Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.42: How In The World Do I Tie All This Together?

Nalo Hopkinson joins us again, at sea, for our second Master Class installment on endings. We cover some of the reasons why an ending might not be working, and then talk about the sorts of diagnoses that will help you solve the problem. You’ll likely need to dig deep in your toolbox. Our episodes covering the MICE quotient, promises made to the readers, and the Hollywood formula may be worth reviewing in this process.

Homework: Consider the last paragraph of your work in progress. Compare it to your first paragraph. Identify possible resonances that you can mirror between the two.

Thing of the week: Shadows of Self, by Brandon Sanderson, narrated by Michael Kramer.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Don’t judge a story by its length. Symptoms first — this ending isn’t working, my story is sick! — then diagnosis — why isn’t this ending satisfying? — and treatment, find a fix. A common problem is unfulfilled promises. Use the MICE quotient and the Hollywood Formula to get the story started right, and then you know what you need to end with, too. Also, you may be resolving things in the wrong sequence. Make sure you get your nesting right! Beware the Brandon avalanche — don’t overlap too many resolutions in one massive twist. One great plot moment and one great character moment, fine. Three character moments for the same character… people get lost. Sometimes the character should get what they need, not what they want. Look for key elements in your story and tie those up in your ending. Don’t try to tie up everything! Do try to find out what beta readers think will be satisfying — what questions are asked, what promises are made, what did they get so far out of the story? Sometimes you need to wrap a thread up, sometimes you need to de-emphasize something. Sad, unhappy endings, where characters die — make sure people know terrible things may happen, and give them a glimmer of success or hope even in the midst of tragedy. Heroes need to earn happy endings, and tragic endings. Did the character bring the tragedy down on themselves for some reason, or is there at least a glimmer of hope that things might work out? Foreshadow the possibility of a terrible ending, perhaps use the emotional arc of a character? Consider the setting for the sad event — is it at a low point in the story, or is it part of a stand-up-and-cheer moment? Last word: fiction is oddly moral, we want it to make sense, people need to earn what happens to them. Life is random, but fiction has to make sense.

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 41.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses at sea. How in the World Do I Tie All This Together?
[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’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we once again have guest star, Nalo Hopkinson.
[Nalo] Hello.
[Brandon] Thank you for being here. And we have a studio audience…

[Brandon] Now, two weeks back, when we were talking about endings for the first time… And now we’re ending our talk. Well, next time, we’ll talk about our ending to endings. We’ll have our Q&A episode. But when we talked about it before, we raised this issue. Dan and I have done this, Mary’s done this… We’ve gotten to a certain length of our story, and we’ve just ended up stopping rather than ending. I want to… Now that we’ve diagnosed the problem, I want to talk about how to fix it. Let’s say you are nearing the length that you feel your story should be, but you don’t feel like you have an ending yet. How do we do this? And I’m going to let Nalo talk first.
[Nalo] Thank you. One of the things I want to say is that if you try to go by length first, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.
[Brandon] Okay. Good.
[Nalo] The story needs to be the length the story needs to be. If you’re trying to write a short story, and you end up with a novel, well, whoohoo, you have a novel and vice versa. But saying, well, it has to stop at 7,500 words or it has to stop at 100,000 words is just going to hamstring you. Or it would me. Because I write fairly organically.
[Brandon] No, I think you’re right. In fact, part of the problem with that first book of mine that I just stopped was me trying to stuff it into a size. Saying, “Well, this is how long this sort of book should be, so I should stop.”
[Nalo] Exactly.

[Howard] When you introduced the topic, you said, “We’ve diagnosed the problem, let’s now try to fix it.” The diagnosis, I don’t think, is what comes first. The first thing that happens is the symptom, which is “This ending isn’t working. My story is sick. Something’s wrong.” The diagnosis is digging into those symptoms and asking yourself, “What is it about this ending that isn’t satisfying? Is it unsatisfying because I’m left with a question? Is it unsatisfying because something happened that didn’t seem justified? Is it unsatisfying because…” I’m sure there are other reasons but I can’t think of one right now. Once you have those as a diagnosis, you can come up with a treatment because it’s easy to resolve.
[Dan] One of the really common symptoms that shows up, one of the really common problems, is that you have unfulfilled promises in your story. There are two things that I wanted to mention. We talk about them on this show all the time, so I’m not going to go into huge detail. Just look through our archives. Hollywood Formula and the MICE quotient are both fantastic ways of establishing in the beginning what this story is going to be about and where it’s going to go. So, for example, with the MICE quotient, if you are doing a milieu story that starts in a specific place or by leaving a specific place, then it will end fittingly when you go back to that place. If you start with an idea or a question, then the story will end when that question’s answered. Alternately, with Hollywood formula, you establish what the character wants, who’s trying to stop him, and what is that thematic whatever that you’re going to have the story be about. The story ends when the character gets or rejects whatever they want, they have defeated that antagonist, and they have reconciled themselves somehow to that theme. That’s a fantastic way that I use constantly with all my books to figure out okay, I think this is a good ending.

