Writing Excuses 10.40: What’s the Difference Between Ending and Stopping?

Nalo Hopkinson joins us for this episode, which we recorded before a live audience of Out Of Excuses Workshop & Retreat attendees. October’s master class episodes focus on endings, and in this first installment we talk about what an ending really is. It’s obviously the last part of the book, but the gestalt of “ending” is so much more than just “The End,” and it’s important that we understand all that before committing ourselves to being done writing it.

(Note: You can start writing your ending any time you want. Stopping writing your ending, and being done with it? There’s the rub.)

This episode was engineered aboard The Independence of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered ashore in a secret laboratory by Alex Jackson.


Take an ending you’ve written (the ending of your Master Class story would be a fine choice for this) and trim it, pushing it earlier in the story. See how early it can appear, and how this changes things.

Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson, narrated by Robin Miles

13 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.40: What’s the Difference Between Ending and Stopping?”

  1. If you don’t like extended endings a la the scouring of the shire, I recommend that you avoid Kushiel’s Legacy by Jacqueline Carey. I love the series to death, but Carey has a…fondness…. for extended endings. It’s bad enough in the first book where after the final battle they have to resolve the fallout on the battlefield, then return to the capital city and resolve things there, and then go and hang out in the countryside for a bit before it’s over. But in the third book, the most evil character and country in the series are killed 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the book. Then there is the resolution of the fallout from that, a travelog to the bottom of Africa, a second climax, a briefer travelog back up to Europe, resolution with one of the more important antagonists, political fallout in France, then travel up to the English Channel for a third climax, then out to the countryside for some relaxation, then back to the city for a final party.

    Actually, that one wouldn’t be so bad if you consider the third climax to be the actual one. It is the one related to the longest overarching plot. But while that climax deals with the plot that kicked off the story, the main story driver was dealt with in the first climax; its conclusion drains too much momentum and everything after that feels like falling action to me.

  2. Mary’s explanation of “I ended without answering the question” feels exactly like why I hate the “Lady & the Tiger” story that English teachers think is so wonderful. *lol* :)

    1. “The Lady or the Tiger” is a short story, which is why it works, and why it gets taught from so often. It’s more of a thought experiment than an actual story, but it’s still pretty cool. I doubt it would seem cool if it had been a full-length novel.

  3. I love your podcast and have even recommended it on my blog, but I think this is my first time commenting. I wanted to point out one thing that didn’t come up when you were talking about the Harry Potter epilogue:

    For me, the main reason why that particular ending didn’t work was the fact that it didn’t match the story as it had developed by that point. It would have worked had it followed the first book, but we spent seven books discovering that there’s much more wrong with the wizarding world than just the Big Bad. We’ve seen the divide in the wizarding society, the corruption within the ministry, the oppression of magical beings other than wizards…

    We killed off the Big Bad and we could have gone on to start fixing those ills, because it was obviously something the characters cared about. But suddenly we have this sugary-sweet happily ever after where all the characters get their happy endings and we’re supposed to accept it. All character arcs were neatly tied off, yes, which is a big issue, but so many important things were not just left open (which would have been welcomed), they seemed to have been swept under the carpet in a locked room behind a “Nothing interesting to see here” sign.

    The anger over the epilogue is not (just) about the fact that the possibility of new adventures was removed. One moment we see the main characters as teenagers fighting all the wrongs and the next they’re swiftly approaching forty, each with multiple children and all settled down. Even if we can accept that they could have had that sort of life, the jump forward is jarring. It leaves a reader, particularly a reader who grew up with the books and would have been about the same age as the characters during the final fight, with an overwhelming feeling of “…what?”

    There were promises made in the last four or so books and the epilogue not only doesn’t fulfill them, it spits in the reader’s face.

  4. The scouring of the Shire was the payoff for the entire LOTR saga! The first EIGHT chapters of Fellowship are the hobbits bumbling and hobbiting their way out of the Shire until they get to the Prancing Pony and meet Strider. The Scouring is ONE chapter in which the older and wiser hobbits can apply their new skills to their old world. The Scouring also gives an important message–that war and tragedy and evil don’t only happen out There, in the wide, wide world beyond the Shire–these things can happen at home, too, and pretending they won’t doesn’t prevent them from happening.

    I know this can be a matter of taste. I like denouement and resolution. I don’t want to have to make up my own endings for the characters in someone else’s stories. I want the person who told me the beginning of the story to also tell me the end, and the epilogue. After trusting a writer through an entire novel, being left to figure out my own ending seems like a betrayal, or a trick, or just pure laziness on the author’s part. (Short stories are different–so many of them are intentional tricks from beginning to end–(Chopin, Jackson, Updike, Poe, Hawthorne, etc)). Heck, I know what I think about stuff–I read to figure out what other people think about stuff.

