Friday, December 12, 2008

Ending it All

A great ending is extremely difficult to write. Building the tension slowly, tying up loose ends, all without being cliche is a very daunting task. I won't say that the ending is the most important part of the book, but a bad ending can definitely change my opinion of the book.

I drafted the first draft of STREET WALK in a month (courtesy of NaNoWriMo). I rewrote the first 250 pages in about four months. The ending, the build-up to the grand finale, has taken me close to two. And while I hope to complete the ending in the next couple of weeks, the slowness of the process has taught me a few things. Most of them I knew in theory, but they didn't sink in until I actually applied it:
  1. The last third of a book is the build-up to the ending. I used to think it was just the last 50 pages, but it actually begins a lot sooner. While reading a book, you usually don't realize it, but a good author will begin dropping hints and setting up obstacles for the grand finale in the last 100 pages. You only realize those hints in retrospect.
  2. Build the tension slowly. I hate reading rushed endings, so I'm trying not to write one. In crime fiction, most climaxes are filled with action, something that's easily rushed through. If you slow down the action, heighten the protagonist's personal goals as well as the external, the writing will be more gripping. As a reader, I never remember the jam-packed action scenes from books. I remember plot twists and the moment when the protagonist is faced with either their greatest fear or the possibility that they will not reach their goal. Those moments aren't done in a page.
  3. Don't cop out. Never take the easy way out, not for you as a writer or for your protagonist. Don't plant a gun that your protagonist can "fortunately" grab in the nick of time. Don't have the cops storm in just before your protagonist is killed by the villain. Be creative. You got your protagonist into this mess, it's your job to get them out of it.
  4. Be unexpected, but not too unexpected. Ideally, you want to strike a balance between a predictable ending and one that is so out there that it is unbelievable and would never happen. In a mystery, when the villain is unmasked (so to speak), you don't want readers to say, "Oh, I knew that the whole time." You also don't want the villain to be a minor character that was barely in the book or someone that makes utterly no sense. You want readers to feel like the killer was under their nose the whole time. They just didn't see it. Same goes for thrillers. You want your protagonist to save the day, but not make it too easy on them. Throw some unexpected obstacles their way and force them to rise to the occasion.
  5. Stop and brainstorm. I used to be obsessed with reaching a word count or a page count for the day, so much that I'd often not give myself time to think. I'd just plow along and make things up on the fly. But good ideas aren't instantaneous. Slowing down and thinking of a few different possibilities for an ending can be helpful and aid in avoiding major revisions later. It's also great to bounce ideas off fellow readers and writers. Give them a few different scenarios for endings and see which ones they respond to best.
  6. Trust your gut. We all have an inner censor, and more often than not, it doesn't go off for no reason. If it feels cliche, it probably is. If it feels too rushed, you probably need to slow down. If you're super self-deprecating and your own worst critic then maybe you can ignore your inner censor. But most of us are good at knowing the difference between good writing and something that should be thrown in the trash. If you don't trust your gut, find someone you can.

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