Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.49: How to Finish

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Amal, and Maurice

Last week we talked about character death. This week we talk about other, less fatal ways in which a character story can be finished, and how we, as writers, can tell when we’re done with a character arc.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: You’re about to cut into a cake… and it speaks.
(Note: the phrase “the cake is alive” might qualify as “low-hanging fruit.”)

Thing of the week: This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El Mohtar and Max Gladstone
(note: Between the time we recorded and the time this episode aired the publication date was pushed back. The novel is, however, available for pre-order).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: When is a character arc over? When is a character finished? Try the MICE quotient! Character arc begins with dissatisfaction with self, and ends when self-definition solidifies. This is who I am. When the circle closes. Motivations or goal, and resolution. What about the literary idea of not resolving the loop? Very dangerous. Happy versus unhappy endings? Tragic endings are easy, just let everything get worse, and don’t solve the problems. Happy endings are harder, because after making things worse, you have to solve all the problems. Consider unsatisfying and satisfying, crossed with happy and unhappy. Characters may get what they want, but have to sacrifice something they didn’t expect. Watch out for mean endings!

[Dan] Hi, this is Dan. Before we start today’s podcast, I wanted to let you know about my new book, Zero G. This is an audio exclusive, for the first year at least. It’s a middle grade science fiction that is basically Home Alone in space. Big colony ship is headed to another star, everyone’s in hyper-sleep. 12-year-old boy wakes up and has to save the ship from pirates. It’s awesome, and you will love it. Look it up on Audible. Now we’ll get into our episode.

[Mary] Season 13, Episode 49.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How to Finish.

[Mary] 15 minutes…

[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary] I’m Mar…


[Amal] What? Who are you?

[Brandon] She’s not finishing.

[Amal] Oh!


[Brandon] She hasn’t learned it yet, because she hasn’t listened to the podcast.


[Mary] I know, that’s exactly right. And who are you?

[Amal] I’m… Amal.

[Maurice] I’m Maurice.


[Amal] I was going to try and do the same joke, but it wasn’t going to work. I’m… Am…

[Mary] Right. No, you’re right, that doesn’t work.

[Brandon] So. Finishing. We’re in our last month of this season, and we’re going to talk about endings for characters. So, how do you know when you’re done with a character arc? How do you know when a character is finished, for you?

[Maurice] Can’t you just keep killing them off?


[Mary] Yeah, yeah.

[Brandon] Well, last week we did talk about plot armor and character death. So, we will have offed a lot of characters…

[Mary] By this point.

[Brandon] Already this month.

[Mary] All right. So this is the point in the season when… We’ve gotten through most of the season so far without me talking in great length about the MICE quotient.

[Brandon] Only little bits here and there. Yes.

[Mary] But this is one of the things that it’s actually really good at. So, the MICE quotient is mostly an organizational principle, but one of the things that it’s very good at is defining the frame of a story, where a story begins and ends. So a character story begins when a character is dissatisfied with an aspect of self, and it ends when that aspect solidifies. When their self-definition solidifies. That can either solidify with them being happy or it can solidify with them being dissatisfied. So in a previous episode, I talked about how you can have something that ends in a positive or a negative state. So, for me, the thing that helps me identify when the character story has ended is when I have gotten them to a point in this overarching plot arc where they come to a place where it’s like, “Okay, this is who I am.” That is generally, for me, when a character story is over. This is who I am, and that they are not… No longer attempting to change who they are.

[Amal] I think, for me, I tend to… And again, this comes out of the fact that I write short stories. I feel like a character story has ended when I’ve closed a circle. Again, because I write short stories, I find that I tend to approach stories more from an idea of structure than an idea of character. These things are obviously related all the time, but in terms of just where the story is going, when it’s going to stop, usually there’s some kind of circle closing. By closing, it doesn’t have to like close neatly. It can be a spiral, it can be… It can be a circle with a line leading out of it. But I usually want there to be some… The change that you talk about where… That shift of character. Usually I want to see that manifest in recalling what the initial state was, and making that change evident. So when there’s a spot where you see that, that’s usually the endpoint for me.

[Brandon] You say that as a short story thing. That’s what I do with novels.

[Amal] Aw. Excellent.

[Brandon]  Even 450,000 word ones. That’s what I am looking for, is that circle sort of close. Bringing it back to what the character desired, why they couldn’t have it, and at the end, either deciding that they don’t want it or being okay that they don’t have it or obtaining it. Those are all three valid choices for closing that circle to me.

[Maurice] Right. That’s what I was going to say, is that it comes back to your original character’s motivations, their goal, what were they trying to accomplish, and then resolving that. That resolution can take a number of different forms. But the key for me is always like… Again, like you say, to close that loop, because something has to happen with that goal, that’s the whole point of the story.

[Brandon] So, once in a while, do you just not close this loop? Is it ever… Do you just like, “I’m not going to give this character a resolution?” It’s a very, very literary, modernist literary idea to just not even have a loop. Have you ever done that?

