Writing Excuses 15.42: Writing The End
Key Points: How do you pick the right kind of climax? Your beginning, the first act, telegraphs the ending. How do you pick the right one for the story? Identify what kind of story fulfills the character’s journey. Write backwards, plan the ending and let that determine the rest of the story. The ending defines the story. Start with who are the characters when we leave them, then rewind to figure out what leads them there. You need to know what you’re making to figure out the ingredients. How can the characters fail and still satisfy the audience? Give them hope. It should be satisfying, but still a train wreck. Build up to it. Fulfill the promises, and still surprise them. Don’t change your ending just because someone guessed it. Satisfying does not necessarily mean happy.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 42.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing The End.
[Victoria] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Victoria] I’m Victoria.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we’re done.
[Brandon] I don’t usually get to do that joke.
[Brandon] We’re going to talk about writing endings. We have questions from listeners, and a couple of them are really curious about how we pick what kind of ending we do. So, the first question is, how do you decide what kind of climax fits your story? They list battle, escape, conversation, inner turmoil, etc. All of those together sounds like a great idea.
[Howard] Well, the… There’s a school of thought that says your… Whatever your first line, your first paragraph, your first chapter, that will tell you in some sense what your ending will be. That will telegraph the whole story. That works much better for short things than for long things. But, by the end of the first act, you should know what kind of an ending… Whether this is going to end in a gunfight or a conversation.
[Brandon] Yeah, I agree. Now, if you’re a heavy duty discovery writer, you may not discover that till the end, and then you need to rewrite it in. That’s totally fine. But let’s just say in the finished product, the reader should be able to anticipate what kind of ending it is… You are looking for after the first act of your story is done. Most of the time. That said, sometimes you do get twists, like, Into the Woods by Sondheim is a classic example of sometimes reversing expectations. It’s very hard to do. But it’s very rewarding if you do it right.
[Dan] I’m not sure that we’re answering this specific person’s question. Because they said, here’s my list of things, a battle, a chase, a conversation. If I know that my book has to end with the hero defeating the villain, that could take the form of a battle, that could take the form of a chase, that could take the form of various different kinds of violence or action. How do you pick which one of those is going to be best for this particular story?
[Brandon] I like your reframing it that way. Because we’re taking the easy answer to this…
[Brandon] I think the harder answer, because… Looking at something like MCU films. One of my favorites is Doctor Strange. I know a lot of people think it’s one of the weakest, but I love it, because magic and wizards. The ending of that one is basically a conversation.
[Dan] Yeah. And it’s a very clever one. It is a puzzle, and especially coming on the heels of so many where, so many Marvel movies all ended with we’re all over a city and the city is blowing up and we’re flying around and shooting each other, that one ended with a conversation and a puzzle.
[Brandon] And you totally could have ended that one with a fight instead, and it would have felt appropriate for the themes that were happening through the story.
[Howard] Let’s look at that ending a little bit. There is a whole bunch of very satisfying fight leading up to that ending. That ending is the capstone to the fight, the capstone to all of this action there at the end. To me, that’s what made it satisfying. If he had arrived and immediately gone and had his chat with Dormammu, I wouldn’t have felt satisfied.
[Brandon] That’s true.
[Howard] I wouldn’t have seen all the fun magic stuff I wanted to see.
[Brandon] Although, I will say, part of the reason I like that ending is it was a theme for the character, learning patience…
[Brandon] We had seen that his trouble was he wanted it now, he wanted to be the best, and he wanted his answers. If you haven’t seen the movie, he travels to get healed from a terrible injury so he can go back to being a doctor. He finds people who will help him, and they turn him aside. They send him out. He’s like, “No, no, no. You’ve got to help me.” But he has to learn to be patient with his flaws and with himself to find inner peace. Then he uses that to defeat the enemy.
[Dan] Now, to Howard’s point, a lot of what’s going on in the early action stuff is try-fail cycles. I think we can win by this. No we can’t. I think we can win by this. No we can’t. Then he puts the pieces together and completes his own inner arc, and that’s when he figures out how to do it.
