As It Turns Out

A little good news–for me, anyway–to start the post. HarperCollins’s marketing folks have approved Ogre Enchanted as the title for the Ella prequel. This is lucky, because I’ve never felt as strongly about a title. So, hooray and woo hoo! And thanks to all of you on the blog who’ve helped me with titles in the past.

On June 4, 2017, Samantha wrote, My work in progress is about ice hockey. In a nutshell, my MC’s parents died a year before the story takes place and he has to struggle with life, adolescence, friends, and… well, his life. Anyway, in the end his team ends up wining the series in the finals. I’m wondering if it is too dramatic to make my MC score the winning goal.

Christie V Powell responded. I don’t think it would be too dramatic, but it is a touch predictable. I love how Pixar’s ‘Cars’ played with the archetype–you expect McQueen to win the race, when instead he wins in a different way. There is a whole subgenre of sports stories, but I’m afraid I’m not very well read in that genre. You might want to try to check some out and see how they end. The last couple I’ve read (about dog agility and 4H) both ended with the main characters being disqualified but reaching some personal goal or important character growth. Maybe that’s become cliche now and delivering the winning goal is new again.

I agree with Christie V Powell that it doesn’t sound too dramatic. If there’s going to be drama in a story, the ending is the right spot for it.
It’s been decades since I watched the movie Rocky (the original–I haven’t seen any of the sequels), but my recollection is that, in the end and against all odds, Rocky Balboa wins, and the audience is delighted. I think the reason the ending works is that so much is stacked against him. Since victory seems impossible, when it comes, we’re surprised. In my opinion, there’s a trick here that our minds play on us. We go to the movie pretty sure it’s going to come out okay. We may even choose it for that reason, but when the action starts, we drop the belief and abandon ourselves to the unfolding story.

So a complete happy ending can works if the route to it is full of surprises. In some cases, we’re disappointed if the happy ending is at all tarnished. Some of you may have seen the musical Into the Woods. I confess to loving the happy first act and hating the unhappy second act when everything falls apart.

In a way, most plots are like sporting events. Something important is at stake, and, in the end, the MC either succeeds, utterly or to some degree, or fails, utterly or to some degree.

Take Hamlet, for example. ***SPOILER ALERT*** It’s a tragedy. However, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius’s successful conspiracy to kill Hamlet’s father is exposed. They die, and the ghost is avenged. In a grisly way, those are positive outcomes. Hamlet’s death isn’t.

Or take my beloved Pride and Prejudice. ***SPOILER ALERT*** again. The main romance ends happily, but Lydia has to suffer the consequences of her disastrous flirtation. Even Elizabeth and Darcy in their married bliss have to put up with that bounder Wickham forever.

We may–because anything is possible in writing–be able to write a satisfying, unpredictable, believable ending in which everything goes right and there is no shadow. Try it as an early prompt. Your MC is a member of a team (you decide the sport, which can be a real or a fantasy sport) that has lost for ten straight seasons. His grandmother is very ill. His dog has bitten someone and may have to be put down. He is failing biology in school. His best friend isn’t talking to him. Write the story, or the final scene, and make every single thing come out well.

After those spoiler alerts, I want to mention this interesting report I heard on the radio that is at least tangentially related to predictability. Research was done that shows that people enjoy a story more if they’re told in advance how it ends. Turns out, those of us who peek ahead and turn pages in books are really heightening our pleasure.

I don’t know if the study can be replicated, so it may not be true, but the way I understand it is that a spoiler doesn’t spoil the details, the character development, the flow of the story, and readers still have the delight of discovery–untainted by the anxiety of not knowing how it will all wind up. I get this. Sometimes I’m tense enough about what will happen that I don’t take in a lot of the story in my desperation to reach the outcome. That’s why a second read is often rewarding, because I slow down and really pay attention.

We certainly don’t want our endings to feel improbable. No matter how much  luck contributes to success or failure in real life, in fiction, it can’t. Luck can come in earlier, but not at the end. If Samantha’s MC scores the final goal because, as luck would have it, the opposite team’s best athlete is injured late in the game, the reader is going to bellow, “Foul!”

So we’re going for believability. Our MC’s character has to justify the end. If Samantha’s MC, again, is so lost in depression that he doesn’t drag himself to practice very often, the reader isn’t going to buy his win.

He can be depressed! He can finish practice every day and wonder if it’s worth his effort. But he has to practice. He can even throw a game, or his part in it, earlier in the story, so that the reader can fear that he will throw this final one, too. She can believe that throwing the game and really going after it are equally possible. She’ll be stiff with suspense.

