Writing Excuses Season Two Episode Six: Endings
Key points: endings should be satisfying — fulfill your promises. Fulfill the expectations of the story, break the expectations of the formula. Gather up all the little plot ribbons and tie them in a bow. “I always do have my ending in mind when I start, but I don’t always end up with the ending that I started with.”
[Howard] I need the sign. Where’s the sign? Monkey noises!
[Brandon] all right, we’re going to talk about endings.
[Howard] oh, that’s right — 15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry
[Dan] and we are apparently not that smart
[Brandon] I’m Brandon
[Dan] I’m Dan
[Howard] and I’m late to the party
[Brandon] because Howard flubbed that one, we’re going to make him go first. Howard, what’s your philosophy on endings?
[Howard] every ending is actually a beginning. I told you you were going to regret…
[Dan] we don’t need to know your philosophy on greeting cards
[Howard] my philosophy on endings is that the ending needs to tie up everything with the bow except for those glaring loose pieces of string that are not in the bow that you are going to tie up later.
[Brandon] Dan, should all endings tie everything up with a bow?
[Dan] they shouldn’t tie everything up. I’m a firm believer that endings should be kind of sad in addition to being kind of happy. I think that every ending ought to have an element of happiness in it somewhere — unless you’re writing a tragedy — but it ought to be sad as well. Maybe that’s because I’m a horror writer.
[Brandon] I agree too actually. I like my characters to keep on living. Now the thing in people’s heads — like after the story’s done — the thing is we have to look at this from the perspective of… Howard is always going to write another story about the Schlock Mercenary gang…
[Howard] I have to keep going.
[Brandon] yeah, you have to keep going. When I finish a book, I don’t always know if I’m going to be writing a sequel. Elantris — I’d like to someday, I don’t know. So I want there to be some little loose ends that allow the characters to keep on living — so that people can imagine what goes on with their lives. I don’t want to tie everything up. But at the same time, I really like a whizbang ending that just kind of punches you in the face so you say, “I didn’t see that coming, but it was so awesome that it’s just wonderful.”
[Howard] now is that the ending ending or is that the last reveal in act three?
[Brandon] I’m talking about the climactic ending followed by denouement. All of that together. My denouement are really short. I tend to do maybe one chapter — that really feels like a half chapter — a really short — if there’s any extra explanation I need to do or anything I need to say to get to the next book — just zip there we go and we’re out. So my endings are just a big avalanche followed by taking a deep breath and then we’re done.
[Howard] see when I wrap something up at the end the denouement — I’ll keep milking it for jokes until I know what’s going in the next book.
[Brandon] so your denouement can keep on…
[Howard] oh, yes, they can keep going. Sometimes they’re quite short. Sometimes they’re far more violent than the whole rest of the book was. But mostly I milk it until I know what I’m doing next.
[Brandon] Dan, philosophy on endings?
[Dan] well I think you said something really important when you said it should be a whizbang ending that they don’t see coming. And we’ve talked about that when we’ve talked about plot twists in the past. But it really should be something that the reader loves but the reader didn’t expect.
[Brandon] here’s the thing about endings. Surprisingly it’s the last part of the book that people will read so really what it’s going to do — that’s going to be the last flavor of the book that people will keep. And I think that honestly a lot of people — particularly a lot of movies do this — they skimp a little on the endings — and books do this too. They’ll work really hard on the beginnings and their middle — they’ll keep you interested — and then the ending comes and it’s just a little bit of a letdown after how good the middle was. I don’t know — maybe that’s just me. For me, my philosophy on endings is it better be cool because the ending is my favorite part of a movie or book and it will make or break it for me if the ending isn’t good — it will undermine everything that’s come before. If it’s really, really good, it will rescue it.
[Howard] the ending is definitely what sells me on the next book. If the ending of the first book isn’t good — whether or not the next book is in the same series — the next book by that author I’m not going to pick it up if I didn’t like the ending.
[Dan] here’s a good example of this. We’ve kind of talked smack about Hellboy 2 quite a bit which is bad because I really liked it but I thought the ending really fell down for me and part of the reason is there’s a big twist at the end of the final battle that I saw coming a mile away so that whole final battle fell completely flat for me because I was just waiting for it to get over so that we could get to that twist at the end and that has colored my perception of the entire rest of the movie which was invariably superior to the ending.
