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.
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.