If we’re not sure about an ending, we can bring in my favorite weapon: the mighty list. As I said in an earlier post, lists are predictability poison. We can list possible endings, including scoring the final point. We can decide to list at least twelve options. And we have to remember that no possibility is too stupid to go on our list. Our brains can be exploding from effort by the time we reach number seven, but we must soldier on, because, after we exhaust the obvious, the surprises pop up. The ending that appeals to us most may arrive as number eleven, and we’d never have gotten to it if we hadn’t slogged forward.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Shannon, your MC, has the job of guarding the crown prince against both the enemies of the state and his own bad proclivities. Problem is, Shannon, a staunch patriot, doesn’t think much of the prince and is convinced he’ll make a disastrous king. Matters come to a head at a reception for the queen of the neighboring kingdom, with which relations have lately been tense. The prince often behaves badly during ceremonial occasions, and there’s intelligence of a plot against him. Write the story or the final scene.

∙ Pick one of these: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and rewrite it as a tragedy. Moreover, make the sad ending come from something in the character of the heroine or hero. I don’t mean they have to be evil in the slightest–their own goodness can do them in. Or some other character trait that’s neither good nor evil. (This can, by the way, be comic-tragedy, if you prefer.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

End of the Road

On February 18, 2017, Angie wrote, I recently completed my second manuscript, and am deep into the revision stage. Something I’ve struggled with in both of my novels is writing a final, satisfactory ending. Once my characters’ stories are resolved and every plot point is checked off, I have serious trouble working up an appropriate send-off. I’m just done. I’ve received feedback that the ending in my current manuscript feels abrupt, and am struggling to rectify that problem in subsequent drafts. I’d love some help working through this end-of-the-road roadblock!

First off, congratulations on finishing not one but two manuscripts!

When I was taking writing classes and in the learning stages of becoming a kids’ book writer, the advice I heard most often from teachers about endings was, When you’re done, get out. So it’s possible that the criticism Angie received was just one person’s opinion and the ending is fine.

But let’s assume, for the sake of having a post, that the critiquer is right. What to do?

If every plot point has been checked off, have they all become equal? If yes, that evenness may give our ending a flat feeling. To break it up, we can think about which conflict is at the heart of our story. Fundamentally, what’s our story about? That conflict, the one the story turns on, should stand out in our ending, and we can look for ways to amplify it, perhaps make it come last.

Along the same lines, have we made our plot points’ success–or failure–hard won enough? If the solutions are too easy, the ending again, can feel flat or abrupt. In revision, we can go in and beef up our MC’s struggle. We can give our villains or our opposing forces more power, a few more weapons in their arsenal.

An ending doesn’t have to be unpredictable. As I’ve said here many times, when we’re working from a popular story, a fairy tale or a myth, the end is known. And even if we’re not, most stories follow arcs that readers are used to. The interest lies in how we get to the end of the rainbow. We can surprise the reader and make the ending more satisfying by throwing in lots of monkey wrenches–twists that aren’t predictable–along the way.
We can think about what feeling we want the reader to be left with. In a tragedy, for example, we want hankies to come out. Have we made our readers care enough about our MC to weep for her? Have we shown why her losses are devastating? (If I know someone has to die in a story, I usually make that character–like Ella’s mother, like Dave’s father in Dave at Night–super lovable.)

In an adventure story, we probably want a feeling of satisfaction. Our heroine has accomplished what she set out to do, with great difficulty, probably at some cost, and she’s grown along the way. We have to make sure those things have happened.

In a happy love story, we want rejoicing. Our MCs have been foolish; they’ve made mistakes; they’ve misunderstood themselves and each other. But finally, the blinders have come off their eyes. They’re together at last. We have to deliver on all the mishaps along the way to make the ending feel earned.

What else makes a satisfying ending?

My mind travels to the TV mystery series Bones (high school, possibly middle school, though I’m not sure). The series, which wrapped up recently, was episodic, meaning that, mostly, each mystery got solved in the episode in which it was introduced. In later seasons, when the mystery was solved and the murderer dealt with, the final scene almost always took place in the home of Temperance Brennan (Bones) and her husband, Seeley Booth. Chit-chat happens; often a minor spat between Brennan and Booth is charmingly resolved. The audience feels settled.

