Writing Excuses 10.40: What’s the Difference between Ending and Stopping?
Key points: Do you just stop when you get to the right length? How do you pick an ending? “A satisfactory ending is a satisfactory destination.” Sometimes we, the author, know the ending, but forget to tell the reader. Endings should fall out naturally, when you tie up enough of the plot threads to answer the question of the novel. Don’t make the mistake of thinking an awesome ending, a clever line, means that you’ve reached the stopping point. That makes stories end too fast. Beware ending a novel on a scene, end on a sequel. Don’t try to wrap up everything! Consider an epilogue. Be careful of the Harry Potter flash forward ending.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 40.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses on a boat. What’s the Difference between Ending and Stopping?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I was ending and stopping at the same time.
[Brandon] And that’s Dan. We also have guest star Nalo Hopkinson. Please say hello.
[Brandon] Our good friend Nalo is joining us on the Writing Excuses cruise.
[Brandon] Where we are recording live for you in front of a studio audience. So, what’s the difference between ending and stopping? The reason I chose this as a title is I know for a fact that Dan did this and I did this with our first books. We talked about it in our writing group. We were writing along, we got to the end of our book, and we said, “That feels like the length of a novel,” and we wrote The End. I’ve had a lot of students do this. Both with short stories, with novellas, with novels. They get to a length that they feel is the right length and they write The End. So I wanted to ask the podcasters today, how do you decide where your book ends? Or your short story or whatever? How do you pick that ending? How do you know the length of it?
[Howard] I liken my work to road trips all the time. Because for discovery writing, for me, it’s often a case of which car am I taking and what road am I starting on, but a satisfactory ending, for me, is a satisfactory destination. The difference between ending and stopping is the difference between arriving having had a wonderful journey and breaking down in the middle of the freeway somewhere and realizing, “Oh, well. This car’s done.”
[Brandon] I’ve broken down on the freeway several times in my books, particularly earlier in my career.
[Brandon] Has that ever happened to you, Mary?
[Mary] Oh, yeah. Yeah. One of the things that used to happen to me all the time with fiction… My dad… I would hand him a story, and mind you, this is not in the high school. Like, I’m an adult. I would hand him a story and he’d say, “Well, it just stopped.” I’m like, “No, no. This is… It’s supposed to make you think and wonder what happens next.” He’s like, “Well, it just stopped.” He was right. Looking back on them, it’s very obvious now that what would happen is I had… I knew what happened next. I knew what the ending was. I would try to leave this ending that was all ethereal and whooh… With the idea that the audience will fill in the rest. But what was really happening for the audience was that I had given them this big question at the beginning and had been working on answering that all the way to the end. Then I got there and I didn’t tell them the answer. It was just like…
[Brandon] Yeah. We do it. We do it. Nalo, how do you decide how long a story is? Do you judge it once you reach a certain point, or do you know up front?
[Nalo] I know up front. I can tell the difference between a short story and a novel. The middle one’s, I’m still woozy on. But with a short story, I often have the title before I have anything else. The title is kind of a poem that encapsulates what you’re trying to to write about in a story. Often, my forebrain has no idea what I’m trying to write about. My hindbrain says, “Oh, I… We can make a story about that. Hopefully.” For me, the ending of a short story has to sort of fall naturally out of what came before it. So when you get to a point when you’ve found that thing that makes you go “Aha!” and you feel things sort of click… I’m a very kinetic writer. That’s your ending. With novels, with at least my first three novels, I didn’t know I’d gotten to the end until I got there. With my first one, I remember I was writing for a deadline for a competition. Writing under the gun, and I don’t write very quickly. I was writing and writing and writing, got to a point and couldn’t figure out what to write next. I panicked. My first novel. Then went back through it and realized it was because I had tied up enough of the plot threads that I had answered the question of the novel.
[Brandon] Okay. So that’s what told you?
[Brandon] You had naturally… It sounds like you were pantsing or discovery writing your way…
[Brandon] Through this, and you got to the point. It was an ending, not just a stopping point, because you had naturally tied off these threads.
[Dan] I think for me, the mistake that I used to make all the time, and I’m trying to sound as… Trying to say this without sounding reductive toward short stories, but to give a novel a very short storyish ending, where it ends with a clever line of dialogue and you’re like, “That’s an awesome ending.” It is. But that doesn’t mean that your book has concluded, that you’ve reached the stopping point that Nalo is talking about.
