How to Write a Great Ending: (Why Endings Matter in Fiction and Life)

The_End

Why is it we can forgive a book’s slow start, a meandering middle, but not a bad ending?

Some endings leave you feeling cheated. Or disappointed. Or plain confused.

You’ve invested your time, money, and heart and you want a payoff at the end.  Endings matter to readers and movie-goers. A lot.  The highly ambiguous ending to the 2014 movie Birdman ignited an intense online debate about what actually happened. Some loved the ending, others hated it.

For years after publishing Gone with the Wind, author Margaret Mitchell was deluged with reader requests for a sequel. Mitchell adamantly refused, saying she purposely left the ending ambiguous because she had no idea whether or not Scarlet and Rhett would be reunited.

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So what makes a bad ending? 

I asked my friends and family. Their answers aligned with the advice you’d get in a basic writing workshop.

-Confusing

-Based on coincidence

-It was all a dream

-Contrived

-Too many loose ends

-The hero dies without achieving or seeing his goal/dream

-Manipulative

-Unrealistic

-Too Sad

There’s a great scene in the movie The Silver Lining Playbook when the main character Pat, upon finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, throws the book out the window. Pat then wakes his sleeping parents and launches into a rant over the love story’s bleak ending.

“…She dies, Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys…Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

Turns out, Hemingway considered at least 40 possible endings to the classic 1928 novel. If your curious, a 2012 Library Edition exists containing these alternative endings. 

This brings to mind the wacky physics theory of “parallel universes.   I won’t get into the scientific details behind the controversial concept, but basically, it explores the possibility that other versions of ourselves, our histories, and our outcomes exist simultaneously in multiple universes. (A premise portrayed many a time in science fiction tales.) 

So, let’s say you’re feeling sad and regretful about letting a lover go. Perhaps you can take comfort in the idea that somewhere out there your replica is enjoying life with this missed love.

In the 1980s and 90s, the widely popular children series, Choose Your Own Adventure, allowed readers to assume the role of the protagonist.  Every few pages,  the reader gets to make choices that determine the outcome. The fun part is getting the chance to explore several possible endings.

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                            Choose_Your_Own_Treasur_Diver

 

Each book’s introduction affirms the power the reader holds. 

“There are dangers, choices, adventures, and consequences…but don’t despair at anytime YOU can go back and alter the path of your story, and change its results. 

If only real life were like that.

 

How do writers craft the perfect ending to their story?

Some decide on the ending at the very beginning and fill in the rest. Others follow a detailed outline which builds to a specified ending. Others writers like to journey with their characters and allow the ending to unfold. The process becomes an exciting discovery.

Best-selling thriller writers Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline described this process in a recent NYT podcast. After getting a feel for the tone of the book, Lee Child just sits down to write and sees what happens.  Lisa Scottoline knows only the beginning when she starts writing a novel. As she reaches each new point, Lisa asks herself, “Okay, now what?”  The prolific author says this process mirrors life.

I rarely know the ending of a story before I write. Even if I have a sense of the story’s conclusion, I often change my mind or consider alternatives. In my novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, one of the characters reveals a secret toward the end.  I didn’t even know what it was until I got there. 

In my new short story, “When We Were Bad”, I knew one of the characters would end up in the wrong place at the right time but wasn’t sure if she’d get out alive. Making that decision ultimately changed the final paragraph which I rewrote several times.

But even when you decide on the ending of your story, how do you know it works?

What makes a good ending?

This is a trickier question than what makes a bad ending. According to the character Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye,

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

I love this quote and have experienced the feeling myself.

The answers my friends gave me regarding a good ending were more about emotion–how a story ending left them feeling.

-Happy(ish)

-Enlightened

-Moved

-Astonished

-Transformed

-Curious

-Wishing it never ended

The most common answer was satisfied.  Hmm. Makes me think of a good meal. What is satisfying to one reader may cause another to toss the book out the window.

. If-you-want-a-happy-ending-that-depends-of-course-on-where-you-stop-your-story.-Orson-Welles

So how does a writer choose?

A while back, I came across an answer. 

A good ending to a plot must be both inevitable yet surprising. 

I’ve been pondering this paradoxical advice since ever since.

Thriller writer, Meg Gardiner, (also interviewed in the NYT Podcast) summed up the above axiom in her 2015 blog post as: 

Amazing! Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected.

Try putting your favorite books and movies to this test.

For me, this played out in the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes(Don’t bother with the movie version.) It’s a contemporary romance between an unlikely pair who seem to hate each other at first then fall deeply in love. At the end of the book, one of the characters makes a choice that made me cry.  I thought about it for days. At first, I was sure it was the wrong ending. But as I reflected  (and debated with a friend), I could see the author had planted the seeds for what was to come. The reader doesn’t want this ending, is hoping until the last page that it won’t happen, but it does.  The conclusion is unsettling, thought-provoking and, indeed, “inevitable, yet unexpected.”

Few endings, in fiction or life, are perfect.

