Monday, September 20, 2010

On Endings

"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

 The king's advice to the white rabbit in the above quote seems too easy, too self-explanatory to be of any use to a writer. And yet, how to begin or end a story is an issue I see discussed and bemoaned on craft loops on a regular basis. More emphasis seems to go into the beginning of a book, as that is what agents and editor, and eventually readers will see, but how you leave a reader is as important as hooking them in the beginning. I've blogged before on beginnings, so I thought I'd take a look a endings today.

"Go on till you come to the end. Then stop." Seems easy enough, right? But I bet we've all read a book that left us more than just unsatisfied; endings that just didn't work. Two examples leap instantly to my mind, and I won't be naming any names here for various reasons--spoilers and that it would be in bad taste not the least of those--but let's just say both of the following books were best selling novels by NYT best selling authors.

In my first example, I'm going to talk about a book that I personally felt the author stopped before the book ended, so that the story just abruptly stopped. This was a mystery, and the main character finds the very last clue and mentally unravels the mystery of how the victim was killed and by who. She calls the police right before the murder walks out and cordially invites the main character into the house.

Then the book ends.

Yes, the mystery is solved--we know who did it and how--but what happens when the main character walks into the house? Does her host realize the police have already been called? What happens when they arrive? As none of this is in the book, the assumption is that everything went as clockwork, but I still felt that these scenes were missing. I checked the spine to see if pages had been torn from my book and then went to the bookstore to see if my copy was defective. For me, the book just didn't end in the right place. It hit the climax and then stopped with no easy down for the reader.

In the reverse, with my second example I feel the author continued to write long after the book had ended. This one was a thriller, and we spent a good three hundred pages invested in watching the main character track and attempt to stop a serial killer. Once he was finally dead, I anticipated a little wrap up and the book to be over.

But no. There were a good fifty pages left.

Every plot thread was fully explored and tied off and a second 'mystery' appeared. It wasn't a bad story--honestly, I enjoyed the book--but I'd had my payoff already in the bad guy getting his; the rest dragged. To me, the book ended in one place and stopped far later.

So then, how do we know where the end of a story is and where to stop? Well, like I said, both of the above examples were bestselling novels, so obviously these endings worked for a lot of people--they just didn't for me. Which is one of the issues with writing: enjoyment is a person to person experience.

Not so helpful, I know. What it means when you are writing is that you write what you would like to read. Where do stories you like to read end? Where do you feel your story ends.

Personally, I like books where the main plot is solved and the highest tension occurs, and then we have one last chapter that wraps things up a bit. If we were looking at a visual graph of the tension, the very highest point would be the climax, but then we would have a little downward sloping tail before the last page. I like the main characters to have a second to breath before they let me go, to maybe get a small peek of how their life goes on after all the changes which occurred in the book.

A good example of this can be found in Stacia Kane's Downside novels. I just read all three in the last month (I know, I know: I'm late to the game and several of you have been recommending them for a while. You were right--I loved them) and each book hits it's highest point and ties up the main plot. Then we have a just a couple pages at most of fallout and seeing Chess after she's gone through what she did in the book. These short ends gave me as a reader a chance to ground myself again before saying goodbye. Also, since this is a series, it brought into focus the plot threads Kane left dangling so I was very hungry to go out and find the next book (especially after Unholy Magic).

Of course, then there is always the option of leaving a heavy hook at the end, like the amazing Rachel Caine is prone to do. (Prone to? Ha, I dub her the evil queen of cliffhangers!) Actually, that isn't a fair title as there is a difference between a cliffhanger and a heavy hook. The cliffhanger doesn't tie up the main plot but  stops the action (and the book) at a high moment of tension. The heavy hook wraps up the main plot but then, at the very end, hints at or adds in something at the very end which makes you want to jump right into the next book. This is another ending which works for me as long as the main plot truly was completed: mystery solved, bad guys caught, crisis diverted, problem solved--at least temporarily. 

So, here are my questions for you today. What are some endings you read recently which worked for you? (no spoilers please!) Why did they work?  Without naming names, what endings didn't work? Why? What are your feelings on cliffhangers and heavy hook endings?

I hope every is having a great Monday. Check back tomorrow when I'll be hosting my amazing agent, Lucienne Diver, to talk about her new release!


Lynnette Labelle said...

I can't think of a particular book, but I remember reading some series years ago that made you believe everything was fine and dandy at the end, but then you read the last page and you knew there was some kind of evil lurking... I like this kind of hook. Maybe it's because the main characters think they're safe and that life has returned to normal rather than leave them in immediate danger.

Lynnette Labelle

Jessica said...

Trying to think really. It's hard. Some endings I like, just because the characters are fine for the moment. Things aren't crazy anymore, there's peace, until the next book comes out.

Cliffhangers...cliffhangers are evil incarnations of the writer's mind!! Granted, cliffhangers are a love-hate relationship for me. I love them because they really can leave you hanging and anticipate the next release so eagerly, but it's the same reason why I hate them. And usually because the next release is wayyyy too far off. It would be nice if the next one would be released the next day...but that's not usually how it works for me!

I came across a cliffhanger just this year in one of my fave series and luckily the next book was due out the following month and then to make matters even greater, I won the book a few weeks early in a contest on the author's blog.

So cliffhangers can be evil and delicious sometimes. Looking at my writing I don't really have that much of a cliffhanger going. Just a wondering what will happen to character now. Things are settled but there is still no HEA yet.

Kalayna Price said...

Lynenette, that sounds like an ending that would work for me as well. As a whole, I like the hook that leads to the next book--as long as the one I just finished was satisfying.

Jessica, I agree on all points. And you're right, with a series, many authors avoid the heavy hook but leave enough minor plot threads dangling that the reader needs to read the next just to continue on the journey but not because of any immediate or foreseen threat.