Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 29: How not to end your book

Let’s talk about failure… but let’s talk about it so that we can avoid it.  How do you know if your ending has flopped?  What kind of approaches to ending a story should you be avoiding? How can you recognize these approaches in time to avoid them? The best approach? Identify the promises you’ve made to your readers, and then fulfil them with your ending. Okay, now you don’t have to listen.

Writing Prompt: Start your book with an ending where everyone dies.

This weeks Writing Excuses is brought to you by Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson, Book 3 of the Mistborn series now in paperback.


31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 29: How not to end your book”

  1. Great cast, perfect for listening to on my delayed train.

    Talking of bad endings, I would say one of the worst/most annoying I have read is the ending of “David Eddings”, Dreamers series. (spoiler warning)

    He had everything all set-up for a good “We won the War” type ending, then in the very last chapter he breaks 1 of his standing magic rules (that most big magic must be done by the Dreamers) and next he has the God’s parents go back in time and change everything so that nothing you’ve just read about actually happens. So all the good conclusions and promises that he fulfilled mean nothing!

    If he had just ended a chapter earlier I would have been a satisfied customer, but instead he ruined the whole series for me.

  2. Of course, we all know that the purpose of cub scouting IS pinewood derby.

    One thing to watch out for in your ending is to make sure that it isn’t too predictable. If the reader can figure out how your book is going to end, then they have won the chess match.

  3. Thank you for the Pod cast. It was awesome as always.
    I once read a book where the back promised a really great adventure and a rescue, which didn’t even happen until the last two chapters and then they all died. Talk about disappointment.
    And yes I have my paperback on pre-order. It better come soon so that I can find out how Brandon dose not end his series. Thanks again.

    There is a certain character that you left heartbroken and alone in the most dangerous place in the end of Mistborn 2. If you kill him, I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN!!!

  4. I’m worried about the ending of my book. I’m not even close to it yet, but it’s rattling around in my head, telling me it’s not quite right yet. I should just ignore it until I reach that point in my writing, but the rattling does get distracting.
    I bought the Hardcover for Hero of Ages and felt it ended very well.
    The hardcover is also sitting on my shelf next to the first two in paperback edition, mocking me with it’s inconsistency. So I will probably have to buy the paperback to sit on the shelf and move the hardcover to the rest of my hardcover books.

  5. One of my endings fell flat before because I refused to kill a character. I had a story go on for close to thirty chapters with the MC deliberately journeying towards a place where he could die far from his home. He was cursed and he thought it would be doing a favor for his friends and family. Then when he finally got to where he was going, I had one of his friends stop him and it just seemed to break the promise beyond reason even with the other guy’s intentions and POV’s visible throughout the book. I just wanted a happy ending to much, and this story didn’t call for one.

    I’m sure there are multiple levels on which I failed to make this ending work. Tone and character development (every conflict the MC faced left him more sure he was too much of a danger to those around him to be allowed to live), and the timing of his friends arrival are the ones that seem the most obvious now. One day I might go back and try to fix that story, but right now I don’t think I have enough experiance. At least I have learned that characters need to be able to die sometimes.

  6. Mistborn 2 is an example of a book that ended with awesome action setpieces but also resolved the plot/character issues at the exact same time, in my opinion.

  7. If you’re writing a short story that will have no sequel, is it safe to leave a suspenseful ending?

  8. The best ending is where the reader thinks they have won the chess match right up to the point you whip your checkmate on them and they then have to look back and see how you led them merrily and willingly into your trap with nothing more than Twinkies and a shiny gum wrapper.
    Then while they are stunned/amazed, you steal their wallet and get them to thank you for taking it.

  9. That is probably the best description of a good ending I have heard. Can I have my wallet back now?

  10. Listening to the podcast a second time, I just got worried about something:
    Is it better to introduce the major conflict(s) that are gonna be resolved in the climax in the first act, or is it enough to bring it up in the first half of the book? Just realized it might be tricky for me to introduce it in the first quarter of the book…

  11. First post, but I’ve been lurking about since early in season one.
    I finished the first draft of my second novel on the 20th and am waiting for my alpha readers to respond. This podcast might be well-timed for me :S.

    @ Bernd: I don’t think you have to introduce the major conflict straight-away. The first problem might be solved in chapter one, halfway through or even later – only to have the *real* problem emerge, perhaps as a consequence (e.g. the results of defeating the Lord Ruler in Brandon’s Mistborn). You might want to foreshadow etc., but as long as it works you’re home free.

    I say this with a disclaimer: My first novel, currently languishing in its first draft, suffered from a poor execution of this late change-of-conflict. The few people who’ve read it didn’t seem to mind/notice much, but I’m rethinking most of the plot.

  12. Bernd that was mentioned in an earlier cast on plot-twists. It’s generally good to present a central problem for the characters to work towards solving earlier, then show a bit later that what they thought was the problem was only a small piece of it. It’s one of the better episodes for dealing with conflicts and character strengths go listen to it.

  13. I would agree, especially if you include an epilogue in a book with an already mediocre ending. Dare I mention book seven of the HP series. I have a few friends that liked but I really hated all three of the endings in the book.

