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

Writing Excuses 10.43: Q&A on Endings, with Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman joined us aboard the Independence of the Seas for our question-and-answer installment on endings. The questions came from the attendees at the Writing Excuses Workshop, which was, lest anyone forget, on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.  The questions:

  • Why do more short stories than novels end on tragic notes?
  • How do you keep an ending from being predictable or boring?
  • How do you write a stand-alone ending with sequel potential?
  • What are the best ways to avoid infodump endings?
  • Are there differences between writing the first novel in a series and other novels in the series?
  • How do you know which questions to leave unanswered?
  • What sort of attention do you give to your last lines?

This episode was engineered aboard The Independence of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered in a soundproofed bullet-train by Alex Jackson.

Homework: You finished your book? TAKE A BREAK! This week’s homework is for you to relax a bit, and do whatever it is you do with a spot of time off. Revision begins soon, and you may need a palate-cleanser.

Thing of the week: The Freedom Maze, by Delia Sherman, narrated by Robin Miles.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A summary:
Q: Why do so many short stories end on a tragic note compared to novels? Is tragic quote unquote easier?
A: Laziness. It’s easy to get your characters into a fix and leave them there. Getting them out and solving it is harder. Not fulfilling your promises is not an artistic choice. Short stories are good at single issue cautionary tales ending in disaster. True tragic endings are difficult.
Q: How do you prevent an ending from being predictable or boring?
A: Surprise them with intensity of feeling. Play the emotional arc against the plot arc.
Q: How do you write a standalone ending with sequel potential?
A: Make the world bigger than the story, give the character more to care about than just this plot.
Q: [What are the] best ways to avoid info dump endings?
A: Make sure you and the reader are interested in all the aspects. Just cut the info dump.
Q: When writing a series, what’s the most important aspect to consider in ending the first novel? Are there differences between ending the first novel in a series and ending other novels in the series?
A: Yes. When you write the ending of the first book, you don’t know if you are going to write more endings. In later books, you’ve got more endings under your belt. You also know the overarching mega-plot. The first book needs to have a solid ending.
Q: How do you know what questions to leave unanswered in an ending?
A: Don’t save too much for the sequel. Tie things up in a broken bow. Answering good, deep questions in your first book suggest more questions for later. Answer the questions that contribute to the emotional effect you want the reader to experience, don’t answer the other ones. Use beta readers to decide which is which.
Q: How often do you test or rewrite the last line? How can you make sure your ending is working?
A: Leave them with an image or a phrase. A line of dialogue or short exchange can tie up a character driven emotional plot after you tie up the action plot. Look for emotional resonances and beats, then echo them. Echoing and mirroring the first line works, too. The first line is the sales pitch to get the reader to read the rest of the book. The last line needs to be pleasing and awesome to match that. Make the last line a dramatic encapsulation of a major theme.

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 43.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses on the Caribbean. Q&A on Endings.
[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] And I saved you from my bad pirate voice.
[Brandon] We have special guest star, Delia Sherman.
[Delia] Hello.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Brandon] Delia, welcome back. Thank you for being on the podcast.
[Delia] Thank you.
[Brandon] And thank you to our audience of Writing Excuses’s cruise goers.
[Brandon] These wonderful people have provided questions which we are going to answer succinctly and brilliantly.
[Mary] Sorry.
[Unidentified] While cruising the Caribbean.

[Brandon] First question is, why do so many short stories end on a tragic note compared to novels? Is tragic quote unquote easier?
[Mary] So this is my non-politic answer. I think that so many short stories end on a tragic note because the writers are lazy. Because it is really easy to get your characters into a fix and decide to end it, and “Oh, look at the tragedy.” It’s really hard to get them into a fix and get them out of it and solve it. Particularly when you’re in short form, it’s a lot easier to do that. So… That is not to say that all tragic endings are lazy. I definitely want to make that point, that a true tragic ending is actually difficult. But just the one where you get the character into a fix…
[Brandon] Right. You can’t not fulfill your promises and then claim it’s an artistic choice. Otherwise, you’re going to have a story that just doesn’t work.
[Howard] I think one of the reasons for the prevalence is also that the short story is a great way to tell a single issue cautionary tale. Those seem to resonate best when we get to see the very worst case scenario. That may or may not be lazy, it may or may not be well done, but, I think that can be said of anything.
[Mary] I certainly have written my fair of short stories that… My fair share that have horrible, horrible, terrible endings.
[Brandon] Right. I mean, my favorite short story’s Harrison Bergeron. Terrible ending, but very poetic with the rest of the story.
[Mary] But it is hard to do, I think, a true tragic ending. I do think that when it is done well, you get more of a sucker punch from that than you do from a novel. But I think a lot of the reason, particularly with beginning writers, is that they are… They are just going for the easy ending.

