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

18.39: How To Write An Ending

Deep Dive: Sergeant In Motion

How do you write an ending to a book? How do you finish something you’ve been writing for over 20 years? Howard Tayler talks to us about writing the ending to his serialized webcomic and space opera, Schlock Mercenary. We dive into how to write a resolution, how to finish a book, and how to finish a series. And we dive into the art of leaning into the tropes without leaning ON them.


Write a one page outline for the ending of your current work in progress. 

Prepare for our next Deep Dive with Host Erin Roberts (starting in two weeks)! Read Erin’s short stories: Wolfy ThingsSour Milk GirlsSnake Season. Note: these books involve some darker themes. All of these short stories are available for free online and also have audio versions available. 

Thing of the Week: 

The Sexy Brutale (an adventure puzzle video game)

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: When I wrote that title, I knew that the structure of this book needed to involve splitting up the cast and sending Schlock off on his own, doing something stupid and chaotic and destructive and ultimately heroic. This formula is super simple. You split people up, and then you bring them back together, and that creates a natural structure for a story, and it can be very satisfying. A frag suit that talks back to him so Schlock has a foil. And treating a synthetic intelligence as if it is an artificial intelligence, and having that entity become a person, is beautiful. It’s very hard to be funny by yourself. For a storyteller, many things are driven by this is horrible. Go back to the well and fill your head with physics. Callbacks, retroactive foreshadowing. Joy!

[Season 18, Episode 39]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Deep Dive, Sergeant in Motion.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Howard] I have begun unironically using the term magnum opus to describe Schlock Mercenary. Because I… 20 years. 20 years of my life, 20 books went into this. Today, we are deep diving into book 20, Sergeant in Motion. The title of which comes from a maxim, “A sergeant in motion outranks a lieutenant who doesn’t know what’s going on.” When I wrote that title, I knew that the structure of this book needed to involve splitting up the cast and sending Schlock off on his own, doing something stupid and chaotic and destructive and ultimately heroic. Until about the time that I’d… Until I’d actually started writing strips, I didn’t know exactly what those things were going to be. I had just blocked out kind of the positions of the cast members. As I mentioned in the previous episode… As I mentioned in the episode we recorded previously, we… Those both mean the same thing. It’s early, and I’m tired. This formula is super simple. You split people up, and then you bring them back together, and that creates a natural structure for a story, and it can be very satisfying. I feel like that formula worked.

[Mary Robinette] You’re also doing interesting things, like, one of the problems with the modern era is… In the old days, you split people up and it was fine because they were off on their own, and now, it’s like you split people up and they have cell phones. In your world, they have sentient communications and all sorts of things. So I think that you did some interesting things there, like, to cause different ways that the comms communication was a conflict, like, when Schlock is dealing with a frag suit that talks back to him.

[Howard] Yes. The frag suit that talks back to him was a last-minute addition because I realized that I did not want to resort to thought bubbles to find out what Schlock was thinking. I had to have a foil for him. Giving him a foil who was a… In the Schlock Mercenary universe, artificial intelligence is a person, and synthetic intelligence is a clever set of algorithms that almost arise to personhood. Having him treat a synthetic intelligence as if it was an artificial intelligence, and having that entity eventually reach artificial intelligence felt really beautiful to me. You treat someone like a person, whether or not they quote unquote deserve it, and ultimately, one day, they become a person and thank you for it. That just… I was not expecting to get to put that in, and there it was.

[DongWon] One of the really important things about you deciding to add that character in, which is, one, it’s very hard to be funny by yourself.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Oh, yeah.

[DongWon] So, that gives Schlock such an opportunity to just bounce off of someone, and have punchlines and be goofy and also talk through what he’s thinking in his process. The other is that [garbled] doing some pretty messed up stuff through a lot of this. He’s eating sentient people pretty much constantly through the last book.

[Mary Robinette, Howard, chorus] Yeah.