Story endings can leave us sad and still be a good ending. Or, perhaps, the right ending.

What are your favorite or worst book/movie endings? 

If you’re a writer, do you plan the ending ahead of time?

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

ideas2One of the most common questions I’m asked when people hear I write fiction is: Where do you get your ideas?  The answer is simple: ideas are never the problem. I have too many ideas.

While smack in the midst of  the draft of my second novel, I got an idea of another book. I was really excited about the idea, but I forced myself to put it on hold.

Where do I get my ideas?  In snippets of conversation overheard in a coffee shop. Newspapers stories. Obituaries. Historical events. Dreams. Childhood experiences. Traveling. Imagination. Art. Issues I care about.

When my writing workshop students get stuck, here are some ways I help them generate  ideas.

l.  Ask What if?  What if you find out your best friend was living a double life? What if you discovered you suddenly could speak a language you were never taught? 

2. Collect interesting images of people whom you do not know. Decide to bring one to life. What is her name?  What does she want most in the world? What is her story? 

3.  Collect images of awesome, weird, and intriguing places. Use the image as a jumping off point for a setting. What is magical about this place? What happened there?

4.  Think of a funny incident that happened to you. Now retell the story with a different character and ending.

5.  A character receives a map in the mail. Describe the map. Who sent it? Why?

6.  Look for story starters.  Here is one I gave my students for a flash fiction lesson. She gave me the black box for my birthday.  This opening generated many creative short pieces!

7.  People watch. (My students are always surprised when I admit to eavesdropping in public places.) Imagine a secret someone may be keeping? 

Most likely, you’ll have more story ideas than you’ll ever have time to write. (I certainly do.)

I think most writers would agree that ideas are all around us if we take the time to look. The real challenge is not in finding the idea but in shaping it into a compelling story.

Beginning writers put too much emphasis on finding the idea. The story idea is only the first step of your journey. The real story unfolds during the long trek to The End. One of the fun things about writing fiction is the process of discovery. You may think you know where your character is going until she grabs the reins and changes direction.

When I was working on my novel One Is Not A Lonely Number, I knew the character Gabrielle has a secret. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I kept on writing the story, thinking about Gabrielle, listening to her, until one day I just knew. It felt magical.

Stephen King writes about this process of discovery in his memoir On Writing :“…my basic belief about making stories is that they pretty much make themselves.” He starts with the situation first and then develops the characters. And he never knows the ending ahead of time.

So don’t sit and stare at the blank page. Start writing something. Anything. Don’t over think the process. Just keep writing. Ask yourself questions along the way. Let your idea morph into other ideas. See where your characters lead you.

Enjoy the journey!

 

National Novel Writing Month–Yay or Nay?

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When I became a mother, I couldn’t wait for all the things I would teach my kids.

I wanted to introduce them to music, dance, and art. I wanted them to have happy associations with Jewish observance. I wanted to inspire them to be lifelong learners and book lovers.

What I didn’t expect was how much my kids would teach and inspire me. My oldest daughter encouraged me to write a children’s novel which resulted in an award-winning book.

My son continues to inspire me to not “sweat the small stuff” and to stay positive.

My youngest daughter taught me to trust that she is learning, even though she is not in a traditional school.  Lately, she has been a beacon of light as I crawl through the tunnel of discouragement regarding my second novel  attempt. She understands my battle with perfectionism and, fortunately, does not seem to suffer from that condition.

“You need to try NaNoWriMo” she told me.

She was referring to National Novel Writing Month. Every November thousands of aspiring writers sign on to the project website. Their goal: write a quick first draft of a novel–in a month. That’s 50,000 words in 30 days!  Of course, not everyone succeeds, but the process itself is valuable–so they say.

“It’s all about silencing your inner critic. At least for a month,” Audrey tells me, fully aware of my nemesis.

Audrey has participated in the Youth Division for the past few years. She enjoyed the pep talks, the writing forums, and the rush of seeing her word count rise.

While I enthusiastically supported her participation, NaNoWriMo sounded like torture to me. I had several reasons for not signing on.

l.  I’ve already written a novel.

2. I’m not a fast writer.

3. I hate writing a big long mess.

4. November is a very busy month.

5. I have other writing contests to work on.

6.  I could never win.

7.  Did I mention that I could never write 50,000 words in a month?

You get the idea.

Of course, Audrey has a counter argument for each of my arguments.  “What have you go to lose?” she finally huffed, after I stubbornly clung to my excuses.

I was reminded of my father. Growing up, I suffered from a lot of worry.  Whether is was speaking in front of the class or trying something new, my anxiety would get in the way.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” my father would ask.

Which, today, inspired me to ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen by committing myself to NaNoWriMo? 

Answer: 1.  I write a bunch of garbage.  2. I don’t reach the goal.

Hmm. Not the end of the world by any means.

Then I suddenly thought of another question.  What’s the best thing that might happen? 

Answer. 1. I get back on track with the story I want to write. Even better: 2. I get in the flow and churn out a rough draft that gives me something to work on.