We can do something similar. After the blood has been mopped up and the main conflict resolved, we can end with a smaller scene that gives the reader time to collect himself. If we like we can use an epilogue, as I’ve done more than once, to hint at the uneventful futures of our characters.
I’d call that an order-is-restored ending. Shakespeare used this kind of ending in his tragedies, as I was taught in high school. The problem of a play, like Hamlet, is so grave that the balance of the universe is disturbed. Storms result. A ghost walks the earth. Madness afflicts Ophelia. But at the end, following the death of Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, the stage littered with bodies, good governance can resume, and all will be well.

There’s also the circular story, which I devoted a post to years ago. The circular story ends where it began, and that return provides the sense of completeness. Lord of the Ring and The Wizard of Oz are examples of stories that begin and end in the same location.

Not every book ends neatly. Take Gone With the Wind–or my understanding of it. Rhett Butler says his famous line and decamps. He understands himself better than he had before, and we readers understand Scarlet, but she doesn’t understand herself, which we realize is her fate. We know that her future life will be full of events and turmoil, whatever they may be. (I haven’t read the sequel, so I don’t know what the modern writer has dished out for her.) Still, despite the lingering possibilities, Margaret Mitchell’s ending works, I think because of the way the characters become resolved.
And there’s “The Lady and the Tiger,” which I’ve talked about before here and which is a short story rather than a novel. Look it up if you don’t know it, because it ends with a question mark, and the reader has to decide what happens. I’m not sure if this would be satisfying in a novel, but it’s great in this particular short story. The story raises a big question and then asks the reader for an answer, and the answer is more revelatory of the reader’s character than of anyone in the story itself.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rewrite the unsatisfying ending of a book that frustrated you. Make it work!

∙ This is an old and silly joke that I may have told before here: A congregation’s rabbi is dying. His most important congregants gather around his deathbed to hear his final words of wisdom, which are “The world is a barrel.” His listeners are shocked. What are they to make of this? They beg him to explain. He lifts his veined eyelids. His watery eyes go from face to face. His chest heaves. His wheezes sound painful. Finally, he gasps out, “So it isn’t a barrel”–and dies.

Make the barrel world be true for at least the youngest person around the bed. Write an adventure in this barrel world and bring it to a satisfying ending, which can be the same or different from the ending in the joke.

∙ Pick a moment in history–an assassination, the fall of Rome, an election, the purchase of Manhattan from its original inhabitants, whatever. Go into it in detail, peopling it with real or imagined characters. Ignore the historical outcome and follow the characters to an ending that flows from their conflicting wishes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Curtains

First a little lovely news: Writer to Writer, From Think to Ink (based on this blog, for any of you who don’t know) has been chosen by the discerning people at the Junior Library Guild as one of their selections when it comes out, and both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus will soon be giving the book lovely reviews. Publisher’s Weekly calls the book “valuable,” and Kirkus says it’s “comprehensive.”

Onto this week’s post. On July 23, 2014, Penelope wrote, I’ve been having a really hard time with my endings. I’m doing a redo of a fairy tale and I’m split on the ending. What I originally had was perfect, I thought. So unbelievably perfect. The element of surprise, the setting, the MC’s heroism, everything. It was a Happily Ever After, for sure. But now I’m realizing that it just won’t do. It makes everything too easy. I’m thinking of changing it only because it ends too quickly and makes everything too simple. 


So here’s my dilemma: Should I mold the story to my satisfying but easy ending? Or should I go with the less appealing alternative which is probably better, but a little anti-climactic?

In reply, Bibliophile suggested, Write both and see which your friends/critique group like better.

I like both parts of Bibliophile’s suggestion. Let’s start with the critique group idea. Some of us are great critics of our own work, but some (me) not so much. We may be too hard on ourselves. Nothing we write is good enough. And some are blind to the flaws in our masterpieces. My guess is that most who read this blog fall into the severe category, because people who think everything they pen is pure gold probably don’t read writing blogs.

So it may be helpful to get another perspective from someone or several someones who can be counted on to be constructive. (We don’t need harsh critics to provide another voice in our heads telling us that what we’ve done is a mess.) If you’re in a critique group, that’s great, and it’s not too much to ask members to read two versions of an ending. After all, you’d do the same for them. You’d be happy to. It’s an interesting dilemma.

If you aren’t in a critique group, you can still get help. A good critic is, first of all, a good reader. You can ask friends who read almost as voraciously as you do, whose taste is similar to yours. You can ask family members who aren’t hyper-critical. You can reach out to a teacher or, especially if you’re home-schooled, a librarian. You can say that you want an opinion about the alternate endings only. If they offer more, you can say no; just that one thing. (If your readers are helpful and you think they may have other things to say that you can use, you can ask for more afterward, but don’t open the floodgates right away.)

