Writing Excuses 10.43: Q&A on Endings, with Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman joined us aboard the Independence of the Seas for our question-and-answer installment on endings. The questions came from the attendees at the Writing Excuses Workshop, which was, lest anyone forget, on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.  The questions:

  • Why do more short stories than novels end on tragic notes?
  • How do you keep an ending from being predictable or boring?
  • How do you write a stand-alone ending with sequel potential?
  • What are the best ways to avoid infodump endings?
  • Are there differences between writing the first novel in a series and other novels in the series?
  • How do you know which questions to leave unanswered?
  • What sort of attention do you give to your last lines?

This episode was engineered aboard The Independence of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered in a soundproofed bullet-train by Alex Jackson.


You finished your book? TAKE A BREAK! This week’s homework is for you to relax a bit, and do whatever it is you do with a spot of time off. Revision begins soon, and you may need a palate-cleanser.

The Freedom Maze, by Delia Sherman, narrated by Robin Miles

6 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.43: Q&A on Endings, with Delia Sherman”

  1. Good Q&A.

    How to write a standalone with sequel potential is something I’ve been messing around with a lot lately, although maybe coming at it from a slightly different angle. I suppose I’ve been thinking a lot about how to string together a series of stand-alone books while managing to both make the over-arcing plot engaging and not exclude new readers along the way.

    I guess I am thinking of something like the Gifts, Voices, Powers series by Le Guin, or some of the more connected Terry Pratchett mini-series within the Discworld novels. It might even be that I’m thinking of something like Babylon 5, that is episodic but still has a through-plot.

    So far, what I’m trying to do in my current project, is write stories with clear beginnings, middles and ends, but peppering subtle through-plot elements into the story at the same time: sort of like, you can pay attention to the through-plot if interested, but it won’t get in the way of the reading experience if not.

    The question about first novels in series and subsequent novel endings is interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about series that have a great, fully contained first book, and then wander into ongoing cliff-hanger-land. There’s a trap here for writers I suspect, and although such an approach can work fine, there’s a need for care.

    I liked Howard’s ‘broken bow’ analogy, with regards to tying things up in subtly wrong ways. That’s a neat way to think about how to lead things on into subsequent novels. I guess I tend to also think that resolving things correctly, but being misleading about what is really important is similar to this, or falls into the same broad area. Patrick Rothfuss seems to be doing this in his Kingkiller novels, where it appears (so far at least) that there’s a lot of implying that X is important, but actually this other thing, Y, in the background is the really important thing and that hasn’t been resolved yet. He seems to be being very, very clever in that regard.

    Also, huzzah for taking a break! This is something I’ve recently realised I absolutely must do. In the last year I’ve completed and then done about 4-5 revisions on a 20K novella, completed and done 3+ revisions of a 100k sequel, and completed and done 1 revision on a 60k sequel (will prob expand up to 80-100k eventually). I’ve realised that the writing, plus day job plus all the other stuff in life has left me at a point of being exhausted. Breaks are good. We all need them from time to time.


  2. “We are going to do revision “- Brandon

    Immidelty felt guilty for not doing my home work , began checking for revision dates then realized that exams finished last week and I am not in highschool any more.

  3. Another interesting way to do standalone/sequel potential, if you have the setting for it, is to do standalone stories in the same universe. Most gamers are familiar with the Elder Scrolls games, which do this – each game is a couple hundred years later and its story is a legend like Arthur or Robin Hood. Elizabeth Boyer did something similar with her first 4 books. Her twist on Norse mythology is consistent enough that it feels like the books all take place in the same universe despite the fact that they’re geographically inconsistent. (Of course, none of the maps are global in scope, so it’s plausible she meant them to be taking place in different parts of the same world.) It’s kinda like how the Mistborn trilogy fits with Alloy of Law, less the technological leap from late medieval to 1800s California – you can read any of the books first and be comfortable with the nature of the other worlds pretty much from the start.

    That said, this tactic kinda requires an author to come up with something fairly unique about the world they’re writing in. Be it Norse-with-a-twist like Boyer did or, say, the cyborg enhanced human concepts that things like Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell play with, there needs to be something of that nature. If you’re just playing character drama, you obviously need at least some of those characters to call it a sequel in any sense.

    (It might be worth noting that Boyer’s first 4 books weren’t marketed as a series (despite Wikipedia’s listing of them under the header “World of the Alfar”), so it’s not so much “sequel potential” as “chance-at-selling-another-book potential. Which is pretty much the objective for fledgling authors trying to make a career instead of just a one-off publication.)

    @CP Johnstone: One of the best places I’ve seen the series of independent stories with through plot in novels is Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Each novel tells a self-contained story and includes enough information to follow its internal plot even if it’s been covered before. That said, things learned in previous books are referenced in later ones, character relationships change through the series, injuries and losses accumulate and are recovered from over the next couple of books (or more; there’s one wound in particular that lasted at least 4 books). Side characters he pissed off, etc, become major focuses of the plot (a minor, single chapter event from book 1 spins out of proportion and becomes a central plot point for at least 10 books (depending on how you count things).) It’s involved enough that it’s hard to tell what parts he had planned out and what parts he’s winging. (Book 8 is particularly noteworthy for that; it has a lot of weird stuff going on that still has the dedicated fanbase mulling things over, 7 books later.)

    I think the important points are is that you shouldn’t hit the reset button after every novel (TV’s pretty much the only medium that lets writers get away with that), but don’t assume your reader necessarily knows anything even if it was covered in an earlier book.

  4. @ Rashkavar

    I’d forgotten about the Dresden files, but yes, although I haven’t read the series the whole way through, from what I have read your description is exactly right. They form standalone stories with a clear through-plot. A really good example of doing that skilfully.


  5. and now, the end is here… Tragedy, predictable and boring, standalone but with potential? Or maybe it’s an info dump? Is it the first ending? Too many answers for one ending? How do you make that last line sing in the readers’ minds?

    Before we start revising, take a break and read the transcript! Available in the archives and also over here:


    Don’t forget, just because your story is ending doesn’t mean you’re done yet! Come back soon for the luxury of revision!

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