Non-Traditional Ending

So there was a question posed on social media a while back. It was framed in a highly insulting manner, and I commented on it with a snarky tone, which I probably shouldn’t have, but it didn’t matter because she deleted my comment… along with those of people who were trying to be helpful, but they weren’t good enough for her to acknowledge, much less listen to. Above and beyond my irritation at snobs, the question betrayed a sad lack of knowledge about story framing. I’m not quoting, because I don’t feel like raising my irish again by searching for it, but this is what she wanted to know: traditional authors, how do you write an ending? How do you balance pacing and backstory?

First of all, if you are writing the last third to quarter of a novel, there shouldn’t be any backstory still being revealed. While it might seem clever to a beginning writer to wallop the unsuspecting reader with some revelation about the main character/polity being explored in the story, readers tend not to like being blindsided. As Dave Freer counseled me early on in my writing career (actually, before there was a career), without foreshadowing, you have nothing. By the time you reach a climactic point in your plot, all the elements should be there, and the climax ought to weave them together in a way that creates a reveal, but one that makes the reader smack their forehead and say ‘oh! I should have seen that coming…’

If your MC is a lost prince, you should slip in somewhere before the ending – long before the ending – that he was found on the steps of a church with a gold medallion clenched in his tiny fist. This way the reader knows that he’s a Child of Destiny and they aren’t thrown out of the story entirely when this is revealed on the final battlefield. But that’s probably not the best kind of story to write, either (which may be entirely my opinion. After all, I am not a traditional author, so you probably shouldn’t be taking my advice, anyway.) On the other hand, if your MC is the son of a bricklayer and a housewife, who seizes his destiny on the final battlefield of the story, you want to show him doing that, how he does it, but the tale of what he had to overcome to get there does not belong interspersed with the drama and action of the actual fight. It should have been laid out beforehand.

In the last part of a story, stopping to tell the reader about backstory, framing, any of that, is going to slow the pace down and make it a slog. Instead, you want to have all of that in place, so you can focus on the action and have the reader breathlessly turning pages (or tapping the right side of the screen) to find out what’s going to happen. This applies not only to science fiction and fantasy, but to other genres as well. Imagine a romance novel where, in the finale, we’re still learning about the heroine’s past, with her flashing back to it while trying to persuade the man of her dreams that she’s the one for him. We should already know all that, and be cheering her on as she proves her worth and loyalty to him. You can, in a short story, get away with the ‘gotcha!’ for the reader. Or listener – I highly recommend that you check out Mike Rowe’s short-form podcast The Way I Heard It if you are writing short stories. They are about real people, but told in a way that it’s difficult to guess who he’s talking about (most of the time, anyway) and yet, all the clues are there when you reach the big reveal at the end. They are, in punchy dramatic 5-7 minute time-spans, brilliant little short stories. They are also conscious homage to paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story pieces, which I loved as a child, so it’s delighted me to see that Rowe is following in Harvey’s footsteps. Coming back from the digression, in a novel you shouldn’t try to gotcha the reader. For one thing, they are likely to suss out where you are going, or get so lost with the plot because the author is hiding every clue that they give up in disgust long before the revelation is made. Clues, hints, and the subtle cast of a foreshadow are vital to keeping a reader invested in a novel-length tale.

One thing that I, as a non-traditional author, can get away with is writing the ending I want for my story. I don’t have to stick to doom-and-gloom nihilism, or never write a happily-ever-after if I want to appear ‘literary’ because I don’t. I don’t like those endings, in my life, or in my work. If I am not traditional because of that, so be it. I like endings full of hope, that leave a light on in the dark. I’ve been lost in the dark, and sometimes just the promise that tomorrow might be – not will be, but it might – better, is enough. Literary snobs aside, my work sells well enough (despite my not promoting at all this last several months to a year) that I’m pretty sure a lot of readers enjoy the endings I’ve written. Ones that do my best to show the reader who won, and why, and perhaps even give them a sense that they can win through, too.

