Drawing the Close

I have a problem with ending things. I’m a pantser, see. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, feeling which way the wind blows through the vibrations in the fundamental point of contact. As a writer, this gets… complicated. Ok, messy is probably the better word there.

For one thing, I have a tendency to see that there is more than one possible ending. There can be many, many variations. But I want to choose the one that will make me happy, and possibly my readers, and this is something real life rarely gives you: satisfaction. Real life? The loose ends remain loose, flopping around with resolution impossible. Fiction? We can tuck those in neatly and reveal the synthetic picture we have used our words to draw.

Well, within reason. I prefer, for realism’s sake, to leave a few loose ends. Sometimes, if I plan to write another book in the series, I’ll leave some major threads that are intended to be picked up in the continuing saga of… whatever I’m writing right then. But for the sake of my readers and my self I try to give a warm happy glow to the finish of whatever I just wrote. Sometimes. Not always. Not every ending is happy or complete, just like in real life.

Fiction for me, both as a writer and a reader – which follows, because I tend to write stories I’d want to read. Who wouldn’t? – tends toward escapism. Life is long, full of drudgery, and painful. Fiction shouldn’t be. It reminds us that there are possibilities out there, and hope, and oddly enough, it can help prepare us better for life. Studies have been done on this, and show that people who read a lot have better emotional intelligence. Because they were able to look at the inner workings of another person’s mind, their motivations, their feelings, they are able to come away from reading fiction with heightened empathy.

Strange, but true. That doesn’t mean I’m thinking about that while I am writing, though. No, when I am in the throes of creation, I’m rarely thinking about any of the mechanics of why I am doing what I am doing. I’m just writing (or speaking) the words as fast as I can while the story plays out in my head. It’s only later that I’ll look back and realize what I’ve done. Which isn’t to say I’m completely out of control.

For instance, this coming week I plan to finish a novel. I know what the ending ought to be. However, I’m concerned that having it end with a truce will be unsatisfactory. Even though there will be a second book in this series (at least loosely connected to the first, ala detective novels that follow the same character) I want to make sure I’ve woven in enough ends that my book doesn’t more closely resemble a shag rug than a smooth tapestry. I’ve been running through scenarios in my head, knowing that when I sit down to write today I may lose sight of all those while my fingers fly over the keyboard. Dictation, I have discovered, makes it worse because I can’t look at what I’ve written in a momentary pause, and by the time I’m letting Dragon transcribe for me, I’ve forgotten some of the words I chose.

I’m dithering. I always do when I come to the end of something. I did when I wrote Dragon Noir’s end, which was also a trilogy end. I have two pieces of reader feedback over the years that meant a lot to me when it comes to that end. I’ll try to give them without spoilers. One was from a friend, who read the entire series while resting after the birth of her daughter. She messaged me to let me know she was dissolving in tears at the end of that book. The other reader was my son, this last year while he was 14-15. He read the series and told me that the ending wasn’t fair. It was really sad, and how could I do that? I reminded him gently – we were in the car, I was driving – that when I wrote that book, I was living away from my children. I had them under my wings not too long afterward, but there is something about that loss of precious time that I had to write out. So I did. And it is a happy ending, the end of Dragon Noir, and the series. But there is a terrible price to pay that will leave a scar.

Fiction and life intertwine. We can use the one to better navigate the other. But the thing about life? There are no endings we can experience to use in the writing. Once we have our own ending, we are past the ability to write. So fictional ends are hard. And there are always options for more story, because there is still more life in us to live.

19 comments

  1. My thinking on where and how to end a story has changed considerably since I started writing mostly stand alone short fiction. I don’t expect to tie up all the lose ends in either time direction, by which I mean I don’t feel the need to explain how a particular story element entered the character’s life before the story begins, or what happened to that aspect of the character’s life after the story ends.

    There are two quotes I keep in mind when writing endings.