    One of my all time favorite endings is book five or six of the WoT series. Actually, it could be book seven too, I get about every book from five to nine all mixed up. It is the book with final battle where Perrin is leading Two Rivers men, wolves, Aiel, and Cairhienen. Then the Asha’man appear and open a serious can on the Shaido. Boy, that ending delivered and then some. After one of the most glorious battles in all of fantasy fiction, at least in my opinion, Jordan adds one additional gift for his readers; Aes Sedai swear allegiance to Rand. Fabulous ending.

    Also, Brandon, congrats on your Whitney.

  14. I’ve seen epilogues that work. *shrugs* It’s all in the execution; I’d hesitate to make blanket statements like that.

  15. @ B.E. that’s book six of WoT. Bk 4-5-6 are the best imo. 7,8, & 10 are a bit bland. Again, imo (but bk12 will be awesome; i.e. I believe in you Brandon).

    I agree that that was a great ending. It gave you some big things to observe, and also some little (or big) things to wonder about, such as the implications of Aes Sedai swearing.

    Bk9 (Winter’s Heart) is another great ending. Same deal: big battle, many things resolved, yet you are left hanging without a ‘final’ conclusion, just a few testimonies that ‘it worked’. Like bk6, it ends on a high note, rather than then wading around to ‘explain’ the effects of what happened – it lets the readers wonder about it.


  16. Hum… Just a footnote to Howard’s comments on writing bad endings to get to the good ending. Chic Thompson, What A Great Idea! 2.0, devotes some time to suggesting that we need to break out of the schoolroom notion that there is one right answer. He recommends looking for the second right answer (and higher numbers, if you get excited). In the same way, it’s probably worth noting that the first good ending may not be the great ending that you can write if you just try a few more possibilities.

  17. I’ll also put in a vote for epilogues as good endings.

    They can work. They really can. Just make sure that the book works WITHOUT the epilogue, and then make sure that the epilogue fulfils some promise you’ve made to the reader that wasn’t fulfilled in the regular ending, and that didn’t have to be.

    Because if that promise needs to be in the regular ending, then the book won’t work without the epilogue, and all you’re doing is dragging out the end.

  18. I think my problem with epilogues is that they often answer too many questions best left unanswered. Often you get the sort of epilogue thattells you what happened to all the characters after the book ended (a la Harry Potter). This flattens the emotional impact for me and, ironically, kills off the characters. I don’t get to imagine what happened next, and it closes off my sense of wonder about the world and the characters wrapping everything up in too neat a little package. Obviously, I’m sure there are cases where this has been done well, but I haven’t experienced them.

    It’s also often a lot of showing and not telling.

    Just my 0.2 cents.

  19. I’m on the fence about epilogues in general.
    But the kind that bug me the most (sorry Brandon) are the ones at the end of books in a series. Why does book 1 of 3 or book 2 of 5 need an epilogue if the overall story isn’t over?

  20. @Eliyanna: That’s a great point — the epilogue can kill the reader’s ability to imagine what happens next, and sometimes that’s the best part about getting to the end of a book.

    With Harry Potter, Rowling made it pretty clear that the series was done, and her epilogue served as that “final word” on the characters and their development. Sure, we could still tell stories about Harry and the others, but they are nowhere near as enticing now that we know how things end up.

    I like epilogues that take ONE character (not the protagonist) and show how he or she fared after the end of principal events. Sometimes it’s a minor villain’s comeuppance, other times it’s a minor “helper” character’s out-of-proportion reward. Those are fun, and I think they help readers imagine OTHER fun things about the characters, enticing us to keep thinking about the book (and whetting our appetites for more.)

  21. This is way after the fact, but I just listened to this podcast today. I don’t really expect a response, but I thought I would nominate a couple of other action-packed endings that worked for me, both from the action delivering on promises as well as character payoffs. Both are from Hollywood movies: Return Of The Jedi, and Rocky.

    ROTJ featured a freewheeling space battle with a huge emotional payoff at the end as Lando flies triumphantly out of the explosion and juxtaposed it with the Luke/Vader/Palpatine showdown which completed the Luke/Vader redemption arc.

    Rocky was just Rocky, you know? The whole movie was about him hoping to just make an impact in the ring. All he wanted to do was compete with competence and not embarass himself. He didn’t have to win the fight to fulfill the promise to the viewer. I think it’s one of the great endings of any movie I’ve ever seen. He didn’t win, but he got the girl and won the crowd and made us proud of him.

  22. @ Sam – I haven’t seen Rocky, I would agree with Star Wars though. I was so scared Lando would die that I was worried through the whole ending – just like Luke was worried about his part in it all. But I wasn’t as attached to Luke because I never expected him NOT to make it, worry for Lando made me anxious clear to the end until it all turned out okay.

    There is a series of Historic fiction I have read. In one of the books a historic character died. Even though it’s sad it wouldn’t effect me much because I knew when and how he would die already. BUT the author killed off one of the fictional characters unexpectedly, right before it happened. That put the reader in the mood for the end of the book when the Historic person died. ( I was already in tears over the first death that a second was even worse!)
    It all made for a very sad ending and set up characters for the next book.

  23. Great episode. I think the natural follow up question is simple: How can I, as a writer, recognize the promises I make in my opening. I recently had a novella critiqued and they didn’t like my ending. Too many loose threads, they said, but it’s the same thing as not fulfilling the promises made in the story.

    So, how do I recognize them?

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