[Howard] I think that comes back to the original question. Am I going to end with a battle? Am I going to end with a chase? Am I going to end with a conversation? Well, Brandon’s first answer was, these all sound nice.
[Howard] You can have all of those. You can have, in the final six minutes of act three, you can have a battle that… Or, excuse me, a chase… Well, a battle that fails and someone gets away and you have to chase them and you catch them and you have a conversation, and then we’re done.
[Brandon] I think the key here is for you to identify what kind of story will fulfill, not necessarily what you need to do, but will fulfill the character’s journey. Then you could pick any one of these things. Whatever feels right at the time. As long as you are completing that character’s journey. That’s the harder decision.
[Victoria] So, I feel like I’m the monster at the end of this conversation.
[Victoria] Right? Like, the thing is, I have been waiting to talk until the end of this because I write my books backwards. So I actually don’t do anything until I’ve planned the ending. The ending, for me, and that climax basically through the last page, determines the entire story I’m telling. So, for me, the total cohesion of it is second to figuring out the ending of the story. So I feel like I have perhaps a different perspective on this, because rather than write toward the end, and think what kind of resolution do I need in order to fulfill the promises that I’ve made early on, I write backwards, from the end to make those promises from the ending that I know I want to achieve.
[Dan] So, you are still then at a point in the process deciding how your ending is going to work. I actually write the same way. I think about the ending first. So, how do you pick?
[Victoria] It’s the story I want to tell. I feel like the ending is not a culmination, it’s the definition. For me, the ending is the punctuation at the end, it’s the thing that we’re working toward. An entire sentence has to end at that moment. I… It is part of the fundamental questions I am asking myself when I begin to have an idea and when I begin to ask what kind of story I’m telling. I really treat the ending is the opportunity for the absolute collision of all of the ideas that I have, of all of the places that I want to end. The thing that I actually ask myself, before I figure out if it’s a battle or a chase or anything, is who are my characters at the moment we leave them? So, really, it comes down to who’s alive, who’s dead, where are they act physically and psychologically, and then, from there, I begin to rewind their last moments in order to figure out what is the thing that leads them there, and I rewind from there all the way until I get to the beginning and figure out who the characters are when we first meet them.
[Howard] Your Doctor Strange metaphor is feeling even more fitting now.
[Howard] The bit about working backwards from the ending, it does not feel backwards to me. When I’m outlining, these days all of my discovery writing tricks are now rolled into my outlining process. The… I’ve talked about the process where my first outline is a 10-year-old boy tells you about his favorite movie at high speed. The 10-year-old boy will say, “Ohohoh, I forgot to tell you this one thing.” That actually goes into my first pass at the outline, because it’s silly and it’s fun. But I begin that process thinking, “What is the big awesome moment at the end that got the 10-year-old boy to come home and tell me, ‘Oh, I have to tell you about this movie, it’s so great!'”
[Howard] “Because there was this thing. But before I tell you about the end…” And then off we go.
[Victoria] Also, I have used, I feel like over the course of the episodes that I’ve been here, a lot of food metaphors. But to use yet another food metaphor, it’s like the ingredients, like, you’re gathering apples along the way, and you end up with an apple pie or something. I don’t want to end up with, like, an orange cake. Like, if I grew… Like, I don’t want to, like… If you write towards a discovery and you don’t actually have a plan in mind, you risk gathering ingredients which result in a different end, which result in something that doesn’t feel cohesive. Whereas I want to know what it is I’m making, so that I can figure out the ingredients that I need to find along the way to make that dish. It is all about that dish.
[Howard] If you’re gathering apples, it is entirely possible to end up with cyanide.
[Howard] Because there’s cyanide in apple seeds.
[Victoria] Okay. Different fruit, then.
[Howard] But that’s… No no no, but your metaphor works perfectly, because you can gather apples, you can be gathering these things, and still have some options for what happens at the end. That’s, for me, where surprising but inevitable will come in.