Finally, my advice to any beginning writer, be they pursuing an independent path, or a traditional one, is to seek advice. Indies, contrary to what this woman so evidently believes, do not exist in a vacuum. Not good ones, anyway. And traditional publishing provides for a fee what we can usually crowd-source either to support fellow authors, or fans give because they like helping authors out. Beta readers, alpha readers, editors, and critiques by collegial connections are all useful tools in making your tale one that will enthrall the reader. Pacing is huge, and especially in the climactic moments of storytelling, showing rather than stepping outside the action to tell the reader what’s going on. You can, and should, ask your betas to keep an eye on the pacing. If they get bored and wander away from the story to rotate their cats, or tweezer weeds from the lawn, it’s a sign that you got the pacing wrong, and you need to cut something out. If you have a good editor (and traditional publishing is no guarantee of this, with Indie at least you can fire yours if they are incompetent), they are also going to be helpful to you in reframing the tale to create tension and move the backstory into earlier foreshadowing where it belongs.

Happy Writing!

Oh, and if you want to put a thumb in the eye of literary snobs everywhere, Buy Indie Books. You could start with mine, of course, but most if not all the fine folks who write for this blog publish independently as well as a few who are hybrid. The snob might listen to them. Me? I’ll just take your money and give you my best rippin’ good yarn in return.


  1. I recall seeing that question, and I, too, thought it was odd that the poster specified wanting to hear from traditionally published authors. I went ahead and answered it anyway.

    I tend to think of stories in terms of a relationship between the characters and the reader. That’s why I don’t care for the modern tendency to introduce characters in a way that highlights their flaws (the reason that I could never get past the pilot of “Stranger Things” for example.) I tend to write a character’s first appearance to give the impression of someone that I would want to get to know better.

    And the same applies to endings. Revealing a significant fact about a character during the final boss battle is kind of like being on the way to the church for your wedding and having your bride say, “Oh, by the way, I am in witness relocation for testifying against my first husband, who was a terrorist.”

    Things like that should come out fairly early in the relationship. Otherwise one is left with the impression that one never really knew the character at all. Knowing about a person and caring about that person go hand in hand–the more you know, the more you care, and the more you care, the more you want to know. Finding out that someone has been lying to you through the length of a novel or film makes you feel betrayed and, for me, anyway, leads to me walking away from the story.

        1. And plenty of clues had been placed beforehand. This was more a climatic reveal than backstory, like finding out who the murderer really was all along.

          1. A fair number of which could only be deemed clues retroactively. It wasn’t until after the first draft of it that the notion came up. In fact, the first draft had Luke’s father show up as a ghost.

      1. I know I am in the minority here, but I hated The Empire Strikes Back, and the famous Vader/Skywalker reveal was a big part of why. It entirely changed the relationships that had been set up in the first film between Vader, Kenobi, and Skywalker.

        1. Though the crown was Ben’s reason for lying. If I had written the last movie, Ben would have told him the truth as he knew it — Vader had set him up to believe it. Not only salvages his honesty, but lessens his power, raising the stakes.

        2. I remember thinking, “Yeah, Skywalker is dumb, but not so dumb as to fall for a line *that* stupid…”

          And then… wtf? It was *real*? And… even if it was real, so what?

      2. Except SW fandom decided that was the case almost immediately after the first film (there were reams of fanfic devoted to the concept). So it was woven in, if unintentionally. And that’s how to make a rude surprise work in context.

      3. Notice that this is
        1. Short, and
        2. related to the events of the story.

        This can be done even in the last part of a story. I read a mystery novel once in which the elopement of a sister from the family was set up, thus letting the detective reveal that the villainess was her daughter, embittered by the poverty that her mother’s alienation from her family had caused, and that had caused her mother’s death.

        Revelations of backstory can be foreshadowed, too.

    1. She deleted your comment, I believe. At least I saw it the first time, and not the second.

      And yes! I love your wedding analogy. It is a betrayal, and if the character who gets that revelation does react as such, I think they are too dumb for words.

  2. Cedar-

    I’ve got to disagree. I have a citation…

    “No, Luke, I AM your father”

    was well into act three.