    “I never saw any of them again, except the cops. No one’s has ever found a way to say goodbye to them.” from Raymond Chandler. Some aspects of a story will have a lasting effect on the character’s life, while others will come and go, leaving nothing behind but memories, and the character has no control over which is which. How a story ends isn’t fair. Rescuing the princess often results in the princess going back to her kingdom without a backward glance, while the evil wizard continues to be a thorn in the character’s side for years to come.

    The other is the quote I used to end Gingerbread Wolves, from Edna St. Vincent Millay; “Life must go on, I forget just why.” The alarm clock is going to go off on the day after you save the world, and you’ll still have to get up and shower and make coffee and face the day. The operant word in “they lived happily ever after” isn’t “happily”, it’s “lived”. Things can happen which feel like the end of the world to the person going through them, but the world doesn’t end, it keeps turning.

  2. I think I want an end to the stress, the tension. The MCs need to return to something familiar and show, perhaps, a bit of growth, an ability to cope with things that used to be beyond them, something like that. Even if there are loose threads all over the place, I want to feel that the MCs are safe and unthreatened right now and for some time. For a series, perhaps even explicitly spoken of. “Next Spring we’ll go to someplace and see if Bad Guy is still being bad.”

    1. This. This is what I was aiming for in my first (so far only) book. Since it’s set in an academic world, the end of the semester has always provided a break before one is required to dive back in the following semester. I used that to give my characters a bit of a rest.

    2. That’s a problem in some stories (not necessarily anyone’s here, just generically) that the tension and the knocks just keep coming.

      I have this theory that in a book (as opposed to Reality TM) the fails come in sets of three. Our culture, according to various dusty theorists and the Classics I remember from my ancient schooling, just loves the number three. “Firstly”, and then “secondly”, and then “finally” seems more majestic than two or four things. Five things seems like you’re overdoing it. After five it’s way too much.

      In a story, if the MC just keeps getting punched in the face and can’t catch a break, after the third time the tension (for me anyway) is getting too high, and suspension of disbelief starts to fray.

      I recall a book where the MC got captured, then released, then beat up, then had a car crash, then his girlfriend was in danger, then he got shot, then his father was sick, then MC got fired… and I was saying “sorry, no, this guy isn’t still going now. He’s dead. Or insane. Or insanely dead.” That much shit would be reasonable if spread out over maybe three characters, but one guy? No way.

      So that’s my Phantom Theory for today. Initial problem, secondary problem, final problem which sets up the solution. Then a party. ~:D

      Do I follow this? Sometimes. But there is always a party.

      1. “Five… is right out!”
        I’ll give a pass on certain things—for instance, there’s a series where the principle character is very very durable as part of the design, so having her get severely damaged isn’t a crisis element, it’s just part of the job. But give her an emotional gutting as opposed to a real one, that’s where there’s a big knock.
        I’ve made the joke about that series that there are two types of books: Gentle and Brutal. The Gentle is very, very bloody. The Brutal is bloody as well, but emotionally hard.

      2. Three seems to fit our mind sets. From three wise men to three little pigs, it crops up everywhere. In literature, it may be that it started from practical stage craft (why?) and for all I know, the Eastern myths may eschew it, and it’s just the Western Culture we’ve been raised in.

  3. The end of L-Familiar will be “Oh good, help’s here. Oh nuts, help’s HERE, not where it’s supposed to be!” *channels Church Lady* AWK-ward. *end Church Lady* And it flows into M-Familiar.

    1. Ooh! Going to leave us on eleventerhooks at the end of L-Familiar, eh? I hope that M-Familiar follows as soon as practical.

  4. Real Life has no endings, for the most part. You just keep going along until one day you stop. Then they throw dirt on you. If you’ve been good they put flowers on first, before the dirt throwing.

    Consequently I view this Reality thing as something I’m forced to put up with, not something I’m excited to write about.

