Let’s Talk About Endings
By Evan Braun
Speaking as an author, perhaps my favourite part of the writing process is the rush of excitement that comes when a new idea occurs to me and I start first-drafting a new project. Beginnings are inspirational. A good story idea will sweep me off my feet… and away I go.
The excitement doesn’t necessarily last. By about the one-third point, reality sets in and I suddenly remember that writing is hard work. Then it’s a long, steady march of drudgery through the middle third. It’s called the “murky middle” for a reason, after all.
But what about the ending?
How you feel about handling endings might be dependent on how you plan and structure your story. People who do a lot of heavy outlining might find that they ramp up to the ending without much trouble. These sort of writers have probably pre-planned it, so at some point they’re following their outline and the pieces just start falling into place.
I’m more of a discovery writer myself, so I can’t necessarily relate to this approach, as clean and well-executed as it sounds. I tend to have a pretty good idea of the direction of the story and the ending I’m aiming for, but I can get side-tracked or redirected along the way. For a discovery writer, some degree of course correction is normal.
The trickiest situation is when you’re a discovery writer without an outline. Perhaps you truly are just going wherever the story takes you. This can work out really well, because the writing constantly feels fresh and interesting. But it can also lead down a rabbit role from which there’s no escape, where the story doesn’t come to a natural endpoint.
At some point, the book just… stops.
That sort of ending isn’t typical, of course. In just about any book you pick up at the bookstore, the narrative is expected to arrive at a fairly definitive conclusion. Sure, there may be a dangling thread or two, but the reader isn’t often left hanging over a cliff.
But there’s one genre of writing in particular that works according to its own set of principles in this respect. As you may have guessed, I’m talking about fantasy.
Ever since the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, fantasy writers have had it in their heads to write multi-volume epics. Generally speaking, the shortest fantasy stories on the market today are published as trilogies. On the longer end, a series can run twenty books or more.
For fantasy readers, this is a feature, not a bug. These very long stories are deeply immersive and capture people’s imaginations for years on end.
Part and parcel with this type of writing is the cliffhanger. Indeed, these books don’t wrap up nicely, and no one really would expect them to. Sometimes they do just stop. Usually there’s a degree of story cohesion within any individual book in a larger series, so each book can have its own identity. But the ending will be open-ended by design.
So if readers like their series long, what’s the problem?
Well, the problem is that every aspiring fantasy writer has a plan to write a long series--but very few publishers are willing to take a chance on signing these writers to multi-book deals. So what happens when the first book ends on a big cliffhanger, but the second book never ends up getting printed?
This is a nightmare for readers. A long-running and open-ended series can be a lot of fun, but a single book that gets cut off before the plot and characters really get the chance to blossom? No thank you.
The solution to this problem is that fantasy writers in particular--but really, all writers in general who plan to tackle a long-running series--need to pay much closer attention to the structure of their first novel than they might otherwise feel inclined to do.
That first book has to accomplish two important objectives at the same time.
Number one, the book needs to create a huge amount of series potential. What do I mean by “series potential”? The story should imply a very large world of possibilities. There should be lots of story hooks, lots of characters and locations and plots that can sustain the series long into the future. These story hooks won’t be exploited in the first book, but many of them are introduced early with the intention of them following up on them much later on.
But the writer can’t get so carried away with this that they forget about the second objective: the book also needs to contain enough closure that if the series never goes further than the first book, the reader will still be left with a satisfying experience.
Balancing these two objectives can be difficult, but it’s absolutely essential. It’s not necessarily in the fantasy novelist’s nature to think in terms of just one book, with a story that begins and ends within one set of covers, but that’s exactly what is needed.
A really well-crafted book that implies a series without requiring a series can be like a diamond in the rough--and if you can master this skill, you’ll have a leg up on the competition. You’ll also be setting yourself up for success down the road--and the opportunity to bring all those delicious story hooks to fruition in the long run.
In other words: be prepared to start small.
Did you enjoy this post? For more on this topic, check out, Manuscript Length: How Long is Too Long?
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.