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!

  1. Now that NaNoWriMo is coming to an end, I'm starting to play with ideas for my next project. I want to combine Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty. But I don't know what to do with Beauty when she's not waking up and Rumple when he's not making deals. I've looked over some of your posts on fairy tales, read different versions of the stories, and wrote out a list of questions I want to answer. But I'm still having trouble pulling one original story out of two.
    Thoughts, anyone?

    • Ummm, Beauty could have gotten married to Rumple BEFORE she fell asleep. I mean, it wasn't all that uncommon to get married young then. And her parent's could be really forgetful so they forgot about the 'she's going to sleep for a hundred years' thing. And Rumple tricked her parents into letting them get married. But he really does love her and she really does love him, it was a 'royalty can't marry a peasant' kind of thing. So when she falls asleep he's gone hunting so he doesn't fall asleep like everyone else. And being a creature of magic, he lives for the next hundred years trying to get someone's child since Beauty can't have any of her own. Then when the queen guesses his name he disappears to the castle where he wakes Beauty up and they live happily ever after!!!!!!

      Do you think that that would work for you? If you need a way to get them married, them you could even pull in Puss 'n' Boots story. In fact, you could even make it a trilogy!!! Ya know, if you want to…. Anyway, I hope that this helps!!!!!!!

    • I don't know if I quite understand your question, but is Rumpelstiltskin a bad guy or a good guy? If he is good, he can be looking for Beauty. Or maybe he made a deal with the bad fairy to find her, (because maybe somehow or other, she lost her) and then he gets a lot of Gold. But I like the idea of her dreams.

    • If I were you, I'd pick out random characteristics of Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty, and then try to explain them.

      For example, I know in one version of the story, Rumpelstiltskin sings a song about no one being able to guess his name. Why is he so obsessed his name? Is it because he's mad (as in crazy) because of something that happened in his childhood related to his name? Or did he change his name to Rumpelstiltskin for some reason, and that name makes him feel like singing? Why does he seem to put so much emphasis on his name?

      You can do the same thing with Sleeping Beauty. Her parents knew that she would prick her finger on a spindle; I'm sure they would have told her as a precaution. Why did she touch it anyways? It could be because she was hypnotized, but what if there was something else? What if she had some sort of rebellious streak? What if she's resentful of the 'gifts' that the fairies gave her as a child and this is her chance to act out?

      I just picked two things, but you can pick any number of characteristics that capture your interest. The possibilities are endless; just go with whatever hijacks your imagination.

    • I'm not sure what I want to do with Rumpestiltskin yet. I've seen adaptations where he's a brilliant villain but I want Beauty to have a love interest who survives her 100 year nap. Right now I'm leaning towards her loving another imp. All I really know is I want her to wake up, discover that most of the people she knew are dead, and has to find her lost love. Then at some point she'll get a job at a mill so she can take over the role of the miller's daughter.
      Thanks for the suggestions, everyone! I'll definitely use some of them.

  2. Have any of ya'll ever thought about what happened AFTER they kill the evil queen in Snow White? I'm thinking about writing a short story about it at the very least, but I would prefer to actually finish something longer. My idea was that she would lose her memory of the Prince, courtesy of the dying queen. But I would like to hear other ideas. I guess I'm suffering from sequelitis and want a more satisfying ending to the story then 'Happily Ever After'.

  3. NaNo went good for me–I just finished! 🙂 Except… I'm at 50,000 words and the characters just started out on the quest… I guess that's the opposite of the question in this post, being "where does a story start?" 😉

    I like that last story idea! I always seem to enjoy it more when the fairytale retellings are from the point of view of the guy…

    As for the main point, what I do with my stories is I like to have the final big ending problem, which the characters overcome (we hope!), and then I usually have a period of wrap-up time, where a few of the questions we had during the story are answered. Myself, I also enjoy having a little bit of time after the climactic ending scene and wrap-up, where I can just see the characters as they are after the story ends. Because sometimes when the story is over as soon as everything important is over, the ending feels to rushed. But that might just be me–maybe it's not a recipe for a best-seller. 😉 I do like to leave thread hanging though, especially if I plan a sequel. So I guess, to stop rambling and give my formula more succinctly, what I do is the final action/resolving of the goal/quest/whatever; then a wrapup chapter or two, and finally an epilogue that is just a little peek into what the characters are doing now, especially if there's a warm glowing feeling of happily-ever-after–almost, and often drawing out a couple little threads that are left hanging and leave you wanting more.