[DongWon] So having an anchoring emotional thing that allows a level of sweetness and morality and all of those things, and gives him… He is treating this synthetic intelligence as if it’s a person, and so we can see a side of Schlock that we wouldn’t normally… Wouldn’t be able to see if he was just chowing down on things for this length of that…

[Howard] In… I don’t remember the book number. It’s the book where Schlock ends up briefly jailed for a barroom brawl, and has this big emotional arc about immortality, and how immortality now makes him very worried because if someone dies, then some of the futures that could have been created by them are gone, even if you bring them back. One of the neighbor kids who reads Schlock Mercenary, friend of my kids, was over talking to my kids and came to me and said, “Why did you have to give Schlock a personality arc?” Because suddenly the amoral, not quite Everyman, but the id of the strip was now reflecting on who he was and was maybe less willing to devour things with wild abandon. The answer was because I know that by the end of the story, I have to have some measure of conflict there. He has to be asking himself a question before he devours everything in sight.

[Erin] But I do like that he devours… You know what I mean?


[Erin] Everything in sight. Then, I was curious… I think you mentioned it in a previous episode, the idea that like somebody had said to you, like, Schlock eats it. That’s sort of how the conflict is resolved. You managed to take something that is both like core to the story you’re telling but also take it as such an epic scale. I’m curious, like, sort of how you got there? Because it’s such a cool way of [garbled]

[Howard] Oh, there’s a James P. Hogan series, the Giants novels. I can’t remember the titles of the individual books. But in one of them, we do some archaeology and we discover that there was a race of creatures living on Mars, and as we do the archaeology and learn more about them, we realize that because of a quirk of biology, there were no carnivores. Because everything that was made of meat was toxic to eat to everything else that was made of meat. But plants were fine. That grew into their morality, to where they… Creatures never ate other creatures, they only ate plants. I remember thinking about that and thinking about Schlock and thinking about the dark matter entities and wondering what if the dark matter entities never learn to eat each other. Oh, no. Oh, no. Schlock has discovered how to obtain energy from his enemies in a way that’s absolutely unthinkable to them. That made it more delightful and more horrific. As I’ve said before, in one sense, Schlock really is the… Really is a movie monster. He’s a…

[DongWon] [garbled]

[Howard] He’s a walking horror show.

[DongWon] You made one interesting decision around being able to eat the dark matter monsters, which is that they don’t actually die, though. He doesn’t digest them all the way. He takes energy from them, but they’re still left at the end of it. What was behind that thought process, and sort of why you made that choice?

[Howard] Um, it felt to me like an outgrowth of the weird physics I’d arrived at. They had… In order to do battle with baryonic matter… baryonic matter, us, non-baryonic matter, things made of dark matter… In order to do battle with baryonic matter, they needed a way to recover from being destabilized. I’ve come up with this whole physics of metastable dark matter and stable dark matter and very proud of it. Not going to dive into the details of that right now. But they had a way where when they were destabilized, there was a copy of them made so that… They were stored as data. So that they could be regenerated, so the soldiers could go back to fight. I thought, you know, when Schlock is eating them, that will probably set off that mechanism and they will have a memory of being eaten and… Oh, that’s even worse. Oh, I love that so much. Oh, not only are you dead, but you remember dying and what it felt like and… That was very delightful for me.


[Mary Robinette] It’s funny how many things are… For a storyteller, are driven by, oh, this is horrible.

[DongWon] Yeah. Oh, this will make you feel bad. Yeah.

[Howard] I can’t remember when I learned that lesson, but it was… It was fairly early on that I discovered that sometimes when you think of the worst thing that could possibly happen, and, as an author, that is your cue for… That is either the dark side of the soul or… But, that has to go in the book. Because your readers are going to think of that and they’re not going to want it to happen. That’s a tool in the toolbox. There are so many more tools in the toolbox that I want to talk about. But we’re going to take a break first.

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[Erin] Have you ever felt like you were living the same day over and over again? And everyone around you is getting murdered? If you want to feel like that, you should play The Sexy Brutale, which is a really lovely game that came out two years ago for PlayStation, Windows, Xbox one. In it, you are trapped in a manor house and everyone around you is dying, everyone is being murdered, and you get to go through and stop each person from being murdered one at a time. It’s an amazing game of looping and learning. Each time you go through the game, you learn something new about the characters and eventually about who you are and why you are stuck in this place. It is one of my favorite short games to play. So definitely check out The Sexy Brutale.