[Brandon] Okay. We jumped on that one, so I’m going to let Delia field this one.
[Delia] Okay.
[Brandon] How do you prevent an ending from being predictable or boring?
[Delia] An ending can be slightly predictable. You don’t always have to surprise your audience. What you do need to do is surprise them, not necessarily by what happens, but by the intensity of the feeling. So that if you finish up your emotional arc as well as your plot arc, it doesn’t matter if one of them is reasonably predictable if the other one isn’t. My personal preference is that the emotions that go along with it, that sometimes they’re at odds with each other, so that something bad might happen at the ending, but that the emotion that’s attached to it is not necessarily despair.
[Brandon] That’s an awesome answer. Yeah. I’m really on board with that, because I’ve read plenty of books where that’s exactly what happened, the emotion was more powerful even than I expected it to be, and they stuck the ending. If you’re there with the characters, experiencing it, it doesn’t matter if it’s what you expected as long as it gives you something powerful. That question was by James, by the way.

[Brandon] Question by Austin. How do you write a standalone ending with sequel potential? This is a catchphrase that we’ve used sometimes to suggest to readers… A lot of readers coming into a book, if they look at it and say, “It’s book one of 13,” they’ll be like, “Aagh, I don’t know if I trust a new writer, book one of 13.” But if it is, “This is a cool book with some sequel potential,” they give you a little bit more leeway on it. So how do you do that?
[Howard] Don’t kill everybody.
[Mary] Well, yeah.
[Dan] That’s how I sold John Cleaver. It was a single book with sequel potential. What I did with that was I just made sure that the world was bigger than the story, that the character cared about more than this plot. So that it was obvious to the editor when he read it, you could tell so many more stories about this guy and they would be just as interesting as this one.
[Mary] Well, the other thing that you did with that is that you left the implication, because you made it a larger world, that there were more like the villain. So that is definitely one thing. The other thing, and this is silly, anything really can be a standalone with sequel potential. The way you do that is that when they come back to you, the editor or the agent, and they say, “This is great. Are there any more in the series?” You say, “Yes.” Then you write a paragraph that says… You say, “Yes. I’ve only got them sketched out, but I can give you this.” We sold Glamour in Glass with a one paragraph synopsis. Which is my sequel. Did I have that book planned? Hahaha. No. But I had sequel potential. I kind of knew some vague things, I could kind of pull in some stuff, but… No.
[Delia] I think that it’s worth saying that there’s more than one kind of series. So that certainly Ellen has made her entire career, and there are other people have done this as well, of writing books that don’t pick up… The next book does not pick up right after the one before. So she… Her books are between 20 and 60 years apart. She… So some of the characters are dead, some of the characters are very old who were younger in earlier books. That will… You can always with something that you have left untied up, some issues. A world that is rich enough will… We live in one… Will cover any number of stories, will accommodate any number of stories. You can look at parts of your world that you did not look at in an earlier book.
[Brandon] Yeah. Anne McCaffrey did this.
[Delia] So there are many ways of skinning that cat.

[Brandon] Yeah. Okay. Chad asks, best ways to avoid info dump endings?
[Dan] Info dump endings?
[Brandon] Info dump endings. I actually have read these before.
[Mary] Yup.
[Brandon] This is where the author gets very rushed, finishes what they were most interested in, and then just says, “Oh, yeah, and this and this and this and this.” How do you avoid that? You make sure that you and your reader are both very interested in everything happening in this story, so that instead of dumping the ending, you are excited about every aspect of it. That will certainly help.
[Howard] Reformat that info dump as an appendix.
[Brandon] [laughter] That’s the Tolkien method.
[Mary] I think you see this a lot in mysteries, where you catch the villain and you’re like, “Oh, but I need to explain how we got to this point. I’ve been keeping all of these secrets from the reader, so now I have to tell the reader all of these secrets or my ending doesn’t make sense.”
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. That happens a lot.
[Dan] Watch the movie Psycho. The original Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock. Because this is exactly how it ends. It’s completely unnecessary. If he had just cut the last five minutes out of the movie, it would have been fantastic.
[Unidentified] [inaudible]
[Dan] Sometimes that’s what you need to do with your own story, is finished the part you’re really excited about, realize that the info dump is unnecessary to the enjoyment, and…
[Howard] And then cut the last five minutes.
[Laughter] [beep, beep, beep]