I hesitated to the last minute. I thought about being a role model for my writing workshop students (whom I encouraged to enter the Young Writers NaNoWriMo).

So I took the plunge and registered. This is my public announcement.

“Oy, “I’ll never write 50,000 words,” I said to Audrey immediately afterward.

“Mom!”

“Okay. I take it back.”

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The next day I got the first NaNoWriMo pep talk in my inbox. It was from award-winning YA author, Rainbow Rowell.

Wow, she was describing my every thought regarding National Novel Writing Month. Here’s an excerpt from her most excellent post.

Dear Writer,

I was very skeptical about NaNoWriMo at first.

It seemed like something that amateur writers would do. Or young writers. People who needed to be tricked into finishing     their books. I’d already written two books by October 2011, and sold them to publishers, and I couldn’t imagine writing either of them—or anything good—in a month.

That’s not writing, I thought, that’s just piling up words. But then I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a pile of 50,000 words… 

And guess what? Ms. Rowell’s NaNoWriMo first draft ended up becoming her recently published novel, Fangirl.

Her words hit my motivation button. Time to get writing.  Fast!

How do your children inspire you? Are you a NaNoWriMo participant?

Writing From A Place of Honesty

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 I love reading memoirs. I am fascinated by how a writer structures the chaos and complexities of a life into a narrative.  I also wonder how you get over the fear of exposure, of being judged, of hurting friends and family? As Anne Lamont says, “We write to expose the unexposed.”   How many writers out there still fear exposure, though, when we live in an age of overexposure?

I am a private person and have become more so as I’ve gotten older.  In this cyber age of platform building and social networking, no writer is an island.  Nor can she afford to be.  I may have the life material to craft a compelling memoir, but I am not ready to run naked through the streets. And I may never be. For now, I prefer to select excerpts from my life. Exploring ideas, insights, and truths in this way allows me to both shape and contain the experience and still keep some curtains closed.

This June, I opened a curtain when my essay, “Letting Go” was published in Tablet Magazine.  The personal essay expressed my mixed feelings about my 20-year-old daughter’s engagement and marriage. I hoped my experience would help other parents of kids who take-off early.  Tackling this particular topic was a big leap in terms of my comfort level. The published piece is much different than the one I had originally submitted.  The editor, Wayne Hoffman, pushed me to dig deeper–to write from a place of truth and honesty–from the heart. I almost didn’t make the requested revisions, but once I worked through the fear of vulnerability, I found my real voice. The result was very satisfying.  An added bonus was when the Tablet editor called to say how much he loved my revised essay.

Readers responded to this honesty. The online comments and email feedback, mostly positive, provided an instant connection with my readers, which was both exciting and scary. Here is one of my favorites, (sent via email).

Evelyn

I’m sitting at my desk at work wiping tears from my cheeks. Your article is so beautiful and right on target. It resonates so deeply- you captured the emotions and dialogue perfectly.  

“Letting Go” was picked up by the New York Times Motherlode blog the same day it appeared in the Tablet. Instantly, my audience (and exposure) widened. Blogger KJ Dell’Antonia invited readers to share thoughts on the topic of marrying at a very young age.  I was surprised by how many NYT commenters seemed not to have read my entire essay, yet still had a strong opinion about it.  Writing openly about your life opens you up to the critics, of course. No dodging that bullet. The diverse reactions on Motherlode reminded me how we each project our life view into what we read and that being “open-minded” is easier said than done.

So, my advice to other private-by-nature people who want to write about very personal experiences in today’s online world? Grow a thick skin; you won’t die of exposure.

And what about you? Do you find it hard to draw the curtains when you write about your life?  How do you decide what is okay to reveal about family members, especially your children?  Or are you happy to run naked through the streets?

How many books will you write this year?

Sunday afternoons I usually devote to writing projects.  This Mother’s Day, after a little prompting from my family, I took the entire day off.  And I enjoyed myself!  That is, until later that evening when a NY Times headline caught my eye: Writer’s Cramp: In-E-Reader Era, a Book a Year is Slacking.

Oh, my.

Those commercial fiction writers who previously managed to put out a book a year are now “pulling the literary equivalent of a double shift.”  These writers, whom we love and hate, are churning out extras–short stories, novellas, e-books– to satisfy their impatient readers whose attention spans have shortened, thanks to our revved up world.

Thriller writer Lisa Scottoline has revved up her daily quota to 2000 words.  That translates into a 12/7 workweek.  Best-selling literary novelists are, so far, off the hook. (Go ahead, take your ten years. We still love you!)  Since I don’t belong to either camp (not yet), I’m wondering what to make of this madness.  Between book marketing, building my platform, speaking engagements, circulating short stories, writing query letters, entering competitions, raising my kids, and the Other job, my next novel is still in note form.  Maybe I could offer this for 99 cents while my fans await the real thing.

Let’s suppose that you could (or do) write full-time?  How many books could you (would you) write in one year?