[Howard] Welcome back. I promised more tools in the toolbox. A big one for me was PBS Space-Time podcasts…


[Howard] I watched this… I listened to this podcast or watched… YouTube show. Watched this YouTube show. There was an episode on ways in which the universe could end. One of them talked about whether matter was stable or metastable. It was this idea that during the Big Bang, things stabilize, but maybe we were like trapped in a little valley, halfway down a cliff, and sufficient energy might push matter into a new stable state and that state would propagate at light speed across the universe, destroying everything, and that would be the end of it all. Which is very scary and very depressing. Then I started thinking about dark matter and realized, you know, dark matter can’t… The way we understand it. Real physics. It doesn’t interact with matter, and it doesn’t really interact with itself. It falls… There’s gravitational attraction. But when to dark matter particles fall towards each other, they don’t collide and interact, they just fall through. Because if they fell and interacted, there’d be an energy release that we’d observe. So I thought, well, dark matter doesn’t work the way I want it to work. What if metastable dark matter as all of these interesting particles, but something about the Teraport is what… That thought cascaded from stuff I’d been writing 10 years ago. Teraport and Teraport area denial damages dark matter. Oh! It pushes it out of the metastable state into the stable state. It turns dark matter that’s interesting into dark matter that’s just foggy. Yes, that came to me… I think halfway through book 17 or 18, I realized, “Oh! Finally I understand how my universe works. I can write this conclusion.” So, toolbox? Going back to the well all the time and filling my head with physics.

[Erin] Thinking about some of the things that you’re talking about that you know that are beyond what we end up seeing, I’m thinking about sometimes we talk about worldbuilding as, like, it’s an iceberg, and there’s like the part above the surface and the part below. I’m thinking as you end a project, it’s like your last chance to, like, chip pieces off the iceberg and, like, get them to float to the surface so that your readers will see them. I’m curious how you decided sort of what to end up putting on the page, and what will just sort of remain a fun fact that you could tell us, but won’t actually be in the actual comic?

[Howard] Um. Well, see, that bit, I knew I needed it, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it funny. Then I tried naming the particles…

[DongWon, Mary Robinette] [garbled]

[Howard] That was so much fun, coming up with names for the particles. I realized, “Oh. Umbril. Umbral’s a great word. And Umbreon. Wait, Umbreon’s a Pokémon.”


[Howard] Oh, there’s the joke.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] There’s the joke. Then, making a character moment out of it where two characters are arguing about how stupid it is to call them darkions or whatever. Suddenly, it’s a character driven discussion that ends with an intellectual property 4th wall breaking joke about we… They are umbrions, not umbreons, because there’s a Pokémon. Interestingly, the idea of breaking the 4th wall, that is… As my humor matured, I did that less. Because that increasingly is… That felt like a cheat. But breaking the 4th wall is something that appears in early Schlock Mercenary and I knew I had to include it in the last book as a… As sort of a meta-call back. Yes, this is the same story you started reading. See, I still make jokes about companies that are bigger than me.

[DongWon] Did you have a list of callbacks that you wanted to hit, or was it just sort of like ad hoc? You’re like, “Oh. Here’s an opportunity for a Pokémon joke. That’s something I used to do that’s fun.” Or was it like, “Oo. I want to make sure. This is the last volume, I want to hit certain things.”

[Howard] At some point in the prep for book 18, I realized that I didn’t have a list and I probably wasn’t going to make a list. But I should do some reading. So I went back and I just… I read through a lot of old Schlock Mercenary. There were bits that stuck out to me, and there were bits that I thought, “Oh, that would be fun to use,” and then I literally forgot about them. Which actually, that’s kind of a good litmus test. If you forgotten about it between day one and day two, maybe the idea wasn’t that good after all. But the 4th wall jokes stuck out.