[Amal] Yes, sort of. Except that… This is my… The novel that I am very, very slowly writing on… Writing on? Writing. Writing on? It’s actually a continuation of a short story that I wrote years ago that… My first Nebula nomination was for a story called The Green Book. That was… We talked about unreliable narrators last time. That was a story where most of it is taking place as a dialogue between a consciousness trapped in a book and someone who’s writing in that book. But the story in the short story is framed by the fact that this is not the actual book, this is a copy of the text that appeared in that book, and this is only pieces of it that were found. So somewhere in the world, there does in fact exist this consciousness trapped in a book, but you’re not seeing that, you’re seeing someone’s transcription of what happened. There’s like several layers of this frame. So the topmost layer is the, like, a publisher’s [caliphon?] almost. It’s in an archive, it’s describing the material. The next level is the person who was transcribing is writing a letter trying to give this transcription to someone else. Then you have the actual core of the story, which is the text that’s in the book. That text ends in a way that refers back to the frame, but doesn’t actually close the circle. It leaves something very open-ended which I want to explore in the novel. So… But in terms of the character beats, I think that it stops at the right place. It stops at a place where the person trans… This is going to be so convoluted to listen to, but basically, the guy transcribing it suddenly goes from being secure to being in a place of threat. That is the spot I ended on.

[Brandon] This is really dangerous, I think, kind of ending without closing that loop. I remember once watching a kind of a Hollywood director talking about the good ending and the bad… Or the market friendly ending and the nonmarket ending… Friendly ending to a movie. I was surprised that the market friendly ending had the character dying. I’m like, “That’s not what I would assume.” But as they talked about it, I realized that the character dying was them fulfilling… Like, they were dying in a heroic way, fulfilling their arc, and the other one, they just kind of walked off and didn’t fulfill their arc. Really, it’s not the life/death thing. It is that closing the loop or not, being market friendly or not. Once in a while, you could really be dangerous and be like, “I’m just stopping this character because they died halfway through.” But boy, is that dangerous, because it’s that whole broken promise thing.

[Maurice] Well, the thing I would… When you say that, the thing that always comes to mind for me is the show Lost.


[Maurice] See, there we go. Because… I’ve thought both ways about that ending. Like, does that ending work? No. Yes. Wait, no it doesn’t. The part that doesn’t work for me is that in closing their loop… Well, they don’t close the loop in some ways because like I have all these unanswered questions, and you’re done.

[Amal] What about the polar bear?

[Maurice] But, what they… What I did pick up was like the loop they did close was the emotional arc of the characters. So they did that. That part of it, if that’s what people were invested in, if they were invested in the journey of those characters, that was closed for them, and they were pleased with the ending.

[Brandon] See, I thought you were going to go to the place… Lost also has this thing where several of the characters exited like second season. So they just killed them off or left their arcs half done. It was so frustrating to me as a watcher. They couldn’t really do anything, because the actors were like, “We’re leaving.” But that happens in shows, too often.

[Mary] So I think one of the things that will happen to writers is that we… A lot of times we will pick up storytelling techniques from film or television that don’t necessarily work in our medium, or that are an artifact of the medium that… Of television, like this character left. So now we just are ignoring them and moving on as if they never existed.


[Mary] One of the things that I was thinking about when Maurice was talking about promises and things like that, was letting the reader kind of know what the design state of the story is. I have a novella, A Forest of Memory, which is from At the end of it, there’s a ton of questions that I don’t answer, and my character doesn’t know the answer to them. Making it clear to readers that that was a designed state, that you were not going to get the answers, and that my character was going to be left with all of these questions and not… That this was going to be unresolved. Making that clear to readers before we got to that point without making it obvious that that’s where we were going was a really tricky thing to do. It involved a certain amount of hanging flags on it, like, “I didn’t… I will never know the answer to this.” But it also involved doing some thematic miniature versions of that earlier in the story, where something… Like, “He asked for a dictionary,” and she never finds out why. So it’s stuff like that, making sure that I’m doing kind of miniature thematic versions of it so that you understand that this is the kind of ride that you’re on, that there’s just gonna be things that my character never gets resolved.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is kind of interesting because we’re not sure if it’s out yet.


[Amal] Will we close the circle or not? It is called… The working title is called This Is How You Lose the Time War. This is the co-written novella between… That Max Gladstone and I wrote together that I’ve mentioned a few times over the course of this season. It was amazing fun to write. It’s an epistolary spy-versus-spy novella across time and space. So there is a time war. It is a time war between two possible realities. They are both very unstable, like in the… They’re both very unstable. In order to try and make sure that they become a stable reality, they have to go, as they say, up thread, up the braid of time and space with agents that they send from their respective sides to try and bump history into the correct grooves.

[Brandon] That sounds awesome.

[Amal] It is so much fun. The thing is that they… It sounds huge and epic, and it is, but it’s also letter is being written back and forth between two agents, Red and Blue, each one representing one side of the time war, that starts out as this snarky gotcha correspondence as they foil each other’s plans, and that then grows into something more and dangerous… Very dangerous to both of them. So, it is… I am literally just about one week from knowing who is publishing it and when.

[Brandon] Hopefully, we’ll have that all in the liner notes.

