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Transcript for Episode 9.16

Writing Excuses 9.16: Coming up with a new ending, halfway through.


Key Points: Even outliners sometimes get partway through and realize the planned ending will not be emotionally satisfying. Your first instinct is to try to adjust the beginning to save the planned ending. Stop, look at the promises you have made, and find an ending that fits. Brainstorm, think about what you want this book to accomplish. Outliner, pantser with a vision of the ending, no matter what, you need the flexibility to come upu with a better ending as you go. “When your reader gets to the end of the book, they want to be satisfied by a great story.” Check the mantelpiece and see what guns you have hanging there. Go back and reread your manuscript, to see what you are promising, what guns are hanging, what have I set up. Do beware of never finishing.

[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 16.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, coming up with a new ending, halfway through.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] 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’m Dan.
[Howard] I’ve forgotten what order we used to do that in. You used to come before me.
[Dan] I used to be second, but then…
[Mary] But you’ve been gone.
[Dan] [I came in fourth this time?]
[Brandon] Yeah, now you’re fourth.
[Dan] Yeah, I know.
[Brandon] You’re just demoted.
[Mary] You can come back.
[Dan] I’m down to the bottom of the stack.

[Brandon] All right. Mary, you pitched this podcast. Let’s talk about it.
[Mary] All right. So this just happened to me recently. I normally… I am an outliner. I like to know what the ending is so that I know what I’m heading for and what all of the plot pieces are that I need to have in place. On the project I was just working on, I got about halfway through and the readers who were reading along with me… I realized that the ending I had planned was not going to be emotionally satisfying. It was going to be emotionally problematic. This is not the actual ending that I had planned, but for…
[Brandon] For ease of conversation.
[Mary] For ease of conversation, we’ll say that the actual ending involved having the villain arrested and I realized that what needed to happen was the villain needed to be dead. Because people were going to be… Because people hated him so much, they would think he was going to come back. So…
[Brandon] So what did you do?
[Mary] So… The first thing I did was a lot of cursing and trying to figure out if there was anything I could adjust in the beginning to make them hate him less, to make that ending satisfying.
[Brandon] Right. Your first instinct is to keep your ending. Although I would say making people hate your villain less may not usually be…
[Mary] No. It was not a good instinct.
[Mary] That was the desperate “Oh, please don’t make me have to pitch…” But you know, I’ve chucked stuff before, and I thought, “Well, maybe this is out of balance.” So then… But basically what I wound up doing was stopping, looking at all of the threads that I had going and looking at the things that people were wanting to see. One of the things, the way I write is that I have people reading along with me, and a number of them kept saying, “I wish X would happen to him. This guy… I wish this would happen to him.” So I looked at it, and it was like, “All right. Let’s deliver that.”

[Brandon] Okay. Howard. You have this happen to you quite a bit, I understand.
[Howard] Yeah. Yeah, yeah. All the time. Couple of examples that… Well, I’ll start with Longshoremen of the Apocalypse, which is… You can already go out and read it online, and we’re going to have books hitting the streets here in July of 14. That book, about halfway through, I realized that I had made promises to the reader that the current ending was not going to fulfill. That was the first book that… The first Schlock Mercenary book that I worked on after starting doing the podcasts here with you and with Dan. Which is why you guys make it into the acknowledgments. It had started to change my process. That was also the first book where two thirds of the way through, I looked at where I was and I sat down with my writing group and I said, “Hey, guys, read the current story up to now and make a list of the promises that you think I have made to you.” That was the list that they came up with. Then I sat down with a list of promises… These were not how do you think the book is going to end. These were what have I promised you. And it was surprising. They identified some things that they thought would be running gags, and I looked at it and realized, “You know what? That’s a better running gag than I had in mind.”
[Howard] So here we go. The most memorable was when Bob… Bob Defendi. I asked him about the space station and said, “I’m really worried, because if… If we employ the level of destruction I’ve employed in the past in the strip, I’m going to kill 50 million people. I’m not comfortable killing 50 million people in this story.” Bob said, “Oh, Howard. I’m sure you can punch holes in the station without killing all of the people.” And… Just him saying that threw the gauntlet down and a part of my brain woke up and said, “Whoa! Where would we put the holes? Well, maybe we could move some of the people?” The wheels started spinning, and I ended up with… I mean, I ended up with a point in that book in which promises got fulfilled so wonderfully that it was almost as if I wrote the whole book with that ending in mind. Ultimately, that’s what you want to land on, is this is the ending that fulfills the surprising yet inevitable, that fulfills the promises. And I got there by telling my readers… Telling my beta readers to just document the promises they thought I’d made.