If possible, it’s nice to get more than one opinion. If the two agree, that’s pretty solid. If they don’t, you still have fresh perspectives to consider.

But–and this is important–you don’t have to listen to the advice. Just because your critiquers did you a (little) favor, you have no obligation to do what they say. It’s still your story.

On to Bibliophile’s second point, I’m all for trying things more than one way. Writing the ending both ways may make all clear to Penelope, and to all of us when we’re not sure which way to go. And writing both ways may lead us to a third way, which turns out to be the best of all. Or, trying both ways can lead us to a middle ground that satisfies.

In this kind of dilemma, I like to back up and dream up even more than two possibilities. I list all the endings I can think of. Sometimes I run through fairy tale endings and endings of books I love, looking for a key to my story.

I may revisit the problem at the core of my story to help find the ending that fits best. Let’s do this with a couple of examples.

First, we’ll take “Rapunzel,” a fairy tale with, in my opinion, an imperfect ending. Aside from the mystery of why the witch wants a child in the first place, I’m on board with the story almost until the end. The prince is thrown from the tower and Rapunzel is sent far away; that’s fine, just what this witch would do. But then the witch seems to forget about both of them. Rapunzel is reunited with her prince and cures his blindness, and they live happily ever after. Their troubles are over. But the problem at the heart of the story is the witch! The ending should include her, and she doesn’t want Rapunzel or the prince to be happy. She wouldn’t stand by and let them be. According to Wikipedia, there’s a version in which she’s trapped forever in the tower where Rapunzel was imprisoned. Better. But there are other options as well. She could grow and become a better being, or she could be distracted by another baby for her to adopt and behave weirdly to. Or something else. The best ending, I think, would involve Rapunzel and the prince settling matters with the witch: destroying or reforming or distracting her.

Now let’s look at Anne of Green Gables, which, to me, has a perfect ending. *Spoiler Alert!* If you haven’t read Anne of Green Gables and intend to (I recommend you do!), skip this paragraph because I’m going to give the ending away. As I see it, the central problem is that Anne needs a home where she feels at home, an outer home and an inner home. At the beginning she doesn’t feel loved or understood, and she isn’t at ease with herself. By the end she gives up something up that’s important to her, and she does so because she’s achieved self-knowledge and a deep sense of belonging. It feels inevitable. Any other response to Matthew’s death would be wrong.

When Penelope says that her first ending is surprising, I’d call that a plus. We want inevitability and surprise at the same time. Of course, not all surprises are good. Dropping a bomb on our characters may be tempting, but it’s never good. Likewise, bringing in a fairy to solve everybody’s problems.

Inevitability arrives when we solve the main problem. Surprise comes in through the way it’s solved. In a romance, for example, we know that the lovers will be united if the story is happy or separated if it’s tragic. But we don’t know how the two will come together or how they’ll be torn apart. To take another fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast,” as an example, what seems inevitable as we first encounter the story is that Beauty will finally agree to marry Beast. The surprise is the transformation that follows. So satisfying!

Here are three prompts:

• Write a new surprising ending for “Beauty and the Beast.” Yes, there’s a transformation, but it isn’t the one we’re used to.

• Write a Rapunzel story and weave the witch into the ending.

• The ending of “Rumplestiltskin” is problematic. We’re left with a loveless marriage and a dead imp. I know there are versions that fix this. Write your own. In this case, consider what the problem at the heart of the story is. I don’t think that’s so clear. Could be the imp who desperately wants a child for reasons fair or foul, or an impoverished king, or a neglected girl, whose feelings nobody cares about.

• One of the twelve dancing princes is in love with one of the princesses, a love that’s outside the enchantment he’s under. Write the story of their romance. Think of five possible endings and write at least two of them.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Never Ever Ever Ending Story

To the NaNoWriMo writers: How did it go?

At the end of October, McKennah wrote this on my website: How do you know when to stop writing stuff for a certain story? I mean you could keep writing a story forever, but how do you know when enough is enough?

E.S. Ivy commented, Hmm… I get what she means because when I read a book, I always think about the story that goes on after it ends. 🙂


Maybe: Think in terms of an obstacle, task, or main milestone for the main character to achieve. Then your story is about how they go about getting there and the failed attempts. The story ends when the goal is obtained. I find that looking at early MG or chapter books are a great place to start picking out how to plan a story arc.

