may know kids who qualify and would do a bang-up job on:
https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/tundra-true-story-contest?ref=PRH997D100A32&utm_source=Tundra_Books&utm_medium=Advertising&utm_content=Email&utm_term=&utm_campaign=Based_on_a_True_Story_Contest_Tundra_Books_-_PW

On May 23, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I’m almost done with the first draft of my story!! This is really exciting, but it’s going kinda slow because I don’t know how to end it. Eventually, I’ll run out of plot points and not know what to do so I’ll abruptly stop and leave it for days trying to come up with how to resolve it in a smooth transition.
Does anyone have any tips on how to transition out?

Three of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: Congratulations!

Transition, or ending? Transition implies that you’re going on to something else.

Some of the most effective endings tie back to the beginning somehow. Ex, Lord of the Rings takes us back to the Shire. Camelot ends with King Arthur giving hope to a young boy as idealistic as he once was, even though up to that point, his own hope had been fading, and restoring some of his own hope in the process.

Christie V Powell: Have you looked at plot structure? Studying the “beats” that make up a story might help you. I like K. M. Weiland’s (her blog is called Helping Writers Become Authors), or you can see if your library has the book Save the Cat or the book by Lisa Cron (Story Genius? Is that the title?). All three have a similar system for breaking a story down into parts, including the ending.

Writing Ballerina: Okay, so my brain was dead when I asked this question and I worded it terribly so here we go again.

How do you end something satisfactorily? I want the reader to turn the last page, thump the book closed, sigh, and say, “That was a good book. I loved the ending.”

I want to do this right, so I’m not going to rush the ending like I’ve done so many times, but it’s not as easy as it seems. I’ve basically run out of plot points now, but it seems too abrupt to end here. Plus, one of the characters is really not pleased with a new outcome, even though it solved one of his biggest problems, so I need to fix that somehow so everyone’s happy when I end it.

What I meant by “transition” is a smooth ending with pacing that makes sense. Not just like “oh look no more plot points the end bye all thanks for reading.” I don’t want it to be like I slammed a wall in front of the characters with THE END spray-painted on it.

Katie W.: I can’t help, but I have EXACTLY the same problem. The only advice I can give is: give it AN ending, then let it sit until you find the right one. And, lest you think I’m oversimplifying here, it took me about nine months to find the right final line for one of my stories. (And that was after I spent three months cutting it from seventeen pages to ten.) Sometimes I find the right ending immediately, other times, like I said, it takes a while.

One of the first things I was told when I started my long apprenticeship to become a kids’ book writer was: Get out quick once my story’s main problem is resolved, because the reader will become bored as soon as there’s nothing left to worry about. I keep that advice in mind even when I write epilogues, as I often do. Readers sometimes ask me about the future of this character or that, and generally I don’t know the answer. After I type The End, they’re on their own.

So I’m not opposed to an abrupt ending, as long as the main conflict feels complete–

–which suggests what may (or may not) be Writing Ballerina’s difficulty. Possibly the conflicts in her story–or in ours–are too even, and the reader doesn’t know which one to care most about.

If so, when we revise, we can focus on that. We can make some of the other conflicts contingent on the main one–when it’s resolved, the others will become more manageable. Or we can resolve the lesser issues earlier in our story. We can increase the other characters’ emotional investment in our MC. We can expand and intensify our MC’s thoughts, feelings, and voice in our narrative, to make our readers care about her far more than about the others. When she’s settled, they’ll be satisfied. Then, if we’re me, we can write an epilogue to mop up the loose ends. An example of this approach is my beloved Pride and Prejudice. In the last chapter, Austen delivers the fate of all the minor characters, which is nice, but I don’t really care. I’m ecstatic that Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are together at last. Sorry, Jane and Bingley, it doesn’t matter to me if you have an ugly divorce in a year. Sorry, Jane Austen!

But this may not be the problem. If not, one approach is Melissa Mead’s suggestion of a circular story shape in which the location of the beginning and the end are the same. I find this shape cozy and comforting, if the ending is happy. If the ending is tragic, a circular story can punch up the bleakness, another desirable result. A long time ago in the life of the blog, I wrote a post on circular stories. If you’re interested, you can look it up.

Along the same lines, if we focus on what our MC wants, we’ll achieve a satisfying ending when she gets it for a happy ending, or when she irrevocably fails to get it, for a sad one. Our MC and our readers don’t even have to know what the MC wants; only we have to know, and the reader will be satisfied. In my first historical novel, Dave at Night, Dave doesn’t know that he wants safety and a home most, and I don’t think the reader does, either. He believes he wants something returned to him, but that’s just a side issue. When I make him safe and contented in his sub-optimal-but-adequate home, he and the reader are happy.

I’m a pantser, so I don’t use a beat system, but I have nothing against it. I’d recommend following Christie V Powell’s suggestions to see if they work for you.