[DongWon] I did notice Schlock ends up in a tub.


[Howard] Yeah. Oh, yeah. The Ovalkwik. I had to bring Ovalkwik back. That… We talked about retroactive foreshadowing. I think retroactive foreshadowing… For me, that means, “Oh, this thing that I already did, now I can turn it into foreshadowing, despite the fact that that wasn’t my original plan.”

[DongWon] Right.

[Howard] There was a lot of that. There was a lot of that in the last book.

[Mary Robinette] I have a question that I feel like is probably a little personal for me, but did you include the Jane Austen quote for me?


[Mary Robinette] Because I felt very spoken to in that moment.

[Howard] Um…

[Mary Robinette] Just say yes.


[Howard] Oh, no, there’s… There was…

[Erin] I’m so glad you noticed.


[Howard] I kind of had to because I realized that I had done a nod to Robert Jordan like at the beginning of book 4. I knew that I needed to make a literary… As a callback, I needed to make a literary reference and… Yes, the Jane… Because I am friends with Mary Robinette, Jane Austen was where I went first. Because that felt the silliest for Schlock Mercenary.


[Mary Robinette] Also, when you’re dealing with an intergalactic conflict, a truth universally acknowledged… It’s like, well, actually that’s not a hypothetical in this particular…


[DongWon] We are making statements about the universe at this point.

[Howard] Yeah.

[DongWon] Going back to the toolkit, one thing I also wanted to emphasize here is, this is a visual medium. Right? This is not just writing, it’s comics. So you’re bringing in such big heavy worldbuilding in this volume, you’re bringing in theoretical physics that I’d never heard of and I’m pretty up to date on a bunch of stuff. But, like, there was like really cool interesting aspects here. Then you decided… Then you had to figure out how do I render this visually. I can’t remember if they’re introduced in volume 19 or volume 20, but the first time we see the actual creatures inside the skeletons of these world ships, it was just such a cool visual design. Because we first see the ship, and it just looks like a… Looks like a dog toy, frankly.

[Howard] Yeah.

[DongWon] Almost… Like a ball…

[Howard] A wiffleball.

[DongWon] Then when we realize those holes are for their tentacles… I don’t know. Just something about that visual reveal was so good and satisfying. How do you think about those kind of reveals alongside these big technical science reveals or character reveals? How…

[Howard] Sorry, I’m giggling because I remember that moment very clearly. There was a… I can’t remember the scientific instrument that they used, but they were making gravitational maps of galaxies and looking at how the fog of dark matter was shaped actually differently than the whorl of stars. The whorl of stars, through a telescope, is very crisp. It’s… I mean… It is such a golden age right now for…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Beautiful crisp glorious pictures of galaxies. I’m looking at that fuzz, and I wanted better pictures. I wanted more resolution. Drawing dark matter… I had done it in, I think, book 13, I had drawn a dark matter tentacles smashing through something, with the understanding that when concentrated stable dark matter smashes through something, it’s only interacting with it via gravity. Several G’s of gravity pulling on things in weird ways, which is very destructive, because it can reach through both sides of it. We don’t build things for these kinds of stresses. Yeah, there was this image in my head of I’m going to draw something where we can’t see the gravity, and then I’m going to draw something where we can, and the picture’s going to be really crisp. I did have to talk to Travis about it and say, “The one thing that we can’t ever do with the dark matter creatures is not knockback the line work. The line work can’t be black. The line work always has to be colored. Which makes a whole lot more work for him. Because he couldn’t just flood fill and then paint within the filled areas. He actually had to select the line work and put colors on that as well.

[DongWon] Travis is your colorist?

[Howard] Travis is the colorist since… Oh, gee. Since 2009, 2010. So…

[Mary Robinette] Um. I’m going to ask a variation of a question that I get asked a lot, which is about how many drafts and iterations. But, specifically, what I’m wondering about, since we’re talking about wrapping everything up, how many drafts or iterations did you have to do for that very last strip?