[Mary] That’s one thing that we were talking about with the example that Brandon gave, The Scouring of the Shire, last time. One of the symptoms that you will sometimes have, or your beta readers will give, is that they’ll feel let down at the ending. You’re like, “But I resolved everything.” A lot of times this happens… What they’re actually pointing at is that you resolve everything in the wrong sequence. So whatever it is that you’re starting out with, whatever that compelling thing is that’s driving the reader through the story… If it’s a murder mystery, it’s who killed the guy. And as soon as you answer that question, that is the thing that the reader has been reading for. So if you do it out of sequence, a lot of times… And this is what happens in Lord of the Rings. You have this sense of “Oh, it’s ended.” And “It’s ended again.” You know the movie. And “It’s ended again. Oh, my God, how many times is this movie going to end?” What is happening mechanically is that you have given the reader a cathartic sense of relief. And then you do not have time to build back up to the same peak before you give them another release answer. So each successive ending feels less and less satisfying. So a lot of times what you have to do is you have to reverse the order of sequence in order to get things… I talk about using nested… Approaching it like nesting tags. That you need to close things out in the reverse order that you opened them.
[Dan] Well, I was going to bring up that same metaphor of nested stories. Because that’s what’s going on in Lord of the Rings. He is telling so many stories, and then you are as the reader punching through that final tag of each one, one at a time. If you can find a way, and this is one thing that Hollywood Formula is great at, find a way to resolve multiple endings at once, that all happen together, not only does it feel better, it’s a lot more powerful.

[Mary] But the caution with that is that if you wrapped too many of them up with… At the same moment, it can feel neat and tidy and very, very artificial.
[Brandon] Or, there’s actually something worse. This was a big problem with me early in my career. Dan read a lot of these books…
[Dan] The Brandon avalanche?
[Brandon] They called it the Brandon avalanche. I still have this, but I’ve learned to deal with it more. What happened… The problem with the Brandon avalanche, and the avalanche was where I would overlap multiple very powerful moments of resolution in the story, usually involving some sort of twist. I really like twist endings. So you’re like, “Wow. This reveals so much about the character. Wow. This reveals so much about the character. Wow, this reveals so much about the character. I’m tired of this.” What happens is each one was weakened by the other ones. When I could… When you can overlap a great plot moment and a great character moment, that’s great. That’s powerful. That’s what we’re looking for. But if you kind of overlap three character moments for the same character, with the plot and with this, what would happen is people would lose track of everything that’s happening. This was very detrimental to my stories working.
[Dan] Often those twists and surprising new character information would also, at the same time as an invasion of another nation because…
[Brandon] Hey, I only did that once.
[Dan] We need to be running while we’re having deep character moments.
[Brandon] But I did do that once. I was bad at introducing third act new conflicts. Nalo, you had something you wanted to…

[Nalo] Yeah. I think there’s a couple things going on with that. One is, often we talk about the character, the end getting what they want. For me, it’s more satisfying when the character… It’s not just that they get what they want, but they get what they need. They may not be the same thing. I like it when there are ways in which they are the same thing. But that’s one way of packing in those two endings, both the emotional… Emotionally resonant ending and the plot ending in ways that sort of make the story go “Ooh, ooh.” So I think sometimes it’s a structural problem more than a plot problem. Samuel R. Delaney has said, “Everything in a science fiction story should be repeated, including science fiction.”
[Nalo] I’ll let you guys think about that for a minute. So one of the things I do is to go through the story again and look for key elements – I cannot give you a good reason why they’re key. You will know what they are – and repeat them, but differently so that you’re sort of tying up each of those key emotional or plot things as you go through. It almost doesn’t matter what order you do that in because by the time you get to the end, the reader feel satisfied.

[Brandon] Excellent. Let’s go ahead and stop for the book of the week. The book of the week is actually a little book called the Shadows of Self. Written by me!
[Brandon] It is actually a little book for me. It’s only 120,000 words.
[Mary] Oh. Wow!
[Brandon] Yeah. It’s nice and short.
[Howard] A wee thing.
[Brandon] A wee thing. For those who don’t know word counts, that’s basically… That’s longer than average.
[Dan] Longer than my longest book ever.
[Nalo] I’m just rolling my eyes at you.
[Brandon] But Shadows of Self is the next Mistborn book and it came out, when you’re hearing this, just a couple weeks ago, and I am so excited to be sharing these books with you, because one of my goals with this series was to show an epic fantasy world, and then take it forward several hundred years, which I feel like epic fantasy avoids doing, and show you a more contemporary era in the same world. This continues the adventures of Wax and Wayne, yes, it’s a pun… Two characters, and the main character… I pitch him as Clint Eastwood from… Is like an old sheriff and gets pulled into big-city politics in New York. In a fantasy setting, with him still trying to sheriff things but not being able to do it. It’s got all sorts of cool references back to the original trilogy. The things that happened in the original trilogy are now the religions and mythology in the current world. I think you will find it very fun. It moves at a fast clip. It’s read by Michael Kramer, who is an awesome reader. My personal favorite reader is Michael Kramer. So I suggest that you may want to give it a listen. The first of this sequence is called The Alloy of Law, if you haven’t listened to that one, also read by Michael Kramer. You can get that…
[Howard] will let you start a 30-day free trial membership. Will help support my favorite writing podcast…
[Howard] And hopefully yours.

