Swan (songs) a swimming
Beginnings in fiction are very important. If you don’t grab the reader’s attention and engage his/her curiosity at the beginning, they’ll never read the rest of your story. It’s no surprise, then, that numerous books, courses, seminars, and panels on how to write spend a lot of time on beginnings. They also spend time discussing how to develop and advance a plot, how do to characterization, and so forth. But I’ve always felt that endings get short shrift.
Knowing the right place to stop is deceptively harder than it looks. The ending needs to resolve the conflicts (both external and internal) which drove the plot. The ending needs to leave the reader with a sense of closure. Or, if not exactly closure, some indication of where things are headed for the characters the reader has spent the entire story bonding with.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’m working on (what I hope is) the last round of edits on a novel. A couple of my advance-readers have commented that the final chapter is a little long. The climax and crisis action happens before the final chapter in a big dramatic fight, and then I have the final chapter to wrap everything up. In literary circles they call this the denouement: the unraveling of complications, the final resolution of the story.
This is one of the places where my tendency to write stories with lots of characters makes my job harder. The reader has spent a lot of time with many of these characters, and understandably wants to know at least a bit about how each has been affected by the events at the climax. Also, there are one or two running gags in the story which it was inappropriate to resolve during the battle. Those each have to have a pay-off (and judging by the writers’ group reaction when I read the first draft of the final chapter, those work). I don’t want to skip any character that had significant appearances, because each character, no matter how strange, will be the favorite of some readers.
I’m not saying that one needs to perform “fan service.” But, as a writer of a novel-length tale, I’ve asked the reader to come along for all the ups and downs of these characters. If I don’t finish the tale for each, I’ve wasted some of the reader’s time. As a storyteller I’m not obliged to give the reader what they want, but I am obliged to tell the best story I can.
Fortunately, a lot of the characters can appear in denouement scenes together, so the reader can see them one last time and see how they are.
I’ve also been thinking about this a lot lately because two different television series I’ve watched and enjoyed for a number of years are coming to their conclusions. In each case, the creators of the show have been given an opportunity to end things on their own terms. They knew in advance that this was the end, with plenty of time to write the ending they want.
A lot of writers (not just TV writers) don’t get the chance. While it is frustrating for a fan when that happens, trust me, it’s even more frustrating for the writer.
I wish them luck in their endings. As a fan I hope I get something that feels fitting, with maybe a surprise or two.
And as a writer struggling with an ending of my own, I really hope I don’t blow it!