[Howard] The very last strip. That’s the one where Schlock is… Has stolen food from the dinosaur and is running away from it. That was all one go because it was an epilogue, and I wanted… How do I… Sorry, I’m articulating this badly. That picture was for me.


[Howard] I knew that I just wanted to draw Schlock running away from a giant fluffy Tyrannosaurus Rex, and that the sergeant is in motion.


[Howard] He has stolen someone else’s food. But the dinosaur needs to be smiling and Schlock needs to be smiling, and Tagon needs to have kids… Murtaugh is pregnant. All of those elements, they were just there to bring me joy. If other people like them, well, awesome.

[DongWon] It was such a Bill Watterson image. Right?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] It was such a Calvin and Hobbes, of sort of Schlock has always been this sort of Calvin and Hobbes at the same time…


[DongWon] You know? But getting to have the T Rex in that sort of Hobbes role, it just gave it such dynamism activity. You love drawing dinosaurs so much…

[Mary Robinette] Oh, my goodness.

[DongWon] Like, every time you put a dinosaur in a scene, I can just feel the sheer joy coming through…

[Howard] Yeah.

[DongWon] That you…

[Howard] Yeah.

[DongWon] There’s a scene where what’s-her-face is riding a dinosaur…

[Mary Robinette] Riding the dinosaur. I was just thinking of that.

[DongWon] It’s the best thing. It’s just so much fun.

[Howard] Sorlie is… Haley Sorlie…

[DongWon] What a big character.

[Howard] Yeah. Her story’s a funny one. When I first introduced that character in book 15, Delegates and Delegation, the outline had her dying. I knew that this was a character that we were going to like, and she was going to do heroic things and then she was going to die heroically. About three quarters of the way through the book, I realized, “No. No.” This is… There were some meta-reasons in there. Meta number one was I’ve introduced a female character who is probably one of the most compelling female characters I’ve created, and killing her off would be a bad move. Two, she’s way too useful to the story. Way too useful to the story. Turning her, through the course of the story, into someone who has… This is subtext rather than… She has a familial non-sexual relationship with Landon and Tenzy. They cuddle, they are friends, but they’re completely different species and completely different organic. There is this weird threesome there that I didn’t overtly come out and say, “This is an asexual triple marriage.” But in my head, I always drew them so they could be that way. I love her. She represents so many different things for me. Of course I had to let her ride a dinosaur.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.


[Howard] Of course I had to let her ride a dinosaur. How could I not? I… Yeah…

[Mary Robinette] I love the moment when they’re like, “You know, this is an actual meat space,” and she’s like, “That makes it even better.”


[Mary Robinette] I guess it does.

[Howard] Yeah. That was… The whole bit about them traveling all the way to some distant Matrioshka brain, I think is how it’s pronounced. Coming up with that solution for Fermi’s Paradox, that the great filter is mature species realize it is too dangerous to hang around where life might spawn, because it’ll spawn and it’ll be dangerous, so we’re leaving. All of the grown-ups keep leaving. There’s a point where Petey in the earlier book has aspired… Has apotheosis and in his moment of apotheosis, he looks around and he’s like, “Where are all the grown-ups?” I loved coming up with that is a solution, and the fact that some of the grown-ups are Earth dinosaurs was just extra fun for me. So… I could talk about the end of Schlock Mercenary for hours and hours and hours. I love this thing so much. It was difficult to end it, for a lot of reasons. I think we’ll talk about some of those in our next episode, Business Reasons. But, very unapologetically, I refer to it as a magnum opus because I spent so much time on it. It’s been a huge part of me for 20 plus years now. Who’s got homework for us?

[DongWon] I have our homework this week. I think, in theme with our topic today, what I want you to do is to go and write a one-page outline. Keep it relatively brief. Make some bullet points about how you want to end your current work in progress. Really, just think through what are the things that are going to provide the narrative resolution, what kind of callbacks you want to have in there, and what emotional beats you want to leave your readers on.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Howard] To stay up-to-date with new releases, upcoming in person events like our annual writing retreats and Patreon live streams, follow Writing Excuses on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, or subscribe to our newsletter.