[Brandon] So. I’ve got another question for you guys. This is an important one I think for listeners to hear about. Do you have to wrap everything up?
[Mary, Dan, Howard] [chorus of no]
[Howard] Well, that was easy.
[Dan] Next question, please.
[Howard] How do you pick which ones, I guess, is the…
[Brandon] Let me tell you a story. I have a person in my writing group who is a fantastic writer, who sometimes gets down on her endings because her endings are not full of the revelatory twist and turn moments. Instead, they are filled with satisfying conclusions to the issues she’s raised. They’re wonderful endings, but she feels set she hasn’t had these twists and turns, since she hasn’t tied everything up neatly in a bow, since some of this stuff is still messy, she has a bad ending. Where is, in reality, her endings are fantastic.
[Nalo?] I… Go.
[Howard] I don’t have the luxury of rewriting Schlock Mercenary endings after I’ve written them and put them up on the web. I have to troubleshoot them before I get to them. In order to do that, I sit down, and I’ve talked about this before. I sit down with my writers group and I ask them, “What are the questions that I have asked? What are the promises I have made? You tell me what you’ve gotten out of this so far.” Sometimes they will say things like, “Well, I’m really expecting this one thing that happened to be a running gag because that was so satisfying I want to see it again.” I think, “Huh. That was a throwaway. But you’re right, I can use that again.” That information, knowing what it is the readers are expecting… I’m not asking them to write my ending. I’m asking them to tell me what sort of things are you going to find satisfying. So that as I build the ending, I incorporate the right elements…
[Brandon] You know, Howard, you always talk about the luxuries we have by being able to prepare and things. But you get to see the reaction in real time. Not with beta readers, not with alpha readers, but in real time to your story and adjust accordingly. That’s actually pretty cool.
[Howard] It’s terrifying.
[Mary] I was just going to say…
[Howard] I’m glad you think that that’s wonderful. It’s like jumping out of an airplane and weaving a parachute on the way down.

[Mary] Yeah. Because I… The way I use my beta readers, I get reactions in real time with a small group behind private closed doors that I can then fix things. But like Howard, one of the things that I am looking for when I hand it to my beta readers is whether or not it is producing the emotional sensation that I want them to have. That is what I am looking for when I’m looking to make sure that I have tied up all of the elements I need to tie up. If they are feeling dissatisfied at the end and can tell me what it is that… They’re like, “I really needed to know more about X.” That tells me one of two things. Either I need to wrap that thread up or I need to go back earlier into the manuscript to de-emphasize it. As an example, I know that there’s some people in this studio audience who have read Of Noble Family. How many of you missed the pineapple reticule? Okay. Two of you who read the beta. No. There was a pineapple reticule that was initially just a minor… Something for someone to do with their hands. My beta readers were like, “I need to know more about the…” I loved the pineapple reticule, so I went ahead and wove it in more. But then, by the time I got to the end, I’m like, “This novel is not about the pineapple reticule.” So I went back and cut it completely from the book, because in that particular case, it was unbalancing everything because I had put too much emphasis on it. So a lot of times, when you find your ending is a problem, it’s not the ending. It’s your set up.
[Brandon] Right. If you’ve been listening to the podcasts all along and have been working on this, hopefully you’ve identified… We’ve kind of drilled this into you in the first quarter of the podcasts this year. Identify what your promises are, so the fulfilling of them should come about all right. I do want to ask another kind of difficult question of the podcasters. Sad endings? Unhappy endings. When characters die…
[Dan] I built my career on those.

[Brandon] How do you make these work? How do you make… How do you write an ending like that, that then people say, “That is terrible. I want to read more.” instead of “That is terrible. I’m never touching this again.”
[Dan] What I did with John Cleaver is determined first of all that all of the books would be tragedies, but that he would still get to succeed in them. One line that I’m particularly proud of at the end of Mr. Monster is… He’s defeated the bad guy, he’s defeated the villain, but he’s not happy and his life still sucks and he says, “I slayed the dragon, but i didn’t get the princess.” That’s kind of how his life goes. He does great things, and he helps people, but that doesn’t make him happier. It leaves people with this sense of conclusion. You have raised an issue and you have solved that issue, but you also kind of ruined this kid’s life in the process.
[Howard] I’m sorry, Mario, our princess is in another castle.