      1. Empire Strikes Back was the second film. Act Three of Part Two?

        There were also some pretty significant backstory revelations in Act One of ROTJ, which would be in the last third of the story if the first three movies are taken together.

          1. however, i do get that instance doesn’t mean everyone should do it, it is just that immediately leapt to mind as soon as i read it.

        1. I think the “last 1/3 of the story” rule probably needs to be modified in the case of “epics” that span multiple books/movies/etc. I don’t think that, say, the Harry Potter series would have benefited if there hadn’t been any new revelations after Order of the Phoenix and the last two books had been just one big chase scene (I had my problems with those books, but I don’t think that would have been the way to fix them.)

  3. > foreshadowing

    Eeehhhh.. uhm.

    You can do without foreshadowing at all. If you do use foreshadowing, more than a very small amount smacks of “couldn’t come up with an intriguing plat, so I’m using a sleazy technique to try to hook the reader into finishing the story.” Chunks of clumsy foreshadowing mostly foreshadow my eventual introduction of the book to the wall.

    Unlike, say, a television show, most readers will grind their way through your story to the end. If they don’t, it’s so bad that foreshadowing isn’t likely to help.

    If you absolutely insist on using foreshadowing, at least don’t slather it on like a cliffhanger serial…

      1. There’s a definite tendency in modern stories–films in particular–to beat the audience over the head with foreshadowing. I can remember talking about how a modern remake of “Citizen Kane” would be done: (Do I have to post a spoiler warning for an seventy-seven year old movie?)

        “Charlie, come in now! I know that you want to stay outside and play with your new sled–which is called Rosebud–but you have to come in so that your entire life can change in ways that you don’t feel comfortable with.”

        “But mom, I love my new sled–which is called Rosebud–and I just know that I will never again be as happy and contented as I am right now.”

        “Oh, Charlie, when you’re old and alone you’ll have time to dream of your idyllic childhood before we moved away from here. Come inside and meet your emotional distant yet financially savvy new stepfather.”

    1. I have to completely disagree – because I’ve found a good number of readers won’t catch something on the first read through. Some will catch some stuff, some will catch other stuff – but if you don’t put in foreshadowing for important stuff multiple times, you end up with confused readers when they fail to understand something going on because they didn’t catch the information earlier.

      There are some readers who catch everything on the first read through, and they love minimal foreshadowing and almost no infodump. But writing it that way does leave other readers unhappy.

    2. It is hard to notice good foreshadowing, because you basically have to be looking for it on a close read the second time you are reading it. At least when you are first learning to detect it.

      Human brain filters data in ways that are sometimes predictable. This is how good foreshadowing is written.

      You adsorb data when you read. This will include stuff you think is important when you are reading it, and stuff you don’t. The trick with foreshadowing is hiding the data the brain will evaluate as globally important after reading the book. There are two steps to doing this right. Your globally important data is first evaluated as locally important data. The first step is that you hide the globally important data by putting it in with locally important data such that the globally important stuff will be evaluated as locally unimportant. The second step is repeating the globally important data, so that that the reader will remember it even if they think it is unimportant. To keep the reader from merely looking for repeated data, you also repeat data that is globally unimportant. The repeated unimportant data also serves the purpose of fooling the reader’s mental checksum into thinking the world is consistent.

      1. I’m reasonably sure it’s a typo – but it got me thinking.

        Readers may adsorb information (attaching it to the surface of their consciousness) as they read the story – and then absorb the important parts (taking them deeper) as they get further along, and the foreshadowing is repeated.

        Or maybe the Arizona “spring” is just making my brain wonky again.

        1. Not a typo, apparently I somehow learned the word without realizing it had a meaning distinct from absorb. Though this hasn’t been my best time for thinking or writing.

          1. I probably only have the distinction firmly in my head because (being the smartass I was) I “corrected” my high school chemistry teacher.

            I learned that lesson, thanks to the humiliation. Didn’t learn the lesson about being a smartass, of course…

    3. Foreshadowing is that stuff you discover after the fact and go “Oh yeah, that’s what it meant”. If you discover it as you’re reading (or writing) it, it’s just inline information.