[Brandon] Let’s stop and talk about your book.
[Howard] Oh, yes.
[Victoria] Yeah. I have a new book out. Or I will, by the time this airs. It is called The Invisible Life of Addie Larue. It is essentially about a young woman in 18th-century France who is deathly afraid of dying in the same place she was born. She decides to summon the old gods to help her out of her life, out of her predicament.
[Brandon] As one does.
[Victoria] As one does. As one does. But the problem is, none of them answer. She prays that Dawn, and no one answers. She prays at midday, and no one answers. She prays at dusk, and no one answers. The one rule she has been taught all her life, never pray to the gods that answer after dark. She makes a mistake, and she does this, and she accidentally summons the devil. When he asks her what she would be willing to trade for her soul, she wants time. She doesn’t know how much, she wants to live forever, and the devil says, “No.” Because if you live forever, he doesn’t get your soul, he gets the soul at the conclusion of the deal. So, in a moment of desperation, she says to the devil, “You can have my soul when I don’t want it anymore.” Sensing an opportunity, the devil agrees. The deal is done, and she discovers afterward that he has granted her the ability to live forever and cursed her to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
[Brandon] There you go.
[Victoria] I did not start writing it until… I had the idea eight years ago, and I didn’t start writing it until two years ago when I figured out the ending.
[Brandon] What an awesome premise.
[Howard] And is this under the name…
[Victoria] V. E. Schwab.
[Howard] V. E. Schwab. The Invisible Life of Addie Larue.
[Brandon] All right. So. Another question we had… Kind of take this from a different direction, is, how can you end a climax without neatly resolving the conflicts, or, also, how can you have your characters fail without leaving the audience disappointed? How can you build up all this tension, and build up all these indications that there’s going to be a heroic victory, and then… Not. Give. It. To. Them?
[Victoria] Well, in YA, you would say you would need to have hope. So you can end with a bad ending or a failure in YA, but the thing that you don’t want to end up with is the lack of hope. I’m also a really big believer in saving the day, but not the world. I love it when your characters survive to fight again, maybe solve one of the problems, but in so doing, much like the try-fail cycle, end up creating another problem that they’re going to have to face at some point down the line.
[Dan] Yeah. Unsatisfying endings are like my favorite thing.
[Dan] Unsatisfying is the wrong word, because if you do it right, it will still feel satisfying and it will still feel resolved, even though you didn’t get what you want. So, in all of my John Cleaver novels, except, arguably, the very last one, he does what he’s trying to do. He fills the goal he sets out to fill, and then looks around at the wreckage surrounding him and goes, “Oh, my gosh. What was the cost of actually destroying this demon? I’ve lost my family, I lost everything that I had.” And I just over and over for five books because I’m an awful person.
[Dan] The ending of Extreme Makeover does this same thing. It has an incredibly dark, desolate ending that a lot of people come back to me and they’re like, “How… Why did you do that?” Because that’s where it needed to end. That is actually the resolution of the arc that I set up, is that these characters are going to fail in the world is going to end.
[Brandon] It’s why everyone on Seinfeld should end up in jail…
[Brandon] At the end of the series. That is the satisfying resolution, under some understandings of how the plots were going.
[Dan] Okay. So. Taking Extreme Makeover as an example, all of my early readers, all of the offer readers, the writing group that I ran it through, they all came back and said, “What? How dare you end it there? We thought they were going to pull it out.” I realized, okay, this is satisfying to me, but I need to make it satisfying to the audience. So, I played a lot of tricks on you. First of all, I started every chapter, and this came very late in the revision process, started every chapter with a countdown to the end of the world. So that you know, even if you think that I’m going to cheat at the end and pull it out, you at least have been told, every couple of pages, nope, the end of the world is coming.
[Brandon] That worked really well. What it did was it made the end of the world become a thing you’re anticipating, and kind of looking forward to.
