Endings Are Hard, Except When They’re Easy

Writing is hard enough. Everything about is is hard. Except thinking up new ideas. That’s actually easy.

People who don’t write sometimes think the idea phase is difficult. Nope. That’s easy. I have way more ideas than I will ever write. The trick is choosing the best idea among them and elaborating on it. Part of that ability comes from confidence, some from experience. But, trust me, if you are balking about getting into writing because you are afraid you won’t have enough ideas…well, you’d be wrong about that, haha. It was a fear of mine, too, in the beginning. I promise you it is unjustified.

Starting stories are tough, too. You have to hook the reader hard and keep him interested. He’s got a million other things impinging upon his time. You are trying to shoehorn yourself into that and keep him interested and entertained long enough to finish your story. So, yeah, beginnings are hard. So are titles, and pacing, and tone, and…well, you get the idea. There are a lot of crystal goblets you have got to keep in the air when writing a story.

But that’s a post for another time.

Endings are really tough, though. I see more good stories collapse from bad endings than anything else. I’m not talking about the lazy “and they woke up” kinds of endings. That’s hackery and that’s not what I’m talking about.

Many times when we start talking about endings we get caught up in the “My genre is better than your genre” argument. I don’t want to get into that thicket, either. This post is about endings. Let’s stick with them.

I’m talking about endings that fail to deliver on the basic contract you make with the reader when she picks up your story. Above everything else the reader wants to be entertained.

What’s that, you say? You only write stories with depressing endings? Fine. Write them with sad endings, thoughtful endings, explosive endings, happy endings…write whatever you want. But no matter what emotional level the story ends on, it has to be entertaining.

Obviously this doesn’t mean “Yay! Let’s have a party!” entertainment. Romeo and Juliet has an ending that’s a bit of a downer. It’s still an entertaining story.  Gone with the Wind is an historical romance and the guy and girl don’t end up together on the last page. It remains  entertaining. Ulysses is damn near impenetrable. It’s entertaining.

All good writers know this. If you are beginning to write, you should keep it in mind, too. There are thousands of other examples. I expect you can pick half a dozen without thinking about it.

So let’s forget the “Oh, by entertaining you mean happy” meme that often confuses writers. No, I mean entertaining in the sense that, when the reader puts down your story he will stop for at least eight seconds and think about how he feels and how the story made him feel. If you accomplish that much the editor might buy your story, or the reader might buy another of your stories.

If you hack ’em off in some way, make ’em mad, don’t deliver the goods, they might turn away and not give you a second look.

The beginning of the story only hooks the reader. That’s important, but it doesn’t sell the story. The ending sells the story.

So. How do we do it.  How do we know when we have an ending that works?

Here’s the good news. That’s the easy part! It’s so easy you probably already know the answer without me telling you, but it’s my blog so I’m going to tell you anway.

Here’s all you have to do:

Make the story as long as it needs to be.

That’s it. What. You thought there were magic beans or something you had to plant by the light of the full moon? No. I told you it was easy.

Make the story as long as it has to be, and then stop. Just like in Monopoly. Don’t pass Go and collect two hundred dollars. You stop when the story is as long as it needs to be. Then you sell it and then you collect two hundred dollars.

That’s the easy part. Doing it well is the hard part. Lots of stories go on and on until we zone out in a red haze of forgetfulness. Remember the movie Avatar? Of course you do. Perfect example. That damn movie goes on forever.

Some stories end too suddenly. He woke up! is the classic example. It’s classic because it cheats the reader. Thee are lots of other endings that cheat the reader. More often than not it’s when you go against character.  Again, I’m sure you have lots of other examples you’ve come across.

Writing is difficult. You have to keep the reader engaged from start to finish. But you still have the reader for that final eight seconds after he finishes your story. How do you want him to feel? Happy? Sad? Thoughtful? Go for it. Just make sure you deliver the goods so he’ll buy the next story you write.

So keep that in mind when you are finishing your story. Make sure it’s only as long as it needs to be, and when you reach the end, don’t write another

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2 Comments

  1. I always like to keep in mind the White King’s instructions in Through the Looking Glass: “Start at the beginning. When you get to the end, stop.”

    Reply

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