  4. “ the climax ought to weave them together in a way that creates a reveal, but one that makes the reader smack their forehead and say ‘oh! I should have seen that coming…’”


    Love it when that happens in what I’m reading. Love it even more when I can pull it off myself.

    1. And this is why I hate most mysteries. They’re either too obvious or the author doesn’t give you the information you need to have that “oh!” moment.

  5. Pacing… of course that goes both ways depending on audience. I am realizing that I am *not* Larry Correia’s primary audience. That’s nothing against him or his work as I do enjoy Monster Hunter.. but I (*I*, not necessarily you or him or her or the kumquat plant or whatever) need to take it in small doses. I need time to breathe. I listen with Audible, but it’s very “set downable” not from lack of action but from an excess for me. I expect with book 2 (ox slow, yes) where I am two or three chapters in that as it goes on I will listen in longer segments – just like book one.

  6. I call that the “aha! moment.” That point in a story where you suddenly see what’s really happening, and a part of your mind says, “we knew that all along.” I think fewer than 5% of short stories manage to pull that off, but when they do, it’s glorious.

    1. I put that in a novelette, starting with very subtle hints, and then getting stronger and stronger. Most readers though don’t pick up on the earliest hints until after the ending. I guess some mysteries are like that, you read them once for the reveal, and then again to pick up all the clues you missed the first time through.

  7. On advice – one of the writers groups I’m in a newbie came looking for advice for how to name characters in a Near Future SF story the were working on. My advice was to Tuckerize when stuck. A ‘real’ author (published by a real publisher, not some indie hack like me) came back with no, you had to carefully craft character names, as they were part of the whole concept of world building and set the mood and expectations of the reader.

    Which is all fine and good if we’re talking about epic fantasy. It’s kinda dumb if we’re talking about SF set in 2050, IMO.

  8. Good foreshadowing and good twist endings are like any powerful spice-best used carefully, in moderation, and where it’s appropriate.

    “Small Favor” is a good example of this, and we are carefully kept in the dark by the author until that one wham line hits and we realize that we were missing something.The setup lays out other parts of the story, and it works.

  9. Sort of apropos of this – I had a writing teacher who said once that any question that might arise from characters, plot, situation, etc., in the mind of the reader; that there should be some kind of answer in the narrative itself. Explained straight-forwardly, or just hinted at – there should be some kind of answer or rational somewhere in the story.
    My daughter – who is a merciless alpha-reader as well as a co-author on some of my books, is unsparing in noting these kind of plot and character questions.

  10. I don’t think that every question should be answered in a work of fiction. I see fiction as a window into another world (even realistic fiction) and there will always be things that are outside of the frame. Having questions that are unanswered and issues that are unresolved, for me, makes the view seem more real.

    In fact, I usually try to have at least one fact about all of the significant story elements–each character, the setting, the events of the plot–that I resolve to be “my secret”, something that I know that I resolve from the first never to reveal to my readers.

    To give a trivial example, Corbett Russwin, the federal agent in my series of novels, was married for three years to a Vietnamese woman when he was in the Marine Corps. That fact never comes up in the books and I deliberately made sure he never mentioned it. The fact that I knew that about him, though, helped me write the character as a real person.

    In my first book my characters are attacked by someone who is working for an unknown party. I know who he was working for, but I never say and my characters never find out. My readers could probably guess, based on events in later books, but I leave it an open question.

    I do that because life is like that. What we experience as individuals is such a small part of the world around us, and when we catch part of the middle of a story without seeing the beginning or the end it reminds us that the world is wide and we are very small.

    That’s the feeling I try to capture in my writing. Leaving loose ends and bits of unfinished stories lying around helps me do that.

    1. Hmmm. That’s something to ponder. I usually like everything wrapped up with no dangling bits, but I see your point. One of my favorite TV show endings is that of Numbers, which leaves nothing but dangling bits – everyone goes their own way, off to a new chapter of their lives.

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