[Dan] Yeah. A lot of these solutions that we are coming up with… In fact, every solution we’ve proposed thus far involves bringing in outsiders and getting other people’s opinions. Which is a great way to do it, and one that I do a lot, but sometimes you don’t have that option. So in a case like that, the book I’m writing right now, I’m only about a third of the way through it rather than halfway, but it has become painfully obvious to me that it is not going in the right direction and that I need to fix it. The solution to that was brainstorming. Not… Removing myself from the book, removing myself from the outline, and in my case, going and doing something else. Driving around, doing chores, to really think about what do I want this book to accomplish rather than what do I want the plot to be. But what do I want the… What do I want the take away to be at the end of it?
[Mary] Yeah. And that was what was failing on mine as well, was what the emotional impact that I wanted to have happen. I think that going back… And again, it’s all about what I think Howard said, it’s all about the promises that you’re making. Not just to the readers, but also to yourself. Like the things that you want this book to deliver. That’s… That looking back and going to those core ideas. Which is why my first instinct of looking at the beginning was am I promising things that are the wrong things to be promising?
[Howard] What if I lower their expectations?
[Mary] Well, it’s comic, but that’s…
[Howard] Yeah. Make them hate the villain less.
[Mary] Well, it’s… When you’re writing my genre of book, the bloody death on stage is not…

[Brandon] No. We’re joking about this. We should make a point of this. There are stories that you’re writing… What you may have been identifying is not… It didn’t work in this case, but you are identifying that the promise that you made was the wrong emotional ending. You were promising terrible death to villain, where your story is not about the villain. Your story is about characters.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] And the plot they go through. If all the eyes are on we must kill this villain, bringing that villain down is actually a good thing to do and making the emotion will the characters get together… I can imagine a story where everyone’s like “What about the villain?” And ignoring the character relationship, which is where most of your story is, that you’re going to have a misfire on your book.
[Mary] Yeah. Like in Glamour and Glass, if I had had Napoleon on stage…
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Mary] At any point, I would have had to have dealt… I mean, granted, there was Waterloo, but I would have had to have had scenes dealing with Napoleon which would…
[Brandon] But your book is not about Napoleon.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] Your book is about Jane and Vincent.
[Mary] That’s why going back to the beginning was my first instinct, to look at what promises I was making. When I looked at the beginning on mine, I was like, “No, these are promises I want to be making, I was just in error in the way I had the plot structured.”
[Dan] Yeah. You need to… When you’re looking at those promises, you’re not just looking at am I fulfilling them correctly, but you also need to look at am I promising the right things and am I promising enough?
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] That’s the problem with my book is the book was not making big enough promises and I knew it would be unfulfilling at the end.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dan, you’re going to tell us about Vortex.
[Dan] Vortex. Vortex by S. J. Kincaid is the second book in the Insignia series, which I raved about a couple years ago. It’s teen cyberpunk. Kind of like a cyberpunk Ender’s Game, cyberpunk Harry Potter. I loved Insignia. Vortex is even better. In particular, for me, because it ramped up all of the political ramifications of the book. Which seems like a weird thing to praise in a YA, but she makes it work. She really brings in the government and the society of this cyberpunk world, and explores it and explores all the problems, all inside of this very fun kind of videogaming book.
[Brandon] Awesome. Howard, how can they get it? Vortex.
[Howard] Head out to Pick up a… Well, start a free trial membership and get a copy of Vortex by…
[Dan] S. J. Kincaid.
[Howard] S. J. Kincaid. Do we know who the narrator is?
[Dan] I don’t.
[Howard] Oh, well. It’s going to be read to you, which is just a spectacular luxury.
[Howard] Luxury.