    I'd be interested to hear other thoughts. Lovely post! 🙂

    • I agree deborah. I like it when writers wrap up their story with an epilogue, especially at the end of series since I am more invested with the characters than I would be after only one book. But they are equally important with stand-alones. I don't know what I would have done if Austen hadn't had an epilogue for Pride and Prejudice! Same for the Hunger Games Series and Ms. Levine's books.

  4. I have a question. I really don't want to end my book on a cliffhanger, but the story really definitely ends there. The second part is written in a different POV. What should I do? It isn't that bad of a cliffhanger, but I don't like it when authors do that.

    • If I were you, I'd just leave the cliffhanger. There's nothing wrong with leaving a juicy tid-bit at the end; no matter how much they protest, I think that readers secretly do like getting excited over cliffhangers (I know I do!).

      I would just go with the flow of the story. If you feel like it's supposed to end there, don't let anyone else influence your decision. Just go with what feels right. 🙂

    • I only get excited over cliff hangers if there it is in a series. And then only normally when the series is over so I can go read it right away. But, you know, just leave it. If you honestly can't think of any other way to resolve it. What sort of book is it anyway??

    • I am worried that all my characters are too similar, and I have tried adding quirks, but I still feel like they are still really really close to each other. Does anyone have any way to help? Maybe my quirks aren't quirky enough…

    • Anonymous — honestly, I love cliff hangers! (Reading them and writing them.) I know lots of readers say they hate them, but I think most of them actually do like those cliff hangers. They're so frustrating, but in a good way! If a cliff hanger works, it makes the readers desperate for more because they're invested in your characters.
      I'd say one of the only reasons NOT to end a story like that would be if it was a stand-alone novel.
      Bottom line, though — you're the author. If you think the cliff hanger works for you story, keep it. If not, change it or chuck it. Hope this helps! 🙂

  5. Bug — try looking at people you know. They're all likely to be quite different from each other, so try figuring out what those differences are. Maybe one is bubbly and another reserved, but when he/she does speak they have important things to say. Perhaps somebody has a habit of twirling her hair around a finger. Somebody may have a special word, phrase, or expression they use frequently. A musical person might hum or tap the beat to whatever music is playing, or maybe compose music during math class.
    Basically, just take a look at people's speech, movements, and personality. You might also want to consider people's outlooks on life. Positive or negative? Analytical? Easygoing? Past events or upbringing really come into play here.
    All these things affect how your character (or real people) act and think. And don't worry — lots of us struggle with the uniqueness of our characters, including myself! Perhaps part of the reason why is that every person we create has a little bit of us in them. We just have to learn how to twist or magnify or minimize those little bits, and make sure to add bits of other people too. Anyway, I'll stop before I make this a page-long comment! 😉

    • Quirks! My specialty! Bug, if you are having trouble with quirks, I strongly recommend that you read "A Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom" and it's sequel, "The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle". That is the quirkiest bunch of characters you ever will see. And the books are HILARIOUS!!!! No kidding. You WILL laugh out loud with great frequency. These are not the read-at-night-in-bed-with-everyone-else-asleep kind of books. It will probably help you with your problems, and it's always helped me. Hope I help and hope you enjoy!

  6. I won NaNo for the first time after three years of trying! But I definitely have that trouble about endings, except that it's like that with every single one of my scenes. I never know how to end them. I don't know if finishing the novel was part of the rules, but I feel like I'd barely started much less created an ending. After reading the entire thing through for the first time, I realised that all I really have is a bunch of disconnected scenes that I somehow must sew together. I must confess that part of that is probably due to my cramming the last half (15,000 words) in three days, but I didn't know it would seem so…so confusing. I can't help but try every single idea I come up with, but it keeps me from moving the plot along I think.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.