Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It Ain't Over 'Til it's Over

by Stephanie Black

If you want to flub a solo, the best way to do it is to cream the last note of a piece. Start well and end well, and the audience will forgive some stumbling around in the middle—which is not to say I recommend stumbling around, though it does remind me of that violin recital where I embarrassed the posthumous heck out of Mozart, but never mind.

The end of a piece is pretty unforgiving. Whatever note you play last is left ringing in the longsuffering ears of your audience. Ditto for books. However you choose to end that masterpiece of a novel, that final impression will reverberate in the memory of your readers. And unlike your mother, who sat through countless recitals and concerts, your readers aren’t required to come back.

So here are are three potential ending mishaps to watch for in your writing.

#1: The draggy ending. The climax is over. The suspense is gone. All crucial story questions have been answered. It’s clear which direction the characters are headed. And yet the writer goes on and on. This may be fun for the writer, but it's boring for the reader. If there are no story questions left to answer and no tension, end the thing. A draggy ending weakens a book. Instead of leaving the reader going “Wow!” you have a reader who went “Wow!” thirty pages ago and is now wondering when you’re going to wrap it up.

There’s no one-size-fits-all length for wrapping up a book. Some stories require explanation and emotional resolution after the climax. Others can end almost immediately. When writing a wrap-up, ask yourself this question: Am I giving the reader new and relevant explanations or information that could not reasonably be worked in prior to the climax? (and when I say relevant, I mean relevant to the story you just told, not just relevant to the character’s life)? Sometimes you need to answer questions you couldn’t answer earlier without wrecking story tension, or the story needs some emotional resolution. If you cut off a story before you’ve satisfied your reader, you run the risk of mishap #2.

#2: The too-abrupt ending. Did you leave crucial questions unanswered? Did you fail to give the reader emotional resolution? After three hundred pages of tension, it’s nice to be able to draw a deep breath with the character. You don’t have to spell out every little detail of what’s going to happen in the future, but you want to at least hint at the direction things are going so the reader can mentally fill in the blanks.

Figuring out how much wrap-up you need is a balancing act. Too much=boring. Too little=unsatisfying. Part of the choice is stylistic--some writers have a more leisurely style and some writers have a rapid-fire-no-extra-words approach. Either way can work, if it's done well. But while you’re figuring out the ending that suits your book, watch out for #3:

#3: The preachy ending. Please, no Gospel Doctrine lessons.

So help me out here. What do you like to see in an ending? What are some endings that really impressed you?


At 4/25/2007 2:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember reading Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner (the Perry Mason guy) at about the same time and being struck by the differences in the endings.

Christie wrapped up the "whodunit" and then wrapped up the romance.

Gardner had Mason win the the court case and then The End with only a bit of post-court witticisms from Paul Drake. I wanted to know that the hero and the falsely-accused heroine were indeed getting together.

I wondered at the time if it was a male writer/female writer difference.

--Mean Aunt

At 4/25/2007 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget the "Lame, pointless epilogue" ending. Though I suppose that could be a subcategory of #1.

At 4/25/2007 4:09 PM, Blogger Josi said...

Dang--I love epilogues! Unless they are more than about 2 pages. I prefer a short ending, but don't mind getting a peek into the characters lives a few months down the road if it's a character driven novel. I DON'T like abrupt endings that leave me hanging for the next book. If it's a series, at least end this story--don't put the last chapter in the new book...that won't be out for a year.
Great blog, Steph

At 4/25/2007 6:48 PM, Blogger Sabrina2u said...

I really like epilogues too! I think that they give you a glimpse into the future of what happens to the characters. I read a book where the writer ended it so abruptly that I wondered if this author knew what he had done to us poor readers. I will tell you one thing, I haven't picked up any of HIS novels lately and probably won't.
It is important to keep in mind what your readers are feeling and how they are going through the emotions with the characters at the same time. We all hate it when you are watching a great show on TV and the line "to be continued....." pops and we all groan.

At 4/25/2007 7:09 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Excellent blog, Stephanie. I think you covered the bases very well. When the story is over, end it. And as Josi said, if you need an epilogue make it brief. An epilogue can be a really nice touch if needed and handled carefully, but those that go on and on and are not essential to a sense of completion for the story ought to be omitted.

At 4/25/2007 7:56 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Yeah, and then there's Jeff . . .

At 4/26/2007 9:04 AM, Anonymous kerry blair said...

While I'm not a big fan of them myself, I think Jane Q. Public likes epilogues. I once published about 900 pages about a ballplayer (3 books) and STILL got letters and e-mail asking me what happens next. (Sigh.)

This led me to write an epilogue for my 4th book, detailing everything that might ever happen to those characters in this life or the next.But because the book was overly long (and my editor very wise), the epilogue didn't make it through editing. But it was offered in the back of the book to anyone willing to write to ask for it.

Now, it takes a lot of effort to write to an author through a publisher -- whether by snail mail or e-mail -- and yet I've received more than a hundred requests. (I still get one or two a week, and the book has been out of print for years.)So, while it's by no means an exhaustive, scientific study, it has led me to write a little more at the end of each subsequent book than I might have otherwise.

Last thing: the best epilogue I ever read (LDS or mainstream) was at the end of "Into the Fire." It was touching and apt and lyrical, and -- truly -- the book would have been devastating without it. (This goes to show that Jeff Savage really CAN end a book...but only when he wants to.) LOVE THAT BOOK!

At 4/26/2007 11:37 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

And I had people complain about that ending too, Kerry. Oh well, thanks for the compliment. I suspect ITF will always be my favorite book to have written (not necessarily to write.) even if it didn't sell for beans.


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