[Brandon] Okay. Dan asks, “When writing a series, what’s the most important aspect to consider in ending the first novel?” I’ll just kind of append to that, are there differences between ending the first novel in a series and ending the other novels in the series?
[Mary] Brandon?
[Brandon] Well…
[Brandon] Hey, we’ve all written series. Okay, Delia, you’re off the hook on this one. Howard, you’ve never actually finished a… Yours is still going, so…
[Dan] No.
[Brandon] He did short story sequels.
[Dan] The [garbled] are broken into stories, though.
[Howard] The obvious answer is yes, because often when you are writing the ending of the first book, you don’t know if you’re going to get to write the ending of the following books. By the time you are further into the series, one of the principal differences, and this is going to sound maybe obvious and stupid, is that you’ve got more endings under your belt. You’ve got a better idea of what you’re doing. You have a better idea of the shape of the… Of the overarching mega-plot and you’re better at it. I like writing endings. I just ended Schlock Mercenary book 15. Very satisfying to do that. Then to jump into book 16. Because I knew that I knew how to do an ending.
[Mary] So… The mega-plot is the thing I think that is the secret. Because with the first book, you do have an overarch… An arc, that you are wrapping at the end. Mistborn, I think, is a really good example of this. That we get to the end of the first book, and my reaction was, “How can you possibly do a sequel?” Because you wrapped everything up. In the second book, I realized, “Oh, no. There was another question that was asked at the beginning of the first book that is still unanswered.” So we got to the end of the second book, and I was like, “Ugh, how are you going to write a third book?” We got to the third book and I realized that that first book had had one more question. When we got to the end of it, it was wrapped up in such a way that I felt like now we’ve actually answered everything. If he had pulled that trick in a fourth book, I probably would have hit him.
[Brandon] One thing to keep in mind in this, though, I think, is I do believe the first book of a series needs to… It doesn’t need to, there’s plenty of examples that don’t, but I personally prefer it when the first book comes to its own ending. A second book, I will accept as a reader having more of a cliffhanger going on. The first book I want to know you as a writer are capable of delivering a solid ending, so that when I get to the end of the series, I’ll get a solid ending there too. I try very hard in my books when I start a series to make the first book to wrap up a little more tightly than perhaps I’ll let myself do on the rest of the books in a series.
[Dan] Yeah. I have the same philosophy. I hear from readers all the time who complain about… For example, Fragments, the second Partials book ends with a huge cliffhanger. They say, “I’m so mad at you, but I’m going to have to read the rest of it now.” Because they’re two books in and they’re invested and they want to read the rest. They don’t have that investment after just one book.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, because we want to promo one of Delia’s books. Will you tell us about The Freedom Maze?
[Delia] Yes. The Freedom Maze is basically a double time travel novel. It is set originally in 1960 and my heroine travels back in time to 1860 because she has had a wish and she wants a magical adventure. She wants to go back to what her grandmother assures her are the good old days. Since she lives in Louisiana…
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Delia] On a sugar plantation, this does not work out quite as expected. I wrote it as a… She’s taken into the family, who are her ancestors, but not quite in the way that she had wanted. I wrote it as a corrective for the time travel adventures where nothing really bad happens. The children… She’s 12, 13… Are rescued always by the magical creature that had taken them back in time, whenever things look as if they’re getting really bad. This does not happen for Sophie. It’s also about slavery and racism and all sorts of things.
[Mary] It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. It’s also narrated by Robin Miles, who’s one of my favorite narrators. This… If you’re going to pick one book this year to pick up on Audible, I highly recommend The Freedom Maze.
[Delia] She did a beautiful job, Robin did.
[Brandon] You can get that on Start a 30-day free trial, download the Freedom Maze, and get it for free.

[Brandon] All right. Next question comes from Lindsay. How do you know what questions to leave unanswered in an ending? Good question.
[Brandon] In fact, I had this one last night as I was speaking with members of the Writing Excuses cruise. Someone came to me and said, “Brandon, you…” It’s kind of the reverse question. “You often say don’t save too much for the sequel. Don’t hold so much off for the sequel that the first book is boring. Well, how do you know… How do we have anything left for the sequel? How do you know whether to save anything for the sequel? Do you try to pack it all into the first book?” What is the answer there?
[Dan] Go ahead. I will go second.
[Howard] First of all, I want to say there’s a false dichotomy there. There’s answering questions, and unanswering questions, and there’s answering questions incorrectly. If you are writing a series, often one of the most fulfilling, wonderful, delightful things to do is to tie things up in a bow that is a broken bow. Some of the wrong answers are there, and you get to reveal that in fun ways going forward. I don’t know which of those, but…
[Dan] I’m going to talk about Partials again. That series is… Among other things, it is about a girl who is trying to cure a disease. In my initial draft, I thought, “I’m going to drag this out and make that the series arc, of curing the disease.” And thought about this same principle, don’t hold too much back for the sequel. I thought, “Well, what if we just cure it, right off the bat? Right in the very first one?” I realized, and this is the key, that curing the disease asks a ton of questions all by itself. Okay, we know what the cure is. How do we manufacture that cure? How do we distribute that cure? How… What else does this suggest about the world and about the characters? So if you ask a ton and answer a ton of really good, deep questions in your first book, all by themselves, they will suggest more questions for your second.
[Brandon] Perfect. I think it’s a great answer.
[Mary] I just want to talk very briefly because those are both answers about sequels. If you’re doing something that is a standalone, then one of the things that you’re looking at, again, is the effect… The emotional effect that you want the reader to have. The questions that you leave unanswered are the ones that do not contribute towards that effect. Which is, unfortunately, something that you can often only identified by handing it to a beta reader, or by being an attentive reader yourself to your own work, by learning to read your work as if you hadn’t written it. Which is hard.

