As Edmund notes when he introduces the panel, this was very fitting that this session was the last writing panel of the convention. Not only was it about endings, bur for me it was the end of my trip. Technically, I should have left sooner. I was a bit on the edge for this last hour; my buddy Alexander and I were poised to make a mad dash to the airport, since my flight was supposed to leave two hours later, he was giving me a lift, and the hotel was a good forty-five minutes away. Suspense!
My ending turned out to be anticlimactic because as it happened, my flight had been pushed back an hour and somehow I was never notified, and I didn't realize I could or should check online. (Not a satisfying ending, IMO, even if I was okay in the end. Just sayin'.) So I made it there just fine, with plenty of time to spare, and the only pain being my as-it-turned-out-unnecessary anxiety. (And I am never booking with that travel agency again. Sometimes, the points just aren't worth it.)
A Satisfying Ending
Aaron Rosenberg, James R. Tuck, Carrie Ryan, James Maxey
Moderator: Edmund Schubert
ES: It’s about wrapping up. (which makes this panel appropriate for wrapping up a con). A great opening brings the readers in in, but a great ending brings them back. It’s also about keeping the promise that book made at the beginning. How do you make sure you are making your reader happy with your ending?
AR: The reader’s two reactions should be: Surprise and rightness. “I should have seen that coming … why didn’t I see that coming?” Plenty of authors go for surprise and not the rightness. Example: J.K. Rowling lives to surprise with her endings, but doesn’t focus on the rightness. So he has an idea of his ending even before he begins writing, to help steer his way.
Surprise without rightness: When Sherlock sees a clue not mentioned before.
Rightness without surprise: When the reader can see the ending coming from a mile away … so why keep reading?
JT: Endings should be both surprising and inevitable, no matter how much it took you by surprise it should be the ending that works. So that by the wrap of the story the reader can close the book and feel satisfied.
CR: That’s where revisions come in: go through and make it work. Give the characters a challenge at beginning that they fail, and the ending is they succeed (unless this is a tragedy). What challenge can you give at the beginning? What changes can you throw at them to show that these changes have happened? In books, we should go bigger than real life. When there are certain stakes, then ending has to match those stakes.
ES: He has to write with an ending in mind. He can’t write without the ending in mind. He wrote his ending first, and wrote towards it. Has anyone else tried that?
AR: No, because it constrains everything written up til then. Knows the ending, but wants the ending to make sense, doesn’t want to restrict possibilities along the way. Doesn’t want to narrow down his options.
CR: You hit the point of panic (speaking as a pantser) – the point for the reader where there is no way the characters are going to get out of it. Sometimes you have to go back to the beginning to see what you’ve already seeded in. The answer is often already in the text. You’ve laid out the pattern for yourself even if you’re completely unaware of it.
AR: Pantsed his work No Small Bills, until he was asked to show an outline, and realized that even without plotting deliberately the ending fit surprisingly well (after much panic).
Audience question: With writing, they know how the ending is going to go, but they don’t want to finish it because they like the world they created so much. How do you get over leaving that universe behind?
AR: There are different kinds of writers. Some can take a year or two on their books. Some have to write several a year. You have an internal story editor. Trust them when they tell you you’re done.
JT: Gets to the end of the book because he’s out there and wants to make money.
CR: Sometimes the ending you know may not be the right ending. If you’re having trouble leaving, it may be the story’s way of telling you that it’s not the right way to go.
ES: He doesn’t like to talk a novel to death. Using David B. Coe’s soda pop analogy: every time you take the cap off, more fizz escapes. Write that first draft as quickly and badly as possible, then go back and fix it.
JT: Writing is something he’s enjoyed and wanted to do. But with his current project, he wasn’t enjoying it, so he stopped and changed things and now is back to writing.
CR: Sometimes there’s a fear of once it’s done, moving to the next step. Revising, querying, submitting is hard and scary. It’s no longer that safe feeling. You have to step out of your comfort zone, leave your story behind.
ES: Let’s talk about endings that didn’t work for you. Why?
AR: Roger Zelazny’s Amber. The end of 5th book in 2nd series, when all the plot threads get dealt with in the last 20 pages. Merlin makes up with evil siblings. WTF. Merlin sets a truce with his secondary enemy, too. He (AR) wonders if it was from the editor’s pressure.