    Therefore, I don’t. My stories tie up all the loose ends. Everybody gets a win, sometimes even the Bad Guy. Then at the very end there’s a party, because when you win there oughta be a party. Also the Good Guy gets The Girl, that’s another rule. (Or possibly the Good Girl gets her guy/girl/robot/alien/monster/whatever, I’m pretty flexible that way because this is FICTION and we can do what we want, right?) None of this unrequited pining, everybody gets some.

    I’m not saying -everybody- should do this, because it’s probably the most-wrong way to write a book there is. I’m doing it because that’s the kind of story I want to read. Good guys win, bad guys lose because they deserve to, and then there’s a party. That’s what I want. Not many authors doing that these days.

    But you know, that makes the thing kind of hard to write sometimes, because I don’t know what the end is. No clue. How are they going to pull off a win this time? I’ve already taken “and then they all died!” off the table, along with “and then their lives sucked forever more” or “and then the good guys became evil for no apparent reason and killed them all” and so forth because those are shit endings and my characters would haunt me until I fixed it. (Characters do that type of thing. Uh huh. They totally do.)

    The characters are also supposed to be smarter than us mere humans. They do things -right-, they don’t stumble into good luck. Sometimes it takes quite a while to think up what they should do.

    But hurrah, yesterday I finally figured out a decent solution to the problem of Evil Necromancers in North Korea trying to raise demons to defeat Our Heroes. Being ridiculously over-powered and over-equipped, Our Heroes could nuke ’em from orbit. But that’s A) boring and B) kinda evil. Killing people in job-lots is what the bad guys do. Our Heroes could run in there and shoot everybody, a bit more exciting and less collateral damage, but again that’s a Bad Guy type of solution.

    So yay, I figured it out. Now all I have to do is go write it down. ~:D

    1. “they don’t stumble into good luck”

      Don’t discount the value of luck, though! I mean, they can maximize their chances, but “ooh, just what I needed” is useful at times.

  5. “Studies have been done on this, and show that people who read a lot have better emotional intelligence. Because they were able to look at the inner workings of another person’s mind, their motivations, their feelings, they are able to come away from reading fiction with heightened empathy.”

    Well, yes. This is because reading is as close as any of us will ever come to mental telepathy and truly inhabiting someone else’s skin and understanding their innermost motivations. The story playing out in the mind is far more complex than the story being enacted out in front of you because you cannot ‘hear’ what the sidekick is thinking. Or the villain. But when you read, you can.

    The ArchDruid, John Michael Greer, said this far better than I ever could. If you haven’t heard of him, here’s the link to his intense discussion of reading and thought transference:
    https://www.ecosophia.net/the-taste-of-anothers-thoughts/

    The taste of another’s thoughts. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you write and someone else reads what you wrote.

  6. This is also true. After all, they have The Power Of The Writer on their side, so they are allowed to be lucky. But, being that I’m one of those disgusting disgraceful deplorable Conservatives, I prefer that people be lucky because they already did a ton of work to prepare for trouble. The universe of the story does not revolve around brainless luck as a driving force.

    “Boy, it’s a good thing we busted our asses hauling that 30mm up here,” said Main Character.
    “Yeah,” agreed Love Interest. “It would have been hard to kill that thing with just the mortar.”
    “Easy for you to say, Main Character” groused Staunch Supporter. “You didn’t have to carry it.”

    Being lucky means they get there a little faster. Being smart and doing all the work means it’s more likely they’ll be lucky. “Doing all the work” is another theme that doesn’t get much play these days out there in the mainstream.

  7. Just look at what Stephen King does with his endings, and do the opposite, and you’ll be fine.

  8. The wise old fairy tales never were so silly as to say that the prince and the princess lived peacefully ever afterwards. The fairy tales said that the prince and princess lived happily ever afterwards; and so they did. They lived happily, although it is very likely that from time to time they threw the furniture at each other.

    G.K. Chesterton

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