[Mary] I think part of that… And this is, I think, true with John Cleaver as well. But in horror novels, a lot of times… Or horror stories, but what I’ll see with people who are early writers or things that fail is that it is… The hero has not… The hero has to earn a happy ending, but they also have to earn a tragic ending.
[Brandon] That’s a great way of putting that.
[Nalo] Yeah, I like that.
[Mary] A lot of times, they have done nothing wrong to deserve what happens to them. It doesn’t even have to be that they are a bad person. But that they are making decisions that are leading them down that path, that that path is inevitable. It’s not just a series of random things that are happening to them that are bad. John Cleaver, he does a lot of good things, but he also does a lot of bad things. That ending that he winds up with is an ending that he has brought upon himself.
[Dan] Yeah. The tragic flaw, you learn about in your junior high Shakespeare class, that’s there for a reason. Because they have to bring this on themselves.

[Brandon] Nalo, did you write something down there?
[Nalo] I did. Two… Many things, in fact, but I think it’s John Clute. Critic John Clute, I first heard talking about horror as being a bacchanalia that celebrates the sort of cyclic nature of evil. So sometimes, what the tragic ending does is to say, “This is the kind of thing that happens and it will keep happening.” That… I can find it satisfying, I can sometimes just feel that it’s… It leaves the protagonist with no way out. So what I try to do when I do a negative ending is… Either it’s something that the character has deliberately brought on themselves for a reason… A noble self-sacrifice, something like that, or it is… I don’t quite bring it up to the ending so that you can see where it’s going, but there’s just that little glimmer of hope that something different is going to happen.
[Brandon] Right. Looking at not horror books, because you’re kind of cheating, Dan.
[Brandon] Because you’re like, “Guess what. This is a terrible book. Oh, look at the end, it was terrible.”
[Brandon] If you’re going to end another book with something, you need to give that foreshadowing that this is the sort of story where terrible things can happen, that the possibility of having a terrible ending is there. Good ending with sadness. Another thing to keep in mind is the readers will often follow the emotional arcs of the character. So if the character has that moment of “I’m okay with this. This is what I signed up for. It may cost my life, but I’m okay with it.” Then that is very different from the character who gets killed in a way that’s very brutal. I’m thinking of some of the movies I saw, where a character you don’t expect to die dies in a horrible way in a movie where you didn’t expect this sort of thing to happen. It happened in Jurassic World. There’s this poor woman who got just eaten by a monster for no deserving reason.
[Dan] Well, and in a horrific way, too.
[Brandon] In a horrific way. I’m like, “That was unearned.” The characters aren’t okay with that. That was there for shock value. It almost ruined the movie for me. It’s just a side character. But I’m like, “This person didn’t deserve it.” That movie didn’t prepare me. The early movies prepared me. “Yeah, the lawyer’s going to get eaten.” But these people get away or they at least die heroically or something like that. So preparation and following the character emotional arcs.

[Howard] For me, the… And I’ve talked about these before, the stand-up-and-cheer moments. If a… I’m going to use character death is a sad thing, but it stands in for all kinds of others. If at the low, things are as bad as they can possibly get, moment in the book, there is character death, that’s pretty sad. That is completely different from character death that happens concatenated with or simultaneous to a stand-up-and-cheer moment where we can see there has been a triumph. It was an expensive triumph, but we love that we won, we love that we succeeded. Wow, that was hard and expensive. Those are completely different. They can both be used to terminate a character arc. But they have a completely different affect for me on the reader.
[Brandon] We are getting close to the end here. I want to let Nalo have the last word before we wrap it up.
[Nalo] Oh, I better make it a good one. The thing is that fiction is, in a way, an oddly moral art. We sort of feel that things have to make sense, that people have to earn what happens to them. I think part of the reason we read fiction is because life is not an inherently moral art. Things happen at random. Fiction makes sense.
[Brandon] That’s a perfect way to bring it out. Thank you so much.

[Brandon] We’re actually going to have Mary give us a writing prompt… Or homework.
[Mary] Right. So your homework is to take a look at the last paragraph of your work in progress, whether that’s a novel or a short story, and the first paragraph. Look to see if there are resonances from the first paragraph that you can build into the last paragraph. These are the key moments that Nalo was talking about, questions that we may have answered, images that are powerful. That you can build them in, in the reverse order in which you introduced them. Or, if you have a powerful image in your closing paragraph, see if there is a place you can put it back into your opening, so that you have that resonance for the audience.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, this has been Writing Excuses at sea. You’re out of excuses, now go write.
[Whoo! Applause]