[Brandon] And we will continue on. So, I want to talk about how to do this. Specifically, I think there are things you need to be prepared for before you as a writer end up in this situation. The number one thing I think we need to make note of is even if you’re an outliner, and I’m an outliner, you need to be ready and willing to come up with a better ending if your story doesn’t go either the route you wanted it to or even in writing it, a lot of times, you’re following the outline and you realize your outline was wrong. Flexibility is vital for creating great stories.
[Dan] Yeah. When your reader gets to the end of the book, they want to be satisfied by a great story, not satisfied that you fulfilled the outline you arbitrarily created for yourself.
[Brandon] Exactly. I think this is where new writers have a problem sometimes, is when we talk about this idea between outlining and discovery writing. They assume that it’s very strict. Where I don’t think there is a writer out there that is really strict with either method. They’re kind of cherry picking the parts of each method that work best for them.
[Mary] Yeah. In fact, with this particular one, what I wound up doing was pantsing for several chapters in part because I had a deadline that I had to hit.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] So I couldn’t actually stop writing.
[Howard] Gotta keep writing.
[Brandon] Gotta keep that momentum going.
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] And you’ll figure something out as you go along. The more you train yourself as a writer, the better that works.
[Mary] Yes. Because one of the things that I know is how structure works. And I know structurally the kind of area that I was still aiming for, so I could pants. But I would pants and then outline a couple like three chapters forward and pants and then outline three chapters forward. Eventually I was like “Oh, that’s where…” And so the last quarter of the book, I was all outlined. But then I had to go back and do more structural work. It’s very rare for me to have to do two free drafts, but I cut three characters, major plot threads, all kinds of stuff. But it is about putting in the time and learning all of the tools in your toolbox and being able to use whatever tool you’ve got.

[Howard] Yeah. The toolbox. I just finished about a 10,000 word story, and the last three words of the draft I had sitting in front of me before my final writing session… The last three words of the story were write good ending.
[Howard] Here’s the thing. I knew the state of all the characters at the end of this story. That was not something that was flexible. This was not the kind of story where I could just adjust that dramatically. What I needed to do was wordsmith the way I described their situation in a way that ends up satisfying the reader, fulfilling the promises, delivering something that’s surprising. So I read and edited 9500 words and then wrote 200 that pulled from the other stuff. This was cases where… I used repetition. There is a word I want to use at the ending, so I need to make sure that I dropped that word in one or two places here and there without telegraphing what’s coming in the ending. Then there were words that I needed to not use, because I needed them to be surprising. So I needed to go through the manuscript and remove words that I had already used. Yes, this was a… This was very much the wordsmithing toolbox as opposed to plotting. Everything about making those last 200 words right was about fine tuning the first 9500 so that they supported them.

[Dan] If you are halfway through a book and you realize that you need to change your ending… One thing that works very well for me… We’ve talked about looking at the promises you made. Look at the mantelpiece and see if there’s any guns on it. I had, in Ruins, there was a big catastrophe that part of it… And I’m trying to be vague. Part of the plot was… It was obviously set up as this was an obstacle that will be overcome on our way towards the end. At some point in trying to fix the ending, I realized wouldn’t it be so much cooler if that gun went off instead of not went off. That changed everything. It made it all work.
[Brandon] Yeah. I would say that for me this doesn’t happen a ton, but what does happen is I am holding my ending in my head as I am writing the earlier parts of my book and my outline I am massaging and I’m changing. I’m never writing the exact ending that I planned. I’m always kind of building around it as I’m going. And once in a while, you’re like “This ending is just…” It’s becoming overgrown and I’ve got to chop it down and say, “What is it really? What is this ending really going to do?” Other times, you end up throwing it away. But this is the part of having a living outline like I like to do as you’re working through your book. And it’s about knowing your process. It’s about knowing what the tools you have are. This is why practice is so important. This is why we emphasize it so often… Is you will be able to come up sometimes, once your ending falls out, with a better ending on-the-fly because your instincts are so good having written for so long.