I piped in with: Just a definition for anyone who’s uncertain: MG is middle grade, which would include books and stories for kids roughly in the eight-to-twelve-year-old range.

And Nikitah Luse added, Think of your over-arching story: Maybe you have such a long idea that it “may never end”, but find places where you could cut a logical ending while still leaving it open for future stories. Example: Your story idea might be about a group of questers whose destiny it is to save a kingdom. Unfortunately, that can go on forever and ever with all of the side quests and problems. So you find that in your head the story has three main moments: the questers meeting, learning to work together, and fighting the bad guy at the end. That’s three stories right there! Conclude the first after they have all managed to find one another and figure out what the problem to be overcome is, the second after they have bungled through many problems and are finally a team (maybe even one of their own is threatened–great cliffhanger!), and the third when the bad guy is defeated, the heroes are figuring out what to do to clean up the mess and what is next for them. And then you can keep going with another foe in your next story, but by this time your readers will know the characters and how they work together, so the hard part is done.

And Kenzi Anne contributed this: I used to have the same problem, and I felt like my stories were becoming never-ending rants. I decided to choose my endings by finding a point in the story when I could wrap up all my loose ends, especially the main problem that my story revolved around. That way I could find my ending. If I wanted to write a second book, then I could also use this method to separate the first story from the second but leave enough strings “untied” to still have an ongoing plot.

I think all these ideas are right. I’d like to highlight E. S. Ivy’s suggestion about looking at other books to help figure out how writers keep from nattering on forever.

Let’s do that together, using Peter Pan by James M. Barrie as an example. If you’ve never read it, Aaa! I don’t know what to suggest for reading this post, because it’s going to be full of spoilers. Maybe you should read it and come back. In my opinion, there’s a treat in store for you. It’s one of my favorite books.

Usually, a book introduces a problem somewhere near the beginning and solves it somewhere near the end. In Peter Pan, there are a few problems. One starts in the backstory when Peter runs away from home and becomes the enchanted character we know and love. His problem, which we pick up from hints that Barrie drops, is the conflict between his wish to stay a child and his desire for a family. Next, Wendy, Michael, and John lose their parents and their Nana (their dog) by flying away from home. And the Darlings and Nana lose their children. We’ve got three problems that are central to the plot. Important also is Captain Hook’s ambition to defeat Peter. That’s Hook’s problem; Peter doesn’t think about Hook all that much.

Peter’s problem is temporarily solved when Wendy and her brothers take up residence with him and the lost boys. He has a family and he doesn’t have to grow up. The Darlings and Nana are miserable. The story returns to them now and then but they don’t do much more than wring their hands or whimper.

The middle of the book, which isn’t very long, not long enough for me, brings the children to Neverland, introduces the island and its inhabitants, establishes a way of life there (which suggests time passing), and puts the boys and Wendy through an adventure on the lagoon. A single adventure! Unless I’m forgetting something. Maddeningly, Barrie dangles an array of adventures but chooses only one.

Then the beginning of the end begins. In the course of evening story time, Wendy’s brothers, John and Michael, reveal that they’re forgetting their original home. Wendy is alarmed, and a decision is reached to return. Then Hook attacks, which launches the book’s crisis .

With Hook’s demise and the return of the children all the problems are solved, not happily for Hook. Peter remains young but alone, so the ending is mixed for him, and possibly also for the other children, who, in my interpretation, have a little lingering regret.

What an economical story it is! Barrie could have invented other adventures and threatened Peter and his merry band in myriad ways. The Darlings could have taken action, too, set out from the mainland or hired detectives or whatever else. Nana could have started swimming. Maybe Barrie did write more and cut those extra parts when he revised. The point is, he made a decision. He said, Enough!

And because he left us wanting more, stories have spun off his for a hundred years.

It’s up to the writer. Our story may not announce that it’s finished. We get to make that determination.

Let’s look at my The Two Princesses of Bamarre for a minute. It’s longer but simpler. There are two essential problems: the Gray Death and Addie’s timidity. When she sets out on her quest for the cure the middle of the book begins. There are three kinds of monsters in this world, and I wanted her to contend with each of them and with her fear. But I could have gone on longer. I could have made the disease develop more slowly so that other adventures could happen. I didn’t think it out that clearly, but I guess I felt that more would have been overload.