[Brandon] you know, I think this happens to Shyamalan a lot because he’s come to depend so much on his endings and he’s built up his endings so much and then they tend to not — none of them has been as good as his early ones — particularly Sixth Sense — I liked Unbreakable a lot too. But I thinks his endings since those two have not been as good — and because of that, the ending falls flat, people walk out of the movie saying that was a terrible movie. When you look at the Village — the Village is a brilliant movie. I think it has awesome directing, awesome performances from the characters, wonderful storytelling, with a really kind of pathetic ending. Because of that, a lot of people have a kind of bad taste in their mouth about the movie. So I guess what I’m getting on here is I think it’s possible to focus on the ending too much.
[Howard] oh, if you try — if you oversell the ending — and that’s what Shyamalan suffers from, is overselling of that big Act III reveal. If you oversell it, then it’s very unlikely that your movie or book is going to live up to that. I think rather than oversell the ending, focus on making the book really, really interesting. And then with your ending, you don’t have to have a big reveal necessarily unless you’re Shyamalan. I say, unless you’re Shyamalan, I mean unless the movie studio is marketing you as Shyamalan which is the problem he has right now.
[Brandon] I can say this because I’m an English major — not because I’ve won Romantic Times awards — but I really like Jane Austen books. They’re not surprising at all. Particularly since now I’ve read them so many times, but even if I were to read a new one — you know what’s going to happen, you know what’s coming — but they work. They work just fine. There’s no Act III redefine the nature of the book. So if you can’t pull off that really big twist ending, that’s fine. You don’t have to. When I say the ending can ruin a book for me, I think more often it’s if you’re trying too hard and not pulling it off. So how can you not try too hard?
[Dan] how can you not try too hard?
[Brandon] how do you keep from trying too hard? I’m going to answer my own question. I think the way to do this is to give your books to alpha readers, have writing groups, learn what you’re good at doing — and if you’re not good at endings or if you don’t want to have a big super surprise ending, realize you don’t have to. You don’t have to be anyone else other than who you are. You can write a really good book without a super huge explosive surprise ending. As long as it is satisfying. Fulfill your promises. And so if you’re making the wrong promises, you’ll have an unsatisfactory ending.
[Howard] that’s what I meant at the beginning when I said try it all up with a bow — the things that you foreshadowed, you need to go ahead and explore. If you plan on leaving something as a loose end it needs to not be the biggest, most scariest, gun hanging on the wall in the book because people are going to be disappointed.
[Brandon] yeah. You were going to say something, Dan?
[Dan] I… I wanted to talk about how… sometimes when you’re trying to get an ending to work… now I can’t even remember how I was going to phrase this. But I was going to talk about the ending of Lord of the Rings or rather the climax with Frodo and the Ring — which is, in my opinion, one of the best endings and it’s because it is fulfilling all the expectations of the story but breaking all the expectations of the formula. You get to the end of that story and you expect Frodo to do exactly what we’ve been waiting for him to do for three books and instead he does exactly what the ring has been wanting him to do — he falls.
[Howard] he fails in the quest.
[Dan] that’s a fabulous ending but it fulfilled the promises of the book perfectly.
[Brandon] I think that’s how to surprise… is to not do what people expect but at the same time fulfill the promises you’ve been building in the book.
[Dan] and most of the time when you are breaking the promises you make it’s because you are trying to follow an external guide too closely. Your characters are making choices based on your plot outline or based on a genre formula rather than based on who they are. So just let them be who they are and more often than not your ending is going to feel not only more real but more surprising because people are expecting you to follow the formula.
[Howard] well now you’re talking about letting the characters drive it. Oh, that’s scary.
[Dan] with your characters, especially.
[Howard] the author likes to think that he or she is in charge of the book but if you are really writing character driven fiction than by the time you get to Act III, these characters have their own voices, they have their own desires, they all believe themselves to be the heroes of their own story — and whatever outline you may have created, if it doesn’t take this into account — if you stick to your outline it’s gonna feel forced, and if you don’t stick to your outline, you’re going to be leaving bits out. You have to work very, very carefully.
[Brandon] you have to be willing to rewrite the outline. Character for me at least is always more important than following the outline. Now I don’t let my characters… my characters… I don’t let them do things I don’t want them to — but that’s because I think I’m flexible enough to keep it changing…
[Howard] but do they do things that you weren’t expecting?
[Brandon] they do — all the time.