[Mary] One tool that is useful for doing this, we’ve kind of all sort of danced around, when we say go back and look at it is actually going back and reading your manuscript like starting at the beginning… You may not need to read all the way up to where you are, but if you start rereading not with the idea that I’m going to edit it, but just let me see what I am promising, where the mantelpieces are, what are the different things that I’m dropping. A lot of times the answer will become self-evident which is part of what happened. I’ve talked about this actually with Shades of Milk and Honey on the previous broadcast. In the original Shades of Milk and Honey, the couple who… I don’t know why am talking around this still… But Jane and Vincent don’t wind up together. That’s… That is not… She winds up with somebody else.
[Howard] Well, that wouldn’t have been a satisfactory ending.
[Mary] I know.
[Mary] Which is why I jumped 20,000 words and rewrote it. Yeah, in the original, she wound up with Dunkirk.
[Dan] Oh, wow.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] I kind of want to read that director’s cut. Alternate ending.
[Brandon] Yeah. But. Tools. Be aware of your tools.
[Mary] So, being aware of the tools. Reread. Looking at ending. Repetition is a really great one. For short fiction, repetitions… That resonance will in particular works very well. MICE quotient.
[Brandon] Right. Where do you begin your book, or your story. I keep saying book.
[Mary] It’s okay.
[Brandon] Mary always reminds me. This is… People write short fiction, too. I write short fiction, too. [Inaudible] just to talk about books.
[Mary] Your definition of short fiction is different from most people’s.
[Brandon] That’s true. I write shorter fiction.
[Mary] But… Shorter fiction. But MICE quotient is very useful for that. We recently talked about the sympathy that… The character sliders and looking at those. But bringing out all of these tools and looking to see which of those will solve your ending. Then if none of those are working hand it to… Brainstorming is a good one as well.
[Brandon] Right. Hand it to [garbled] readers.
[Mary] Hand it to somebody else. Hand it to somebody else and just… Don’t ask them to tell you what ending… What the ending should be… But…

[Brandon] What promises do you think have been made. Yeah, the one warning flag I’m going to raise on this… We talked about rereading the story which is something I do a lot now as I… I do a polishing draft in order just to focus on language which lets me reread my story and dump it all kind of into RAM again and things like this, but I do want to warn… You don’t want to fall into the habit of rewriting your story halfway through, and rewriting your story halfway through…
[Mary] Absolutely.
[Brandon] And rewriting your story halfway through. This is a big danger that does strike some new writers and if you are always getting to the same point and revising completely and then starting over and writing basically a new book as you’re revising it, that is an issue that you’re going to have to find a way to work through, otherwise you’ll never finish anything. It’s finishing things that will teach you how to finish things.
[Howard] That’s the extreme writer challenge. If you find yourself in this sort of a bind where you keep getting to the halfway point and you don’t like your ending, then treat this as an opportunity to write all the way to the ending and force yourself to just muscle down and come up with a good ending in your last 200 words. And maybe you’ll fail but now you will have written to the ending of the book, and you need to know what that feels like.
[Brandon] Both Dan and I did that on our first books.
[Dan] We did. And it was dumb. You have to realize at some point that the way to write a good ending is to write an ending, not to rewrite your beginning.

[Brandon] All right. We are out of time. So I’m just going to stop it here and give a writing prompt. Because I think this topic leads to a really cool writing prompt which is take a story you’ve written before and decide upon a completely different ending and write that ending for your story. Then you ask yourself how… What emotional resonance would I have to change at the beginning, what would I have to revise in order to make this ending work? Maybe you’ll be able to find one that doesn’t require any changes and is a completely different ending. I think that would be awesome. So give this a try. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.