As we continue to write, we get better at sensing when we’ve reached a satisfying point in our story. For now, try the rule of three, which we often find in fairy tales. Cinderella goes to three balls and loses her slipper after the last one. The evil queen in “Snow White” makes two attempts on Snow White’s life before she finally seems to succeed on the third. The miller’s daughter gets three chances to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name.

Success on the first or second try can seem too easy. On the fourth or twelfth, readers may be yawning or thinking our MC is useless. But we do want to vary the number in our stories sometimes. If we always follow the rule of three, we can become predictable.

Not all books introduce an overarching problem and then solve it. Some just cover a period of time with smaller problems along the way. I’m thinking of Little Women, for example. In the course of the book the girls face challenges and grow from little to big. Louisa May Alcott decided how many incidents to include at each stage in the lives of her MC’s. When they’re big, the story ends.

Here are three prompts:

• Your characters are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by unfriendly dwarfs and fierce pirates. There’s a traitor among the survivors. Staying alive is the problem. Endanger them three times before they establish themselves safely or escape.

• Your MC is at summer camp or boy or girl scout camp. The story ends when camp does. Create a series of problems as the camp experience progresses. Develop supporting characters, who can be other campers, counselors, the camp director, parents. Decide how many incidents you need to make the story feel complete.

• Cinderella and her stepsisters are just backstory. Your MC is the prince. At midnight, in the middle of the third ball, Cinderella runs out. Your MC chases her, trips on the stairs, tumbles down, hits his head, loses consciousness, and wakes up, holding one glass slipper, his memory gone. The only clue he has to his identity is the slipper. Take the story from there. He can wind up with Cinderella, or not.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Open-ended

For anyone in the area and able to come, on Saturday I’ll be at the Children’s Festival of Reading in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here’s a link to the event: http://knoxrooms.sirsi.net/rooms/html/KCPL/calendar.html#/?i=2. I’m speaking at 10:45 am and 12:45 pm and signing books after each presentation. If you come, please let me know you heard about it here.

On to the post topic, on November 27, 2011, Jenna Royal wrote, Does anyone have any thoughts on open or unresolved endings? I’ve been fascinated with endings lately that don’t end up where you think they do, or that don’t really end at all. How do you make one that’s still satisfying, even though it’s unexpected?

I’ve written one unresolved ending. It was in my short story “Little Time” that was published in an anthology called Unexpected, which is probably long out of print, but you may be able to find a copy somewhere. It’s one of my favorite of my few short stories. Here’s the gist: Erica, a middle schooler, recently moved to a new school where she has no friends. Her parents are super busy with their careers and not interested in her. In fact, in the first scene she overhears them saying she bores them.

On her spring break she walks on open land not far from her house and follows a sign that reads Hidden Village. In a barn she discovers an enormous town of doll houses complete with dolls and animals, dogs, a zoo. Turns out that the dolls and animals are alive, shrunken, and that the village is a benign utopian experiment. (Among other things, these tiny people and animals age very slowly.) Erica is invited to join by being shrunk too.

At the end I don’t reveal Erica’s decision, although it’s clear to me, but I didn’t want to tie the story up with a bow.

The key to a satisfying ending lies long before the end is reached. In “Little Time” the seeds are sewn in that first scene; Erica is unmoored to her life. Most of us would be sorely missed if we vanished; we’d be irresponsible and cruel to just go. Not Erica. But I didn’t stack the deck so the reader thinks, You have to join. I wish I could. It’s a real choice.

In a mystery series, the mystery itself is usually tied up with that bow by the end of the book, but the larger, ongoing story of the detective is left open. This is a neat way to end. The reader gets the satisfaction of a solution and the sizzle of no solution. We remain attached to the heroine and her troubles. She may be lonely, afraid of the dark, uncontrollably honest, whatever. She may not even have troubles, but the future course of her life isn’t established. Elodie at the end of A Tale of Two Castles is happy, but we know she’s going to have more adventures, and we don’t know whom she’s going to marry (if she’s going to marry), where she’s going to live, whether she’ll stay a dragon’s assistant. And we haven’t found out if the dragon Meenore is male or female or if the ogre Count Jonty Um can find a place among humans where he’s accepted and not feared.

In my opinion, this kind of series (not just mysteries) doesn’t ever have to be resolved for the main characters. I’m thinking of comic book characters, and I’m sure there are legions of other examples. We don’t want Superman or Spiderman to achieve permanent happiness. If they get a break from their troubles, we enjoy it with a little lump in our throats. It’s all the more beautiful because their moment of relief is fragile and certain to end.

