Even though it is the start of the year, in this column we'll focus on the finish of your story.
Many columns and articles are devoted to the beginnings of books. Certainly beginnings are important, as they are what draw in your readers. But the ends also matter, and it helps to have yours in mind as you commence a project, or even as you slog through the middle. Here are some of the reasons the end is so important:
The End Gives Direction to Your Story
The end of your story is where you're trying to go, and you're much more likely to get there if you plan in advance. How many people start journeys without destinations in mind? Granted, some incredible journeys DO begin as aimless strolls; the same is true for stories. Some people will write marvelous stories even though their first words wandered; somehow a muse shows up and gives inspiration.
However, although some journeys without planned destinations turn into great adventures, they are more likely to turn into wastes of time. You get lost. You never get there, because you don't know where "there" is. The same is true for writing stories and novels.
This doesn't mean to say that you won't have to make course corrections along the way. You may even change your mind about the end and decide to finish your story differently. (Oddly enough, even if you're not happy with something you have written, writing it or just sketching it out may still move your story forward. It is easier to articulate why something is not satisfactory when you have something to articulate about.) At any rate, having a final destination in mind makes it easier to plot everything else. When deciding whether a character should go left or right, you can ask yourself which choice will serve your story's end. Note that your approach does not have to be direct, for it is the journey (the scenic route) on which you take your readers that provides the bulk of the entertainment.
It's The Last of Your Words Your Readers Read
The end of your story will be the last experience that your readers have in your story. How they feel influences whether or not they are likely to pick up your next book, and if they will recommend it to friends or warn them to stay away. The end of your story is important if you want to have anything like a career as a writer.
Stories can finish in many ways, but they are often categorized by how the readers are supposed to feel. The extremes are the happy and the sad endings.
Happy. In the typical "happy end," the good guys are happy and alive and often their greatest wishes have come true. Frequently there are romantic pairings, and if there was some sort of threat, that danger is thwarted. The bad guys are either dead, or in prison, or repentant, or some combination of the above. Readers are reassured by happy ends; such endings give them a sense that all is right with the world (the readers may hope that things will turn out right in their own lives).
Sad. In the typical "sad end," a main character often dies. Generally there is a tearful scene, with words of love and regret. Understanding and reconciliation may come, but they come too late. If a main character does not die, perhaps the protagonist suffers some other tragedy, loss or disappointment. Perhaps the love of his life has rejected him, and in such a way that the readers can't hope for reunion in the next chapter. Perhaps the character is maimed or forced into exile. At any rate, with a sad ending, readers may not exactly be reassured, but they may experience comfort, especially if they, too have suffered.
In Between. You don't have to end your story with either everything-is-rotten or everything-is-roses. In fact, many stories stop somewhere in between: some characters may be doing fabulously, while others discover that their ointments are full of flies. Maybe not all of the good guys make it, or even if they do, they are not content. A Weasley brother dies in the Harry Potter books. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is not just missing a finger, but he suffers from intense Post Ring Stress Disorder.
How you choose to end your story depends on your genre and its limitations and how you want your readers to feel. In some genres, such as romances, everyone has to be happy and all the problems have to be solved; in most detective stories and thrillers, the good guys are supposed to win. In other stories, such as historical fiction based on actual history, your endings may be pre-determined by facts.
Nevertheless, you can sometimes tweak or mitigate. My co-author and I had one incredibly depressing story, a consequence of basing stories on Greek myths. Nearly all of our main character's children died, and she herself was expelled from the city where she had reigned as queen for decades. Even though we were aiming mostly for tears, especially when Niobe's husband sacrificed himself, we did what we could to alleviate the depression. We made Niobe an object of comfort to the grieving and focused on her surviving daughter. We could not make the end happy, but we could cast an aura of serenity, and give our readers the sense that life goes on.
Once you have determined how you want your readers to feel, the next question is, how can you make them feel that way? The best method, I believe, is to prepare them emotionally beforehand.
If you want your readers to mourn the death of a character, then they have to care about the character before the death occurs. You can do this by making this character beloved before she dies, or by making that character important to another whom the readers care about.
If you want your readers to rejoice in someone's success, then they should care about that person's goals earlier in the story. Again, this starts with making sure your readers care about the character. Second, they have to agree that the goal is worthy. Finally, it helps if your character has attempting to achieve this goal throughout the story, especially if he has been thwarted unjustly.
If you are including surprises and twists, you should probably have hints beforehand, or your readers may feel cheated. Creating a balance so that your end is "surprising but logical" -- adjectives that don't seem to go together but which describe the desired effect -- is a delicate matter. Even if your end is altered by something as out of the blue as a lightning strike, perhaps you should insert a weather forecast somewhere and make sure that your setting is a logical place for lightning to strike.
However you choose to end your story, it is hard to please everyone. While you write a story, it has a multitude of possibilities and can go anywhere. However, at some point you need to commit to a direction. I believe that what some people enjoy, without their even being aware of it, is a sense of potential. The mere fact of deciding on one path -- any path -- destroys that potential. This only a theory of mine -- I have no scientific study to make this claim -- but given the comments I have heard people make about stories, and my observation of people in general, I find it makes sense. Some people prefer anticipation to actual events.
Even if you discount the portion of your audience that prefers beginnings to ends, you still will not please everyone. Some readers yearn for ends that are completely happy, and may not be satisfied with anything less. Others want the catharsis of tears, while others demand more ambiguity. Some reader will be cheering for one character while another reader prefers another. People truly have different tastes.
Still, you should try to satisfy them. By aiming for a particular ending all along the way, and by earning your finish, you are more likely to satisfy more of your readers. Those who are perpetually disgruntled may at least concede that the end suits the story.
When you start your story, sometimes you don't know how it finishes. Sometimes you have an idea that is so compelling that you have to develop it and see where it goes. Sometimes these ideas are the nuggets of very successful stories, and you only discover the end later.
On the other hand, if you do know how your story ends, you can write it in advance! You don't have to, and you can delete or severely edit whatever you write, but if you're inspired or if you think it will help, go ahead and put some words into a file.
Nevertheless, at some point you will, if you persist, reach the finish. Then you will have to see if what you wrote before supports it and leads to it (you will probably have to do this even if you know how it ends). You need to make sure that the end of your book suits the characters, your readers, and last but not least, yourself.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.