[Howard] that’s really what I’m driving at. I had a couple of good friends of ours — Bob Defendi and Dan Willis — over to my place this last weekend and I told them, “I need you to help me outline Act III of Schlock Mercenaries Book 10. I’ve written the first two acts, I already have a really good idea of where the major plot arc goes, but I need you to help me gather up all of the little plot ribbons here and there so that we can decide which ones go into the bow.” And… I should have brought this up during the writing group podcast. This is one of the few times I’ve been in a writing group where they read the whole thing and then they helped me suggest, “oh, here, this needs to be tied up. This needs to be tied up. If you’re planning on doing this, then if you add this to it, it makes this more powerful.” Now we spent about six hours — we spent a whole day as a writing group just on my stuff which was very luxurious for me, but as a writing exercise, it was invaluable, and I think the Longshoreman of the Apocalypse book is going to end up with the tightest, most powerful ending of any of the books I’ve written yet.
[Brandon] saying some of these things might be surprising for people because I have said before I usually come up with my endings first and I do. I can’t start a book until I know I have got a really good ending in my head — it’s just how I work. I have to be writing toward it. The thing is, you have to be willing to toss the really cool ending that you came up with out the window if you come up with something even cooler. And sometimes you’ll be writing characters and the ending doesn’t fit and you have to stop and change where you’re going. I always do have my ending in mind when I start, but I don’t always end up with the ending that I started with.
[Howard] I’m kind of the same way. I know that I have to have a good ending before I can start the book, and I’ll noodle a couple of ideas, and then think, “you know what, I’m probably smart enough to pull out a good ending. I’m ready to begin the plot from this point.” And it’s exhilarating and frightening and sometimes I pull it off and I think sometimes I haven’t.
[Brandon] if you kind of want to see how I do this, I would suggest maybe grabbing War Breaker the book I posted online…
[Howard] so wait, you’re suggesting I actually read something that you’ve written?
[Brandon] I meant… that you was the group of people listening.
[Dan] it was the royal you.
[Brandon] the royal you… I suppose. I posted the first draft and the sixth draft. The ending I was writing for… I actually posted chapters as I was writing the book, so you can actually get chapters that were pointing at a slightly different ending if you just read the original chapters I posted. If you read the first draft, you’ll see that I kind of ended up at one place… there were parts in the ending that just were broken, that didn’t work. They were from the outline, and I had to be willing to just rewrite them. So by the time you get to the sixth draft, you can see the things I fixed. You know I’ve changed some things dramatically. Other things have remained exactly the same because they worked. They were perfect for the character. They came out exactly as I wanted them to be, we were good. But some things I had to just completely throw out the window. Dan, do you have your endings first in your head?
[Dan] I’ve tried to force myself to do that. Because my earlier books had horrible endings… and you have known me and been in writing group, so you can attest that my early endings were terrible. So I’ve had to force myself to come up with a really good ending first and then write toward it. That’s what I’m doing right now for book 3 is figuring out how it’s going to end.
[Brandon] did you do that for book 2?
[Dan] I did do that for book 2 and it’s worked really well. It’s the first book that I’ve written that I consider to be good that I didn’t have to rewrite the ending five times. Even book one that I sold, I rewrote the ending to that one about five times to make it work.
[Brandon] I was involved and I saw the process. With book 2, did you change anything about the ending as you were writing or did you hit it nail on what you started with?
[Dan] I had to go back… the ending worked perfectly for me. What I did in the second draft was all changing the middle section so that the ending worked a little better.
[Brandon] and that is something you can do
[Howard] retroactive foreshadowing
[Brandon] retroactive foreshadowing. If your character doesn’t fit your ending, either your ending needs to change or sometimes your characters need to change. Sometimes your characters will take on this great big life of their own, and they’ll start going directions… and you’ll realize that’s brilliant but this is completely wrong for the book. I need to take what that character has become, set them aside, use them in another book later on where they can really shine, and go back to the original concept for this character and see if I can take it in a different direction.
[Howard] final words on endings. Per our discussion with Moshe, if your ending isn’t good, but the rest of your book is fantastic, your editor can help you fix it, and it’s okay, you can still be able to sell it. If your ending isn’t good when the book goes to print, you’ve just killed your career.
[Dan] we need a writing prompt. Here’s a writing prompt. Take whatever you’re working on right now, look at that ending that you’ve got planned, then think of two other potential endings for that same thing.
[Brandon] and then write all three of them.
Current Mood: bowtied
Current Music: If You’re Reading This, Tim McGraw