A mystery series is kind of an ending cop-out, I guess. The author has the (somewhat) easier task of solving the mystery and never has to face the more difficult work of finding an ultimate ending. Nancy Drew sleuths on with new authors.

In the classics, there are no absolute final endings either. Writers keep going back and resuscitating established stories. I assume James M. Barrie thought he’d finished Peter Pan, but writers, including me, are forever spinning new takes on the original. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and many more get the same treatment. Even the Greek myths, which generally end in death, are revivified.

If you haven’t read the young adult novel The Giver by Lois Lowry, spoiler alert! Skip this paragraph. The book ends in uncertainty. We don’t know if Jonas makes it to safety, but I wouldn’t call the story unresolved. Jonas leaves the security of his home and acts morally. The problem that the book raises is answered whether or not Jonas survives.

This was a prompt from my post of January 26, 2011, which was also about endings: You may know the story, “The Lady and the Tiger.” If you don’t, it’s basically this: A princess, whose nature is jealous, falls in love with a man below her station. The king finds out and arranges a punishment for him. The man is thrown into an arena with two doors. Behind one is a beautiful maiden and behind the other a tiger. If he picks the maiden door, he lives, but he has to marry her. If he chooses the tiger door, he gets eaten. In the arena he looks to the princess, who knows what’s behind each door, for a signal. She has to decide whether to endure his marriage to someone else or condemn him to death. The story has no ending; the reader is asked to decide what the princess will do. So the prompt is to write the ending. If you didn’t do it then, you can now.

“The Lady and the Tiger” is certainly unresolved, and it does this curious and marvelous thing: it turns the problem around to point at the reader. Until we get to the final question mark it’s about the princess and her forbidden love. When it finishes without an answer, the problem, jealousy, becomes us. What do we think of human nature? How would I behave in this situation? How do I believe others would act?

The strangest non-ending I’ve ever read was Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (adult), which the author, Thomas Mann, never finished – he died the next year. If I remember correctly (which I may not – I read it many decades ago), it ended mid-sentence. I had loved the book up until then, and I knew this would happen, but it was still a teeth-gnashing experience.

The only real ending sin is failing to respond to the problem a story sets out. I don’t know how that failure could be made to work and satisfy; maybe if you’re writing humor it could be done. The conclusion of Ella Enchanted, for example, had to be about the curse. The end of all Jane Austen’s books had to be about a young lady unraveling her own character flaw that stood between her and a suitable match. The finale of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca had to be about innocence, although that problem is wonderfully disguised in the novel.

Here are a couple of prompts:

•    The Giver succeeds, I think, because, while the surface ending is uncertain, the deeper problem is resolved. You do the same thing. Simone is preparing for a competition, whatever kind you like, real world or fantasy. Write the story and end it without the reader finding out how she fares. However, decide on the real issue underlying her struggle and solve that. The real issue could be gaining self-confidence, winning someone’s approval, or something else.

•    I’m not a fan of Alice in Wonderland because I think the story lacks a problem. One fantastical thing happens after another without any reason. Rewrite the beginning, giving Alice a problem or something she desperately wants. Then write your own ending and anything in the middle that you need.

Have fun, and save what you write!

And a reminder: please share any writing success you’ve been having on the blog.

The End. Period.

On November 6, 2010, Marissa wrote, I have a question about endings… I decide if I like a book mostly based on how it ends and how it leaves me feeling, but I can never get that sense of closure in my stories.
  

Often when I approach the end of a book I’m writing, I want to have a bomb land on everybody. Problem solved.

But not satisfying.

A great story for satisfaction, in my opinion, is an anecdote in my friend Joan Abelove’s young adult novel, Go and Come Back (middle school and up). Joan was an anthropologist in the Peruvian jungle, and her book, which is told from the POV of a young tribal woman, is based on her experiences. Every incident in the book is essentially true.

In this one, Margarita, one of the two anthropologists is sick late one night. The narrator, Alicia, discovers this by hearing voices from their house. She asks what’s wrong and is told by Joanna, the healthy one, that Margarita has been vomiting for hours and nothing in their first aid kit has helped. Alicia asks Joanna if she has sent for Papaisi. Joanna snaps that she hasn’t, so Alicia gets him. He leads the sick woman out to the porch. By then everyone in the village has gathered to watch. Papaisi has his patient lie down. First he blows smoke from his pipe across her stomach. Then he seems to bite something off and immediately throws up over the side of the porch. As soon as he does, everyone in the village sighs with relief. Margarita sits up perfectly fine, cured.