[Amal] Yeah. Exactly. But at the moment, it does exist in this inchoate unclosed circle space. But it is so… I love this story so much. I especially love the way Max and I wrote it, which was over the period of roughly 2 weeks at a writing retreat, where we literally sat across from each other in a gazebo and just swapped laptops back and forth to see what we were doing. The great thing about this was that Max writes roughly 4 times as fast as I do. Which made it really awkward at first, as one of us would write the letter and the other person would write the situation in which the letter was being received. Max would be done and basically have to twiddle his thumbs while I agonized and wrote stuff. But as we went on, he slowed down and I sped up. So that by the time we hit the second act, we were just… It was like a dance. It was choreography. We were swapping laptops, going, “Oh, my God, that’s amazing,” swapping them back, and continuing. I love that. We have very different voices, and that plays into the two very different characters.

[Brandon] Sounds super, super cool. I’m very excited to read it.

[Amal] Thank you.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and talk briefly about happy endings versus unhappy endings for characters. Have you ever done an unhappy ending? What do you consider an unhappy ending?

[Mary] Yup.


[Mary] Yes, I have. In fact, it’s the story that I talked about last week. Which is The Worshipful Society of Glovers on Uncanny. That has an unhappy ending. It’s an interesting thing to pull off, because my character actually achieves his goal, and then realizes that his goal is a terrible… Achieving his goal was a terrible idea. The… Like, I tend to prefer a happy ending. Happy endings are… I just said it’s a tricky thing to pull off. But actually, I find that happy endings are much easier to write… Excuse me, much harder to write than tragic endings. Tragic endings, you just make things continue to get worse, and then they don’t have to solve it. But in a happy ending, you’re making things continually worse, and then they have to solve all of the problems. That’s not easy. Like, it’s really not easy.

[Maurice] I’m… Despite coming up as a horror writer, I’m as… I love happy endings.


[Maurice] So I tend to write happy endings. Especially for my novel length works. I think part of my mentality is like, well, if the reader’s invested this much time…


[Maurice] I don’t want to like pull the rug out from under them in the end. Now, in a short story, on the other hand, you never know what you’re going to get. I notice in my short story collection, except for the first story, all those stories have horrible endings. I mean, you… I mean, I’m amazed when people make it through to the end. I mean, like go through the whole collection, and get past the first third, it gets happier. Because, and part of it is this, in a short story, because there’s that lesser investment, I feel more open…

[Brandon] The mitts are off.

[Maurice] Yeah. Exactly.

[Mary] I also think that in a short story that readers are more willing to let you imply things, so you don’t actually have to hit the this is a tragic ending or a happy ending as hard and you don’t have to spend as much time in it. You can kind of get to it, and the reader can go, “Oh, I see. I see how bad this is going to be.” In a novel, you have to get to it and be like, “Now we’re going to dwell in this badness for a little while.”

[Brandon] There is a difference between unhappy and unsatisfying.


[Brandon] You can be satisfying happy and unsatisfying happy. There is that, and there’s also this idea that you, particularly in a novel, can be bittersweet. Than in a short story. That’s what you’ll often do, is parts of it are happy, parts of it are sad. The characters got what they wanted, but they sacrificed something they didn’t expect that they’d have to sacrifice or something like this. So you have the… There’s an entire spectrum here between happy and unhappy and satisfying and unsatisfying which are…

[Maurice] There’s times when it’s just mean, though. My go to example for that is actually Stephen King’s The Mist. The movie version. Because in the original novella, it’s kind of an open ending. You don’t know… Actually, your protagonist, they’ve gone through this harrowing experience, then they escape, and they’re like, “Then we’re just going to drive off into the mist,” and we don’t know what’s going to happen. The movie decides they’re going to answer what happens to them. After you spent an hour and a half, almost 2 hours with these characters, in their struggle, watching them fight for this and this, and they finally make it out, and they’re driving through the mist. They do have that part where they drive off into the mist, and I… At that moment, I start packing up my stuff. I’m like, “Well, this is where the story ends.” Then the camera is still going and I’m like, “Well, what are they doing?” Then this horrific thing happens where it’s like and now everything you just cared about is now moot.

[Brandon] Don’t they just kick you when you’re down on that one, too? Because then they show someone else who just got out by just wandering off into the mist?

[Maurice] Right, right!

[Brandon] And they’re fine. Oh, man, that is a mean ending.

[Maurice] I said, it wasn’t an unhappy ending. That was a mean ending.

[Brandon] Speaking of endings…

[Gasp. No!]

[Brandon] We really want to thank our guest hosts this year. We want to thank Amal and Maurice. You guys have been awesome and wonderful.

[Amal] You guys have been awesome and wonderful.

[Brandon] Do either of you or both of you have a writing prompt to end the season on? That you can give these aspiring writers that are listening?

[Amal] I kept trying to think about this. All right. You’re about to cut into a cake and it speaks.

[Brandon] Whoohoohoo.

[Mary] Merry Christmas.


[Mary] Happy New Year.


[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You guys are out of excuses, now go write.