[Brandon] All right. Last question comes from Christina. It feels as though first lines are getting more emphasis than last lines in many teachings. I think that’s true. How often do you test or rewrite the last line? I’ll add, how can you make sure that your ending’s working? What do you think on last lines?
[Delia] I actually think that leaving them with an image or with a phrase… I like to end with a line of dialogue. Because a lot of my stuff is very character driven, and you have gone on a journey with an individual. I also like to tie up the emotional plot after I have tied up the action plot. So once something that connects… A line of dialogue or a single exchange that connects the two characters who are the most important and that tie up that particular thing is something that I like to do.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Mary] I do something similar, but one of the things that I also look at are emotional resonances and beats that I have hit through the story. If you take a look at my fiction, particularly if you look at the first line and then you flip and look to the end line, I do a lot of echoing. Humans are patterns seeking creatures. When we see a pattern, when we recognize a pattern, we get this little blip of satisfaction. So I’m totally cheating, and hacking that. Because I… I mean, that’s the reason kids… Kids are really blatant about it. You show them a television show, they love it, they say again, again. Because they want to experience that emotion again. Because it’s… It’s more satisfying to them the second time because they recognize it now. They feel smart. So one of the cheats that I do, one of the tricks, is I will honestly take something, either the sentence structure or an image… In an ideal world, both, and repeat it. If you look at… One of the ones where it’s more blatant and you can probably just look inside on Amazon if you don’t want to buy my book, which is fine…
[Mary] But…
[Shame on you]
[Mary] But Glamour in Glass, the opening and closing sentences are mirrors of each other. That is a trick that will give an emotional resonance to something with very little effort on your part. There are other ways. But I sometimes just take the easy route.
[Brandon] My favorite…
[Howard] I wordsmith my first line to be pleasing and to encourage you to read the second line and the fifth line and the 50th line. The first line, in marketing terms… I know this makes me sound filthy. In marketing terms, the first line is part of a sales pitch to the reader. I want to sell them on reading the rest of the book. The last line does not serve the same purpose. I’m not trying to get you to buy the book, but I cannot write the last line and leave you feeling like if you look back at the first line, “Wow, this book didn’t end as well as it started.” So I wordsmith my last lines, my last paragraphs, very, very carefully to also be pleasing and awesome. When I talk about that level of wordsmithing, there are dozens of places in the things that I write where I will drill down and wordsmith very, very carefully because that paragraph, that line has to be perfect. Every syllable, every sibilant, every everything.
[Brandon] See, my favorite last lines… The way I like to write them, the way I like them in books, is less a parallel to the first line, although it certainly can be. It is the kind of dramatic encapsulation of some major theme. For instance, the ending of 1984. He loved Big Brother. Right? This is a dramatic irony encapsulating the entire journey of the character and the theme of the book. Whenever I can pull off a line like that… I’ve never had a line like that. Whenever I can pull off something that gets a smidgen of that, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
[Howard] He loved Lord Ruler was a great line.

[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. We have to end. We are out of time. I really want to thank Delia for joining us. Thank you so much.
[Howard] Thank you, Delia.
[Whoo! Applause]
[Delia] Thank you.
[Brandon] I want to thank our audience, who just clapped, so I won’t make you do it again. I am going to assign you homework. But it’s easy homework. This time I want you to take a break. If you’ve been following along and working on your story, you’ve now been doing this for 10 months. You have finished, we hope, something incredible, something that you are very proud of. It’s time to rest. This is actually something that I like to do whenever I finish a book. Because we are going to go to revision next week. It’s often very good to take a break between finishing a story and digging into the revisions. In fact, you may want to take the next few episodes, stick them somewhere…
[Brandon] And give yourself a break and write something in between. Then come back and listen to those episodes when you’re ready to do your revision.
[Dan] Brandon, where should they stick those episodes?
[Brandon] They should stick those episodes on the shelf, next to all of their nice people who don’t make euphemisms.
[Mary] It wasn’t me this time!
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[Brandon] And they should come back and listen to them later. All right. This has been…
[Dan] Does the sun shine on that shelf, Brandon?
[Brandon] We gotta end fast.
[Mary] I don’t know, that’s… Oh. I’ll stop.
[Brandon] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, I am proceeding to smash Mary on the head with my clipboard.
[Mary] Ah… Ee… You started it.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses of the Caribbean. You’re out of excuses, now go take a break.