[Dan] Yes. Then, the other thing was, I kind of amped up the darkness inside of all the characters, so that when it happens, you’re like, “Oh, good. That one just got his comeuppance.” Then, “Oh, good, that one just got it.” We get to the end and you realize, like, the worst thing that any character does in that book, in my opinion, happens in one of the last couple of pages. If you actually look at the dates and the times of this countdown, it’s not counting down to the end of the book, it’s counting down to that one betrayal. So, by the time you get there, you’re like, “Well, yeah, he deserves to die. I’ve been following this whole time, I’ve been waiting for him to pull it out, he just did this awful thing to her, I want him to die.”
[Victoria] This comes back, again and again, to promises. Right? To promise versus expectation, to finding a way to surprise people even when they know what they want. Because that’s essentially the bargain that you’re trying to strike here, is, a reader reads and, if you have a cohesive narrative, they have an idea of how they expect it to end and how they want it to end. You, somehow, have to find ways to surprise them, and not be predictable, while still fulfilling the general promise. You made a tonal promise over the course of your book. So, then, they can’t be betrayed by the tone. They can’t be betrayed by the ending. So there’s like… It’s a lot of promises to keep up with. You’re going to end up with somebody upset. Like, no matter how well you end a book, somebody is going to wish you ended it differently. That’s one of the hard parts of this.
[Howard] The one counsel I’d give is that if you have a public audience for a series, and you have not yet published the ending of the series, don’t let the fact that someone correctly guessed the ending of a thing make you change the ending. I was on a panel with a guy who wrote for comic books. He would go through the letters and if somebody guessed his ending, he would just change it. I thought, “That is no way to live.”
[Howard] I assume that somebody is going to put all these things together, even if they’re just rolling dice, and figure out what I had planned. That person gets to do a little dance…
[Victoria] [garbled… They get a cookie]
[Howard] And know that they are smarter than me, and that’s fine.
[Brandon] Going back to some of the things that Dan and Victoria were saying, I think satisfying doesn’t have to mean happy. If you can learn to split apart those two things… George Martin made a career on being satisfying but not happy in his epic fantasy. That is what people came to expect. That… Being satisfying… Even satisfying deaths is like a thing in the Game of Thrones series, that if you don’t fulfill on, reader expectations are like, “Wait a minute. This is not what I was promised. I was looking forward to satisfying deaths.”
[Dan] You can see that in the final season of the TV show.
[Victoria] We can’t… I can’t even talk about it, I’m so angry.
[Dan] So many people…
[Victoria] I’m still angry.
[Dan] Started to complain about halfway through the season, “Wait. All of the main characters are going to live through this!” That is not what they had been promised, years and years ago when that first book started. Then the show kind of flinched and stopped killing off main characters. It didn’t satisfy.
[Victoria] That is a tonal promise break. You promised not only death, but satisfying death that adequately reflected the crimes which were perpetuated in life. It is one of the only things we all had to look forward to…
[Victoria] I am still upset about it.
[Brandon] Moving on. Let’s go ahead and do some homework. Dan, you have our homework.
[Dan] Yeah. So what we want you to do is just practice this. Take something you’ve already written, whether it is a short story, a novel, or whatever length. Then, rewrite your ending so that the opposite thing happens. This is not just let a meteor land and kill all of your heroes before they succeed. Find away that they can fail, but that it’s satisfying. Whether you do this the opposite kind of tone or the opposite kind of… The opposite person wins. However you want to define opposite. Write it, but do your best to make it feel satisfying.
[Brandon] I’m really curious to try this on some of my own stories. I think it would be… This is going to be a fun exercise to practice kind of pantsing an ending, where you’re taking all the things you’ve set up, and then coming up with a new ending. Very hard for someone like you or me who always knows our endings.
[Victoria] I was going to say… You’ve gathered all your ingredients for apple pie, and now…
[Dan] Now I’m telling you to make orange juice.
[Victoria] You have to go and bake something completely different with it?
[Howard] I’ve already told you, there’s cyanide in there.
[Victoria] I know, I know. [Garbled] poison.
[Howard] You’ve got this.
[Brandon] You’re out of excuses, now go write.