JT: The end of the Hunger Games trilogy. There’s a betrayal of the character, who she was in book 1 and 2. Also, Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code – solid beginning, poor ending; Deception Point, 3 pages from ending, the author pulls in a submarine deus ex machine solution.
CR: Re: The Hunger Games - When your character is unconscious for a large part of the book, you should really revise. A book where the character wakes up having been unconscious and has the climax explained to them, really doesn’t work. With another book read shortly after finishing Hunger Games: the last 15 pages were better written, provided more interest, and left a good taste in her mouth going forward. Afterwards, CR realized that the taste left in mouth is what you need to go for. The power of a solid ending. You can take a mediocre book and create and ending that turns readers into evangelists.
ES: So much of life doesn’t have satisfying endings, tidy endings, people want sense of closure. An author of a book he read violated the magic system after outlining exactly how it works and does not work, and that ruined the story for him.
CR: Even a controversial ending – one that leaves people who want something else, and hotly debate about ending, create passion in readers.
ES: Deus ex machina: why is it so incredibly irritating today?
JT: Since we write speculative fiction, we can write those endings, but we have to show that the world is set up as a way for that to work. It’s still very difficult to justify.
CR: But that setup negates the Deus ex. The deus ex machina is something from out of nowhere. The reason it’s so unsatisfying is because we as readers want to be involved. We want to solve the mystery, want to know te clues are there. Davinci code was so popular because reader goes through steps with the character and solve it with the main character.
ES: Readers like to be involved. They like to figure things out and feel smart. That level of engagement is satisfying.
JM (who joined the panel late): 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ends with “good thing we escaped that huge whirlpool / but I don’t know how we escaped”.
AR: But there are also different cultural expectations. Hong Kong movie watchers expect that they might not get a happy ending. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was French. Hollywood makes a lot of the endings happy, and that’s not always the point.
JM: The original Tarzan was not a happy ending but it was a good one, because Tarzan sacrifices his chance to be with Jane because he’s found someone that would make her life happier. Tarzan’s lie to Jane saves the book.
ES: A great story can overcome poor writing.
Audience comment: Our whole culture is based on the dream, the optimism, that things can turn out different and better. That’s why we want happy endings.
Audience question: What if the ending doesn’t match expectations?
ES: The power of expectations is human nature: if you set up expectations and don’t follow through, readers will be disappointed.
JM: Robocop ends when he shoots the bad guy and the credits roll before the guy hits the ground.
CR: This can be easy to overlook, but your reader has earned that ending. They’ve made it to the end of the book. They’ve earned seeing it end in a satisfying way, seeing how life has changed. Don’t go on and on, but have some time after (the denouement) for readers to enjoy.
Audience question: What is the promise, exactly?
AR: There’s a difference between the promise the writer makes and the promise the character makes. The character wants something, but the author knows they’ll wind up in another direction. As long as the author’s promise is satisfied, the character gets the appropriate ending.
ES: The promise is that there will be growth in this character. The story is about growth of the character.
AR: The story is either plot-driven, where characters are inconsequential (eg. James Bond, where the story is what matters), or the story is about the character.
JM: In the movie Rocky, the character’s promise is broken when he doesn’t win the fight, but the real promise is that by agreeing to fight and taking his life seriously, he’s become a better person and turned his life around. The goal isn’t winning the fight; he’s the one that became stronger and fought fifteen rounds. He learned more from that experience than if he’d won the fight.
CR: There’s usually a difference between what the character thinks they want and what they need.
JM: In his first novel in the DragonAge series, Bitterwood, the story seems like a typical fantasy, and then at the end the reader finds that humans have genetically modified lizards to make them dragons, who then evolved, but you don’t get that until the last few pages of the book. (ES: This is a brilliant twist out of nowhere, and there are ruins described and artifacts from the past of our civilization left throughout the book as clues.) The magic turns out to be nanotech. It was called “SF in fantasy drag.” But the publisher marketed it as fantasy. JM told people it was SF. He wasn’t trying to make a secret out of it, but that’s not how it was sold. He stopped writing that series because he felt it was a bigger and bigger lie to continue to write pretending it was fantasy.
AR: There’s fooling readers to demonstrate how clever you are, and fooling readers to make them think about something. The cheat in the first example impresses for half a second, and then it disappoints.
CR: Part of the reason a cheat is disappointing is that we’ve all read something like that. It’s fun being able to do the first to surprise readers, but you still don’t want to do it poorly.