Joanna gives Papaisi a pack of cigarettes to show her gratitude (this was the early 1970’s when smoking was much more prevalent). He accepts but then says that what he really would like is four aspirin.

End of incident. It’s just right. We have high stakes: the sick woman, the whole village as witnesses, the bizarre treatment from a Western perspective, the recovery. We start to wonder what else smoke blown across a belly will cure. Then, boom!, the request for a gift that’s almost a symbol of modern medicine.

That’s the ending with a twist. O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is a well-known twist story.

Another pleasing shape comes in the circular story. I wrote about this kind in my blog post of July 9th, 2009. A circular tale ends where it began. The Lord of the Rings, for example, starts in the calm, peaceful Shire and ends there, but Frodo will never be the same. Two of my books are circular: The Wish and Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. Of course, a circular ending may not be any easier to achieve than a more linear one. We still have to figure out how to return to that point of origin.

Often the key to the ending lies in the story problem. In The Lord of the Rings again, the issue is danger to Middle Earth. By returning to the Shire, Tolkien demonstrates that order has been restored.

In Ella Enchanted, which isn’t circular, the problem is the curse of obedience, and the ending has to resolve it. Either Ella will be cursed for the rest of her life or she’ll escape for the rest of her life. In my Dave at Night, as another example, the problem is finding a home. Dave lives at an orphanage, which doesn’t feel like one. By the end he has to be where he believes he should be – or know that he will be rootless at least until he grows up.

Figuring out your ending may take some thinking about the problem at the heart of your story. We can get too involved in the showing and the telling to ponder what it’s all about. I had that difficulty with Dave at Night and figured it out at a book signing for Ella Enchanted. Nobody came, and I sat there at a little desk in the book store and thought about Dave. By the time I gave up hoping for customers, I had my ending worked out.

Once you know the problem, reaching the solution may still be hard. In the case of Ella, I couldn’t work out how she could break the curse. At first I thought she could do it through rebellion against the tyranny of Hattie, but that wasn’t strong enough. You’d think it would have been clear right away that her love for Char was the crux of it, but I took a long time to get there.

Delaying the solution can keep a story going through a series of books. If Tolkien had gotten the ring to Mordor in The Fellowship of the Ring, that would have been it.

Sometimes I know my ending from the beginning, and I write toward it, but provisionally, knowing that my conception may change. Or, more often, I foresee the ending in a general way, but no specifics. In The Wish, for example, I knew that Wilma’s wish had to end, and the reader understands this too by the middle of the book, but I wasn’t sure what shape Wilma would be in after it ended. This isn’t bad, just having a general notion. Security and insecurity mixed together are good for writing, I think.

When I follow a traditional fairy tale, I have the fairy tale ending glimmering ahead of me. What I have to figure out is how to get there. Marissa, and others who have trouble with endings, you might try expanding a common story, which doesn’t have to be a fairy tale. Could be a myth, a religious story, a family anecdote that has a satisfying shape and a settled ending. Consider this a prompt.

In Go and Come Back, Joan uses the simplest of devices to end the book. The anthropologists are in the village for a year, and the entire story revolves around their time there. When the year ends so does the book. There is no bang, but no whimper either. Much has happened, and Alicia, the narrator, has changed. What makes the reader really happy, though, is that she’s left a deep impression on the visitors. They’ll never be the same.

Any time period will work for this technique – last year of high school, a summer, an internship, whatever. Naturally, you need to create action during the time you’ve allotted yourself, and characters have to evolve, but you don’t have to invent a climax of high drama for the reader to feel closure.

I’ve used an epilogue in several books to tie things up and make the whole feel complete. As a child I liked epilogues, because I wanted to know what became of this character and that. If I loved the book, an epilogue never told enough. I wanted to follow the characters into the sunset and watch their happy futures unfold –  which would have been boring.

But prompts aren’t boring. Here’s one. You may know the story, “The Lady and the Tiger.” If you don’t, it’s basically this: A princess, whose nature is jealous, falls in love with a man below her station. The king finds out and arranges a punishment for him. The man is thrown into an arena with two doors. Behind one is a beautiful maiden and behind the other a tiger. If he picks the maiden door, he lives, but he has to marry her. If he chooses the tiger door, he gets eaten. In the arena he looks to the princess, who knows what’s behind each door, for a signal. She has to decide whether to endure his marriage to someone else or condemn him to death. The story has no ending; the reader is asked to decide what the princess will do. So the prompt is to write the ending.

Have fun, and save what you write!