Thursday, 15 August 2019

Endings Part I: where to start? By Rowena House

My favourite writing guru, Robert McKee, explains in Story the great benefit to the writer of knowing our endings: once we have one, we can reverse the process of cause and effect to build a better story.

Whether you retrofit that better story after finishing a first draft or plot it from the outset is a personal choice, or maybe a function of our psychology. Me, I plot because I can’t help it, but I try not to over-plot as that hampers writing with passion and honesty.

But sooner or later we all have to look at the story from a reader’s point of view. And that, I think, is when we really need to decide on an outline for the ending at least.

Not convinced? Then how about this: the ending contains the “obligatory scene”, the one the entire story has been building towards (more in Part II next month about which scene this is, the Crisis decision or Climax action).

If the obligatory scene doesn’t resolve the problem set up in Act 1, the overall plot (and major character arc) will almost certainly need a wholesale rethink to tie the two together and create a unified whole.

The problem (as every writer, editor and guru worth their salt points out) is that original endings are getting harder to write; there are just so many stories about these days, readers have seen it all before.

The solution? To expend a great deal of imaginative time and effort devising the most satisfying ending possible within our story worlds.

That way, fingers crossed, readers (and editors) will ask for more.

Okay, fine, said a writer friend with whom I was having this conversation last week. But what does all that mean in practice? These two ABBA blogs are my attempt to answer his question as far as I can.

Plotting endings

Scouring the literature, I’d say there’s a broad consensus about four main endings for archetypal plots in any genre, i.e. those with one or more lead character with a defined story goal.

These four are: positive, negative, ambiguous/open and ironic endings.

For more on each, do have a look at James Scott Bell’s The Last Fifty Pages: the Art & Craft of Unforgettable Endings. I got it for a bargain £3.oo on Kindle. In Write your Novel from the Middle, Bell describes an alternative, holistic plotting method which unifies the ending with the start and middle, rounding out his advice in Plot & Structure. I thoroughly recommend all three books. Meanwhile…

A positive ending is one where the protagonist achieves their goal and is happy about it. This is a staple for romances, enlivened by the obstacles strewn in the way of the couple’s happily-ever-after.

For other genres, positive endings tend to be enriched by sacrifices made along the way, with their attendant psychological wounds, and/or crucial life lessons learned.

I think positive endings are very useful for children’s, teen and Young Adult fiction, since (in my worldview) hope for the future ought to be their birth-right. We can give our characters hell along the way, but…

A negative ending is one where the protagonist does NOT get what they want and is sad/angry/devastated about it. Or dead - and not in a nice, self-sacrificing way, either. Shakespeare was big on negative ending; see Hamlet, Macbeth etc. It’s the come-uppance, tragic pay off; a punishment for making an anti-social or immoral life choice. So probably not a great ending for Picture Books through to lower MG!

Ambiguous endings (did they or didn’t they damn well get what they wanted?) or, more kindly, open endings tend to be found at the more literary end of the spectrum, also in short stories.

Open endings leave it up to the reader to imagine life after the story, and wonder about the ramifications for the characters of its events. Personally, I love a good open ending, but I know they bug some readers, a minority of whom might well write you a rude Amazon review.

For young people’s fiction, I guess it’s a matter of degree: the more sophisticated the story (and the older the reader) the more nuance and uncertainty they can handle. But for me nuance is best handled through...


Irony is, imho, the richest hunting ground for original material for endings. I can’t comment on fiction for readers younger than 11 as I’ve not been in contact with those markets for years, but I reckon irony can work in any story aimed at 11 to 101 years-old readers.

If you read Kelly McCaughrain’s excellent ABBA post last week, you’ll have seen her favourite character arc (inspired by KM Weiland) which - to simplify for the sake of brevity - pits a protagonist’s desire against their subconscious or unknown need, culminating in the discovery of a truth which demonstrates that what they needed was, all along, more important than what they wanted. That’s a tried and trusted form of irony with lots of positive overtones. Here’s the link for more details:

Irony is also the backbone of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moorish warrior who learns he had what he wanted all along, a loyal wife in Desdemona, but only after he’s killed her in his unwarranted jealous rage.

There is deep irony in the title of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (spoiler alert), home of Jane Seymour who will supplant Anne Boleyn in King Henry VIII’s affections in the following book, leading to Anne’s execution. After 650 pages about Cromwell helping Henry to get what he wants (Anne), Wolf Hall are the last two words of this epic novel.

Other classic examples of irony include a protagonist who:

·       gets what they want, only to find it wasn’t worth the getting (a variant on the positive ending);

·       doesn’t get what they want, but is glad about it due their transformation wrought by the story’s events (riffing on the negative ending);

·       realises they’ve thrown away the very thing/person that could have made them happy (see Othello above); a variant of which is,

·       realising they’ve rejected the person who could have been their friend/ally/true love in favour of someone who isn’t.

·       Being destroyed by the person/thing they’ve set out to destroy is perhaps best left to YA horror and adult fiction.

·       Discovering a deeply-held belief is in fact a lie is probably one for mature readers as well.

·       Discovering an ally is an enemy and vice versa is a well-recognised ironic twist for just about any genre, if perhaps a tad clich├ęd.

Natch, there are more, but I won’t try to list them all.

For upbeat endings, negative ironic twists can also be used to set up the ending, e.g. after coming face-to-face with a cruel irony at the close of Act 2, the shock of finding out the truth precipitates the final Crisis decision and Climax in Act 3.

All of which might sound rather formulaic, but if irony worked for Shakespeare and Hilary Mantel…

For me, discovering a story’s ending - imagining it, reimagining it, sleeping on it, plotting it or weaving back and forth from it during an edit (thinking all the while about how it will resonate with a reader, and how it might resonate more) - is one of the hardest parts of the storyteller’s craft, but - ultimately - the most satisfying.

Next month I’ll look at another side of the process: the structure of endings and how that links with character arcs, including the interwoven roles of the Crisis decision, Climax action and the Resolution.

See you then, I hope!

@HouseRowena on Twitter

Rowena House Author on Facebook










Penny Dolan said...

Now this is certainly a post tht needs plenty of "thinking" time!
Thanks for all the helpful examples, analysis and recommendations, Rowena,

Lynne Benton said...

Great idea for a post, Rowena, and something to remind us what we're aiming for. I look forward to next month's post. Thank you.

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Penny & Lynne. I'm mentoring at the moment, and it's forcing me to go back to basics and make sure I can explain what I understand clearly enough to help another writer make decisions about their manuscript. Part 2, how endings work, is making my brain ache, tbh, but in a good way. Thinking back to why I chose a positive ending for The Goose Road (when a lot of advice guides I was reading said they're a yawn) has also been very helpful for my WIP. One forgets so much along the way!