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.

Gone_With_The_Wind

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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How To Keep Writing When Life Throws You A Punch

Rolling-With-Lifes-Punches

So you’ve been writing your 500 words a day, researching your new novel, making the revisions your editor suggested, starting a new essay, approaching an article deadline… when life throws you a punch. Your boyfriend leaves. Your kid is failing school. Your mom breaks her hip. You have a major fallout with a friend. Your mammogram is suspicious.

You’ve had one of those days. Or weeks. Maybe one of those months. You’re knocked off kilter. And so is your creative output.

Your focused mind becomes a traffic jam of negative thoughts. The words sit lifeless on the page. Whatever you’ve written, now seems crap.

Trying to write a book is challenging on the best of days. Now, the sadness or worry you’re feeling is compounded with each passing unproductive day. The fewer words you write, the more frustrated you become. 

Writers_Block

On days like these, I wish I were the kind of person who can don emotional blinders and keep churning out the pages. 

Writing itself sustains me during ordinary times, which is why it is essential to keep at it during hard times. Yet sometimes I find this extraordinarily difficult, particularly during the past two and a half years since my father was killed. The traumatic experience shed my already thin skin and it hasn’t grown back. Despite my healing, my brain remains sensitive to shock and perceived threats.  It doesn’t take much to knock me over. 

It’s happening right now.

How do you keep writing when life throws you a punch? 

Notice I didn’t say “if” but “when,” because it will happen. Often in waves. Disappointment. Anger. Hurt. Shock. Grief. Worry.  Emotions that can cut through creativity. 

I’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Here are a few things I’ve tried.

1. Take time out—but not too long

You wonder how you can possibly write anything worthwhile when you feel so bad. Your first impulse is probably to cast writing aside and attempt to numb yourself or engage in distracting activities.  Give yourself permission to have a bad week, to take time off—just try to designate a time limit. When a student I advise is crushed about a college rejection, I give him 3 days to mope, rant, or binge watch Netflix. Then it’s time to move on. So go ahead, curl up on the couch…just don’t stay there.

2. Switch writing gears

If you find it impossible to connect with your current project, try starting something new (but not too big).  Revise/edit an older manuscript.  Work on submissions.  Engage in research or brainstorm ideas.  Or write in a different genre. (Like I’m doing now with this blog post.) Read something inspiring. Journal writing can help you grapple with the problem and clear your mind.  Any writing you can do will make you feel better. 

3. Expect something good

There’s a Yiddish saying that originated in Chassidic teaching, “Tracht Gut Vet Zien Gut “—“Think good, and it will be good.”  The idea is that positive thinking will not only help you weather hard times but can actually make positive things happen.  I take this to mean that if you expect good things, you are more likely to attract them. The Universe may surprise you by sending a salve for your wound. Strange as it seems, this has worked for me.  Just this week, when feeling my lowest, I heard from a special person I hadn’t spoken to in years but had been recently thinking about. I also had a story accepted for publication.

Sometimes, though, the punch is more than a bad week or a misunderstanding. It’s a serious illness. The break-up of a marriage. The death of a loved one.  It may take a lot more time to find your words again, to rise out of the darkness. During such trials, I hope you have a special person to lift you up. 

Famed American novelist, Henry James, wrote, in July 1883, a most tender and compassionate letter of advice and comfort to his friend and fellow writer, Grace Norton of Boston.  Grace was despondent after the death of a family member.  Henry encouraged his dear friend not to give up on life.

My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain.

James’s concluding words to Grace lift me each time I read them.

Sorrow comes in great waves…but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us… we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we, after a manner, see.

Cemetery_Scene

Paul Christian Gelutu

You can read the letter in its entirety at  Letters of Note–Henry James or hear it on YouTube.

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!