I’m thinking of books (that I remember well enough to discuss) with successful endings, and sometimes two themes need to be tied together to make the ending work. I’d say that both Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery and Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier fall into this category. Anne of Green Gables ends satisfyingly when both her relationship with Gilbert is straightened out and her near-term future is decided. Rebecca ends in its bittersweet way when the mystery is resolved and the MC finally understands herself and her relationship with her husband.

I love the shape of a quest. If I can frame my story as a quest, whether my MC or my reader sees it that way, I have an easier time with the ending when I get there. Obviously, Ella is on a quest to overcome her curse, and Addie of The Two Princesses of Bamarre is on a quest to cure her sister of the Gray Death, but less obviously, Aza in Fairest is questing to feel comfortable about herself, or Wilma in The Wish is questing for acceptance just as she is. If we can see our story as a quest, the ending is likely to fall into place.

Greek myths often conclude only at the end of the MC’s life or her ascent into immortality, and that strategy, too, provides a sense of completion, although often not a happy one. A modern example of this that works beautifully is– *spoiler alert*–the TV series Six Feet Under (high school and up).

Fairy tales generally end with the vanquishing of the villain even more than with the success of the romance. Think of “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” In “Snow White” the prince kisses her before the evil queen gets her just desserts, and the classic Grimm tale ends with the queen dancing to death. We can adapt this destroy-the-villain approach for our purposes if everything else is resolved before then, but no one will be safe until the villain croaks or is permanently put away.

Mysteries, by contrast, often continue beyond the solution of the puzzle, with a beat about the detective and the state of her life going forward. In a series that state may not be happy, which leaves the reader both satisfied and wanting more.

The big takeaway is to be absolutely solid about what our story’s problem is, because in it is our satisfying ending.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m not sure how satisfying the ending of “Little Red Riding Hood” is, in the version in which Red and Grandma are saved by the hunter. What lesson has Red learned? Is it the right lesson? That she needs to be cautious, and if she isn’t, she has to wait to be rescued? Write the scenes that follow the rescue and give a fuller and better resolution to the three of them.

∙ In Pride and Prejudice, headstrong and flighty Lydia marries unprincipled Wickham. Write a sequel about their daughter, whose immediate family is penniless and whose more distant relatives have the money to help, but their help comes with conditions. You may have to read or reread P&P to do this, but what’s wrong with that? Extra credit if you recreate Austen’s voice and world.

∙ In Greek mythology, Helen is as passive as any fairy tale heroine. She’s married, and Paris carries her off. Eventually, he dies, and Helen is given to someone else. Troy falls, and her husband takes her back. Really! If you don’t know the story, you can read summaries online, starting with the Judgment of Paris, continuing with the Iliad, and ending with the fall of Troy. Write Helen’s story, and give her agency, which will probably mean changing the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Writing Ballerina says:

    Thank you! I’m still having trouble with this, though I’ve taken a break from the story over the summer. Armed with this, I’ll revisit it.

  2. Writing Ballerina says:

    Question for you guys:

    What do you think about character names?
    Does it bother you, as readers, when a modern name is used in an earlier setting?
    What about when, for example, a North American name is used in a story set in ancient Greece?
    Or do names not matter if it’s a fantasy story?

    I’m worried about this because in my fantasy WIP my MC has a Hawaiian name when her country is based on medieval England. That said, I already had to change the name of a character in the story because the name wasn’t helping me visualize him as I wanted. He was a supporting character, so I didn’t really have a problem, especially because I didn’t really like the name when I picked it in the first place.

    Any opinions are much appreciated.

    • It would seem strange to me, unless the author gave a reason for it or the story was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

      (Although as far as the “North American name is used in a story set in ancient Greece” question goes, “Melissa” is of Greek origin, and I’m not, so…)

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Just in case it wasn’t clear, I was talking about changing the name not in the course of the story but in the drafting process. As far as the reader of the final draft is concerned, she’ll always have the same name.
      I’m just concerned that someone will find the story less believable because the MC has a modern Hawaiian name when the setting is based on medieval England.

    • For me, it depends on how obvious the name’s and setting’s origins are. For example, I had no idea “Melissa” was Greek. It’s fairly common in the Western world, so I think of it as being a fairly typical English/American name. Does that make sense? Also, if you’re absolutely smitten with the name, but it doesn’t work with the story, you can always say some ancestor suitably far back came from a foreign land, and the name got passed down through the generations. As to modern names in earlier setting, it really depends. It would be weird to, say, put a Madison in medieval England, but if it’s a more common name, I probably wouldn’t mind. I’m not the kind of person who keeps track of how old different names are.

    • In fantasy stories I don’t think it matters as much but I like when all the names go together. For example in A Torch Against the Night all of the ruling class has Roman inspired names which makes sense because the all share a common culture. Because they conquered this land the various peoples in the lower class have names that are unique to them.

      As far has historical settings go I would say it matters more and you shouldn’t use a name that is obviously from a different culture from everyone in your settings but most people don’t know the exact origins of names so you don’t have to worry to much.

