This isn’t, necessarily, about series. Although it could certainly apply to them. No, it’s something I’ve realized about myself after more than a dozen novels and novellas, and I figure I’m not the only one with the dread writer’s ailment of can’t write an ending to save my life.
I’m really bad about endings. I get to a certain point where I’m fed up with the book. I’m done, I’m so over this story. So I wrap up the ending, put a bow on it and walk away. Then I come back a week or a month later (usually after the beta readers have had it and I’m working on smoothing the rough edges with their help on that) and realize I left so many dangling loose ends it’s more like a koosh ball than a tidy tapestry of a plot.
Now, here is where this is about series. You want to leave some loose threads that can be woven into the next book in line. But not too many. And none that leave the reader dangling out on them wondering what happens next in a big way. Unless you’ve got the entire series written and are, as an Indie (rabbit trail: Indie is not small press. If you have a publisher for that book, you are not Indie. Rant over, just one of those little things I see on social media that bugs me), ready to deliver in a month, huge cliffhangers are Not Nice. So some loose ends are good for a series. And personally I hate to wrap a story up in too tidy a manner. Real life is messy. Real life has unresolved situations all the time. Readers like resolution, so you can’t do too much of it, but a little mystery is not a bad thing in balance.
There’s something Dan Hoyt calls the ‘cigarette moment,’ which comes after the close of the story, that I have embraced wholeheartedly. For the curious, it’s meant to evoke that afterglow of intimacy and closeness in bed, cuddling with the hero of the moment and enjoying the endorphin rush. Ahem. Have I been euphemistic enough? Anyway. I really like to leave my readers with that moment where I show that the main characters have won through. They may still be in pain, have suffered great loss, but there is light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a train, it is the warm glow of summer sunshine and joy.
Because that’s what I like in a fiction book. I like happy-ever-after (or at least until the next book in the series) endings. I realize that there must be people out there who don’t like this – I have read books for them, where the protagonist at the end is brought to their knees in bitter rain with tears and only the night to veil their misery – but that’s not my target audience. I’ve always written stuff I’d want to read. Which includes the joy and hope for a better day once the adventure is past. Escapism got me through some rough parts in my life. I’d be honored to have someone say that about my books some day.
Back on track: writing the ending. The cool-off period, I’ve learned, is vital for me to come back with fresh eyes and re-read the story in order to see that I’ve truncated the end a little too much. I’m doing this currently with Possum Creek Massacre. I’d hoped to have it out in time for LibertyCon. That… may happen still. My life is no longer amenable to sitting down and writing a few thousand words at a go, which is what this book needs. I could end it as it is. It has the threads for the next book in the series left handy. The main character could walk away from the mystery and legitimately never know what happened next, because that is closer to how reality would end here. In the book? I need to flesh out what happens at the end, because the reader wants to know.
And that’s my takeaway from this for endings. Fill out the ending until your reader is satisfied with it. Not for realism. Real life is full of unsatisfactory endings. Friendships that simply peter out and leave you wondering if you did something wrong, or if they simply grew out of you. Jobs that come to an end abruptly, whether of your choice or not. Houses you move away from and drive by later and wonder what they look like inside, now. Deaths. Births. Weddings, and years later you look back and think ‘when did that era of my life end? There was no big pivotal moment I could put my finger on.’ Books, though, or at least the kind I like to read and write, have endings that wrap it up and leave you feeling happy, like your brain has had a feast. A book hangover is a thing! I’m not sure I can aspire to that, yet, but I can certainly aim for it.
And now, I need to go do some editing and rewriting. My least favorite part of this whole Writer gig. But it needs to be done to deliver something that will make my readers happy. Which is my favorite part!
Header image: “even broken crayons still color” by Cedar Sanderson