[Mary] That’s… I’m glad you brought up the difference between ending a short story and ending a novel, because that was one of the mistakes that I was making all the time. In fact, if you read Shades of Milk and Honey, you can see my short story roots. The way I describe it is the difference between watching the Olympic gymnastic trick in the YouTube clip and watching the Olympics. When you watch the gymnastics trick, you want it to start right as the contestant is… Like the music starts and she moves, she goes into motion. You want it to end when she hits that final thing. With… When you watch the Olympics, you want to know her back story, you want to see her warm up and stretching, and the process… The road to the Olympics. Then you want to see her do the trick and stick the landing, and walk off the bat and see her coach and get the score. What happens a lot of times with short stories is… You stick the landing and proportionally, you’re actually spending about the same amount of time with the ending, that clever one line. But with a novel, that is so out of proportion to the rest of the story that it feels like you have in fact stopped. You have to expand it. The criticism that a lot of my first two or three… Yeah, I still actually get it. But people will say that my stories end too fast. My novels end too quickly. It’s because I’m not giving people that denouement. That’s what it means, it’s basically you’ve spent all of this time with these characters and you need time to come out of the world and to experience…
[Dan] You want to say goodbye to them. To have that final moment.
[Mary] Well, it’s not… Some of it is wanting to say goodbye to them and have that final moment. But I think some of it is also that usually when you reach the end of a novel, you have some sort of new status quo, some sort of new thing, and you want to experience that. That new status quo, that new…
[Dan] Yeah. My favorite example of this, and I know some people disagree. When they made the movies of the Lord of the Rings, they took out scouring of the Shire. Which works really well for a movie. But in a novel, if you don’t have the scouring of the Shire, then you don’t have them going home, you don’t have them applying the skills that they’ve learned, you don’t have any of that fantastic ending stuff where they’ve grown.
[Brandon] This is a point of contention because I’ve always hated that because it felt like an ending after my ending. I did want them to go home…
[Dan] Which is the primary complaint about the movie as it is.
[Brandon] I did want them to go home. But I didn’t want them to have another adventure at home. I wanted that to be in a sequel. When I read that at the end of the Lord of the Rings, I thought, I’ve already had my emotional… Like I’ve taken myself to 11 and then deflated. Now you want to bring me back up to a six? I just couldn’t. I couldn’t. I’m like, “No. There’s nothing this ending can do to compare with having brought me to… Already to an 11.”
[Howard] I think a helpful tool for this… And it’s a tool we’ve talked about before, is scene-sequel format. For me, it feels like an error to end a novel length work on a scene. I think ending it on a sequel, which is the phase where you are processing what has happened…
[Dan] Great way of putting it.
[Howard] Then you are… Then you get that dénouement. You get that say goodbye. You had it cranked up to 10, and now the I am tapers off to three and echoes with the whole T 60 whatever and you can be done. If you then try to crank it back up to six with the scouring of the Shire, yeah, you may have, for some readers…
[Dan] The good ones like me.
[Howard] Un-ended your book.
[Nalo] The problem with a denouement is if you’re trying to wrap up everything that happened to all the key characters… We were so done a long time ago, and you are still talking about how they learned to wear their shoes on the right feet. With a short story, I try to stop at the moment where the character has the possibility of making a change and knows it. With a novel, if I’m going to put any kind of generalities on it, it’s usually the first time they try to do the thing differently. I don’t show whether it fails or succeeds.
[Brandon] That’s very astute. That’s a very good way of putting it.
[Nalo] Thank you.
[Mary] This also brings up, I think, one of the useful tools that a lot of writers… I have never used. But it’s the epilogue. One of the things about the epilogue as opposed to having a final chapter… And it’s a silly trick to play with the reader’s mind. But just the word epilogue says this is something that I am appending. The story that you have read is over. This is a new little tiny story that I’ve attached. So it gives you an opportunity to change pace. Like, if the scouring of the Shire had been an epilogue…
[Brandon] I probably would have been okay.
[Mary] You would’ve been all over it. But…
[Brandon] Particularly a Tolkien-style epilogue appendix thing. I’m like, “Oh, it’s basically a new novel.”
[Mary] Yes. Exactly. So that is a tool that you can use in novel form when you have something… Especially if your readers are having trouble with that ending. In fact, actually, if you look at Of Noble Family, the epilogue at the end was originally part of the last chapter. I cut it and moved it and a lot of my beta reader problems went away when I did that. Just basically by putting in a chapter break and a new word.
[Brandon] An illustration of this also, I’ve heard… I could be wrong, but the fourth of the Ender’s series by Orson Scott Card. The editor actually took the epilogue or the last few chapters of the previous one and made it its own book for these very reasons and released it. It’s… Sorry, Scott, nowhere near as good as the other ones and I think it’s because it was appended to the other one and it worked better on its own.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. We’re actually going to hear about a book that Nalo wrote.
[Nalo] So I’m going to tell you a bit about Sister Mine which is my last novel…
[Mary] Most recent novel. Please don’t let that be your last, I want more.
[Nalo] Thank you. I kind of do, too.