      Also I’d say you can get away with a little more in say, a big city with lots of merchants than you could in a small isolated town with a population of 200 people. Think about if there’s a reason the character’s parents would have come up with such an unusual name for their settings. If there isn’t one you may need to find a new name.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        If I see anachronistic names in a story–if they’re all outside the period–I think the author is going for a meta vibe, which can be cool. It’s as if the story is commenting on itself and acknowledging that it is a story. I would be less certain if it was just one name. I might suspect that there’s some time travel or something magical about time going on.

  3. I have a problem: my optimism is rubbing off into my books. I’ve been really bored while writing one of my recent stories and I realized that it’s because the main character is too happy. It’s hard for me to write about someone suffering, but I need to to get the story moving. If the author is bored, the reader definitely will be as well, right?
    Any thoughts?

    • What emotions should the MC feel instead? Are they not thinking about the problems enough? Not taking them seriously enough? Does the situation need to become worse?

        • Could you have something irreversible happen to her? Maybe her baby brother rips up her favorite book that was signed by the author or something like that. Not too much of an impact on the plot, but an emotional impact.

  4. Writing Cat Lover says:

    Maybe you could have a really bad thing happen, like, say her grandmother dies, or something like that? The optimism might go down a notch, and she wouldn’t, like be so optimist all the time, and there could be like this cloud of grief over her making it harder to figure out problems or something? Or, like in this post, you could try to see the story as a quest and draw it out that way? Hope this helps.
    Anyway, I have my own problem. I’m having trouble creating and staying on a plot line for my WIP. I am a pantser, but lately I’ve been having some problems with climaxes, staying on track, creating a plot line, and stuff like that. Anybody have a solution? I could use any help.

  5. Writing Ballerina says:

    It’s October (finally), and I’ve started planning my NaNoWriMo for this year. It’s a fantasy story, and I’m currently worldbuilding. Does anyone have any worldbuilding checklists or things they must see in a fantasy world?

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      Unique and interesting cultures are a must for me. I love to see how cultures develop in the real world. I also love to see different ideas about cultures and people and problems be explored, without getting into politics today. (Too much, anyway)
      Also, new fantasy creatures, or at least some uncommon ones. Don’t get me wrong, I love dragons. But variety can be a really good thing in fantasy.
      (Though love dragons. I really do. I promise. I’m just saying they’re not the only option. Sorry, I’m rambling.)

    • I tend to come up with world building as I go along, but I like to see some element of world building that’s different from the modern world, whether that be magic, dragons (love dragons) or even just interesting geography quirks (like how the U.S. is an archipelago in The Rithmatist) One rule of fantasy that I really hate seeing broken is that fantasy has no guns. Cannons, sometimes, but not guns.

  6. I don’t know about “must see”, but I really like it when fantasy worlds have elaborate dresses, archery, swordsmanship, and dragons. Huge libraries and giant forests are also good things to include, in my opinion.

    • future_famous_author says:

      That sounds like my dream world!!! Beautiful clothing, dragons, and giant libraries!!! So many books!!! Definitely forests, and everything fantastical creature you can think of. A monarchy, too. Maybe create your own characters, and use very unique names.

  7. I have a question that kind of ties in with fantasy…I’m trying to create a magic system for my book, with wizards and magical creatures. My problem is, I want my wizards to feel unique, but at the same time, I’m afraid I might rip off someone else’s magic system. Here’s what I have so far:
    My characters are in a time of history where dragons have all been destroyed, other magical creatures such as mermaids are getting harder to find, and certain magical artifacts are believed to be mere legends.
    Magical women are priestesses of time, while magical men become wizards. All wizards have to make a binding oath saying that they will never cast a spell that will harm the royal family (this law was implemented relatively recently in the kingdom’s history.) Wands and staffs are not used. There is also a book of spells used, the history of which might be its own story someday, but the rules of magic are still frustratingly vague.
    Any advice would be welcome! : )

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I don’t think I have enough for a post on this, but I’m thinking of the Librarian wizard in Terry Pratchett’s books, who stands out as unique. I believe it may be hard to come up with unique systems (there are so many!), but we can develop unique characters who will make the whole business feel original. I’d suggest working on one or two particular wizards who have whatever powers you’ve given wizards in this world. If readers are engaged with them, they (the readers) will expand their understanding to encompass all wizards–and our world will feel extraordinary.

      More ideas?

    • The July 17 post, Magic Central, is about magic systems. That might help. You can also try to find the post that question came from (April 24 was the date on the question itself, if I remember correctly) and read the comments there. Other than that, I would ask a few basic questions. What does the magic do? Is it an all-encompassing magic that can do anything to anything, or is it restricted somehow, like fire/water/ice/earth/air magic? What is a “priestess of time”? Do the girls have the power to control time? Clearly, this binding oath has to have some way of binding them, so can you make that bond the core of the magic? Just a few ideas. Hope they help.

      • Do you mean something like the ancient language in the Inheritance Cycle? (MS/HS and up. Kind of violent, some drinking, but nothing too bad)

        • Yeah, that’s what I was thinking of. But I was trying to explain it in a way that would make sense to people who hadn’t read the books.

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