    That being said, while I appreciated the HP epilogue, it didn’t quite work…. I wonder if it would have worked better if it had shown the families picking the kids up after the term, rather than putting them on the train at the beginning of the term…. Getting ON the train to Hogwarts belongs at the beginning of Harry Potter books.

  5. @Carrie

    I feel almost the same way. I love being tricked by a writer… sometimes.

    In a short story it’s like someone jumping out of a cake or tapping a bullhorn to your car door, in long-form fiction it can be like finding out your wife only married you on a dare.

  6. Hi there,

    Was off in the jungle (literally) last week, so didn’t get to comment.

    There is definitely a need to balance out the end so that it takes up about the right percentage of space relative to the book. Multiple false endings or successive tie-offs constitute an approach, though I tend to think it’s a clumsy one. It’s better to spin out the end so that the tension remains high through the ending phase, whilst resolving the questions and plot threads all in a cohesive way. Easier said than done, I know.

    I tended to have, and maybe still have, the same problem as Mary with early attempts at novels. It wasn’t just that I ended suddenly (I’d try to wrap everything up within 5k words in a 100k story) but I also didn’t really flag that the end was coming, so a reader was surprised. It’s hard to pin down, but there are tonal, voice and pacing differences as we steer towards the end of a story. It’s like the last few twists of a well designed roller coaster. You kind of know ahead of time that the ride is just about over, but it builds anticipation rather than leaving you feeling startled.

    In terms of the Lord of the Rings, I think Tolkien’s experiences with war meant that to him homecomings were actually an extremely important part of any story of journey. Maybe those of us who’ve never been knee deep in mud in a trench don’t quite get that aspect of things, but I do think the Scouring of the Shire is honest to the whole tone of the work in a way that simply ending the story after the destruction of the One Ring would not have been.

    The LotR end is also a bit funny, once you get some perspective on it. There’s basically a small band of thugs holding the Shire to hostage, and the four hobbits who arrive have variously: 1) seen the face of a Balrog of Morgoth, 2) spoken with the Lady Galadriel who is literally older than the Sun 3) stared through a seeing stone into the very mind of Sauron, 4) openly defied the mad Steward of Gondor, 5) ridden in a charge against the massed armies of Mordor, 6) stabbed the Witch-King of Angmar with a sword, 7) stabbed the greatest living offspring of Ungoliant and 7) born the One Ring of Power and seen its destruction.

    At the point in the story when a big half-orc thug turns up, I sort of just feel sorry for him.


  7. Frank Herbert said, “There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” But… the fearsome foursome, along with Nalo Hopkinson, and the Writing Excuses cruise members, ponder just why you might end something here, instead of there! Just remember what Arrakis teaches about the attitude of the knife “Now it’s complete because it’s ended here.”

    Read about the difference between ending at a fine destination, and simply stopping in the middle of the freeway in the transcript, available in the archives or over here


  8. A good example of that documentary ending thing is actually a series I watched recently called The World Wars. It’s a 6 hour overview of the history of the world wars and the intervening years, taken as a continuous political event. A lot of interesting info about how Versailles set up world war 2, the impact of the depression, etc – its coverage of the wars itself is very broad and tells very little anyone interested in that period doesn’t know already, but its coverage of the interwar years (1919-1938) is something that is very rarely covered.

    The series focuses on a number of major players throughout the wars – Hitler, Stalin, Hideki Tojo, Mussolini, DeGaulle, Churchill, FDR, Patton and MacArthur. (somewhat american-centric, since it only takes non-political people from the US, but still interesting). The last 5 minutes summarizes what happened to the survivors of the war. (Hitler and Mussolini, obviously, not so much.) Tojo attempted suicide and was hanged for war crimes afterward. DeGaulle was voted in as president of France. Patton died in a car accident about a decade later. etc.

    And yeah, it only really works if they’re real people, or if you do what Tolkien did. (Create a vast tome called The Appendices that is essentially a historical document of what happened afterward as if it was indeed actual history.)

  9. I wonder about ending the first book in a series (or second), rather than the final ending. Because you definitely want to keep people engaged, and want them to want the next book. Although, you then get cliffhangers like George R.R. Martin’s and rabid readers… I don’t know, what should be done with endings of a novel in a series?

  10. Tad Williams in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series did a super interesting thing that kind of married both closed endings and open endings — after the main story was closed, a witch woman delivers a random prophecy about two new-borns. All the characters reacted to it with wonder. It left the sense that though this story is over, the stories of the world continues totally independent from the story we just finished, but linked enough to it to soothe us. Even if we don’t get to read about it, not everything is over. I always loved that little touch, and somewhere in the back of my mind those two kids are causing all sorts of trouble.

  11. You also single-handedly helped me figure out why I wasn’t wild about the ending of my otherwise favorite epic fantasy JRPG of all time–Grandia.

    I’ll have my work cut out for me for the homework you described. As I’m currently found of having the story reverse in on itself for a deeper meaning.

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