[Nalo] Sister Mine is a combination of Goblin Market which is both the most innocent poem about sisters and the most perverted poem about sisters I have ever read, and a bunch of other crazy things that are happening in my mind, including the fact… I have these two sisters who are now, they were twins born conjoined and separated at birth. They’re now adult, they don’t get along very well. Their father is in a palliative care home in Toronto and goes missing, as can happen, and they have to find him. The kicker being that their father is the Trinidadian god of the forest. Blah, blah, blah. Why he ends up in a care home in Toronto with something like Alzheimer’s is part of the story. So that’s Sister Mine.
[Brandon] Excellent. That sounds fascinating. If our readers, or our listeners, want to read this, they can go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, they can download a 30-day free trial, they can get a copy of Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson. It’s narrated by Robin Miles.
[Mary] Who is a phenomenal narrator. She’s one of the best ones out there.
[Brandon] And you can get a copy of the book for free.
[Brandon] Let’s talk a little bit about something that I really wanted to get in this podcast, and that’s the Harry Potter style ending. Now, to give not many spoilers, I don’t know if I can… I care about this, but the Harry Potter series ends with a flash forward many years, and a “Where are they now?” 10 years later or something like this. It was very divisive among the community. Well, some liked it and many hated it. Why did so many people hate an ending like this? Is there something to learn from this style of ending?
[Dan] I think a lot of the reason that people hated that one in particular is because it hammers so many extra nails into the coffin on this story. It’s like not… This story’s done, but if they had finished it right after they graduated high school, then we could imagine all the other cool things they could go on and do. But as it is, no. We’ve jumped ahead 15 years. We have seen them grow up, we know they fall in love with and marry, we’ve seen their kids. It told too much story too fast for people who wanted to take time and imagine for themselves all the other things that could have been.
[Howard] I think the issue there is the Harry Potter franchise at that point was the Harry Potter franchise. It was a thing in which people had hundreds and in some cases thousands of hours of personal time invested. Being told the end and then being given an epilogue that as Dan says nails so many coffins in the ending. The epilogue basically says all of the interesting stories that you may be thinking of right now that may happen to them after high school you don’t get to tell because this is where they are 10 years from now. That can work really well in a shorter work that is not its own franchise. But for the Harry Potter books, it disappointed a lot of people. It disappointed the fans who were the most invested in the work.
[Mary] See, I think it was actually something… I think there was an element of that, but I think that some of it was… Some of the anger was that this really did mean that the series was over. As simple as that. I don’t want it to be over, and this means it’s over. The other thing, for me, with that particular ending, which I think is something we can learn from, is that it’s very, very tidy. It is so neat and tidy. It ties up everything. There’s nothing left dangling.
[Dan] Yeah. One of the scenarios where that style of ending works really well is in documentaries. You see this a lot. There was a fantastic fictionalized account of a cool thing that happened… About a story of some Mexican kids that built a robot for a contest. I can’t remember the title of the movie. But it ends in that same style. When you do this in real life, invariably the endings for at least one and often many of the characters are sad. They’re not what you wanted them to be. Here’s this amazing kid who broke out of all these cultural stereotypes and made a robot and won this MIT contest and today he works in a hotel carrying luggage. Something like that. So you don’t have that tidiness in real life. So if you’re going to do that in fiction, I think you need to have some kind of sense of that, that things didn’t wrap up exactly the way you wanted them.
[Nalo] That’s part of it. You remember I said with my first novel, I realized I’d wrapped up most of the storylines but not all of them. The thing for me to remember is that a piece of fiction is a collaboration between you and your reader. That’s why each reader gets a different story. Because together, you collaborate on making it, so you have to leave room for them. That’s why the ending like the Harry Potter ending that says, “It’s done, here’s what happened, never mind what you imagined,” can be so unsatisfying. Because you… I like to leave my readers still telling stories about the novel in their head.
[Brandon] Yeah. I’m more like you with this. I like to leave questions. I like to leave new questions. I like the answers… The questions that I raised at the beginning of the story are answered, and I leave you with a “Now, what about this?” But I think there are valid reasons to go both ways.
[Brandon] In fact, I’m going to give us some homework that is going to try to get you… You should be at your ending of your story that you’ve been working on as you’ve been listening to these podcasts. I want you to try to nudge it two directions and see if you like it better. I want you to try an epilogue where maybe you approach some of these things, a Harry Potter style epilogue, or an epilogue where you kind of… You spend a little more time with the sequel. Then I want you to try to back up. I want you to cut off part of your ending and see if you can get more of this sort of emotional resonance into the part that’s left. You do this by giving clear indications of what those questions are going to be and what people are going to try in the first part of your ending, rather than kind of lingering on the second part of your ending. Just experiment with different lengths of ending for your story and see what it does to it. This has been Writing Excuses. We want to thank our wonderful audience of Writing Excuses cruise members.
[Brandon] We want to thank Nalo for being with us. Thank you so much.
[Nalo] Thank you.
[Brandon] Now, listeners, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.