Monday, June 10, 2019

Writing the Ending: Tying Up All the Loose Ends

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Before we dive in today, just a heads up that I’m over at Anne R. Allen’s blog sharing thoughts on The Lure of the Writing Template: Why Filling in the Blanks Doesn’t Work. Come on over and say hello.

The ending of a novel is seldom just one moment. It takes a bit of juggling to get all the storylines tied up without stealing attention from the climax.

Even when we know our novel’s ending, there are usually multiple storylines in that story that also need to be wrapped up. Major subplots, secondary character arcs, small side plots that need resolving or readers will wonder about them. Everything needs to come together at the end in ways that support the story—not send it in six different directions.

Writers have several options to help us keep our subplot endings straight:

Make a list: Lists are my favorite, because I can quickly refer to them, and by keeping them in sight, I can remind myself what needs to be done as I write. They stay in the back of my mind so when I reach a point where I can weave them into the story, they're right there.

Just write it: You can also write the ending however it falls out of your head, then pick each character and fill in their ending where you feel it works best. Do this character by character until all the threads are tied up. You'll probably want to do one more pass after that to make sure everything flows well after all that editing. I'd suggest letting it sit a few weeks before re-reading so you better see what's actually there.

Get outside help: A second pair of eyes is almost always helpful to catch forgotten plotlines, or to spot when too much is going on at once. Beta readers and critique partners can tell you what's there and not what you think you wrote. We’ve all had scenes we were sure read one way, but readers saw totally different things in it. Beta readers can also tell you what storylines they wanted to see tied up and ones they cared little about. That can help you prioritize.

Brainstorm it: Think about how you want your ending to play out. You still want that sense of things building to a climax, even as you wrap up other plot lines. You also want to avoid the sense that they story isn't ending (boy is this my nemesis!) because there's just "one more thing" that has to be overcome or resolved. You might outline how you want your events to unfold so you can keep the order straight, and use that to help pace it.

Things to consider when tying up loose ends in a novel:

1. Which endings are denouement events that can come after the climax?

Sometimes readers like to know what happened to Soandso, and that can happen after the big bad has been resolved. It’s not a full-blow epilogue, just a sense of where characters went and if they ended up where readers hoped they would.

(Here’s more on Writing Great Endings -- And Not Just the Big One)

2. Which endings might be good last steps before the climax?

Sometimes events need to unfold or be revealed in a certain order to reach the climax, and ending one character's plotline could open up a door to a larger plot piece, or even lead smoothly into another character’s ending or storyline. Maybe some of the characters can act in a way that helps the protagonist, and in doing so, resolves their own storyline or story arc.

(Here’s more on the Anatomy of a Showdown)

3. Is there an order the endings need to happen in?

Depending on the importance of the various subplots, you could help pace your climax by how you arrange those endings. You could build a series of smaller victories before smacking the protagonist with a big loss where it hurts the most. Smaller reveals might build to the big "oh wow!" moment that changes everything.

(Here’s more on Planning Your Novel’s Ending)

4. What are your ending priorities?

This is important if you have smaller subplots or lesser characters you're wrapping up. Not every subplot needs to be resolved in the final few scenes of the novel. Some of those less-critical endings might come earlier on in the third act, because they aren't critical to the plot. Major characters and major storyline would likely be resolved at or near the end, though, because they’re probably plot-centric—and that's also what readers are looking for.

(Here’s more on Pushing the Plot Forward—Tying (and Trimming) Loose Ends for a Tidy Finish)

5. Are any of these endings a surprise?

A reveal ending could work to drive the story forward, because readers have probably been wondering about the outcome. If there's a slow spot in the climax, this ending might help fill that gap and keep the pace up. Learning secrets could also change how the protagonist or other characters feel when they face the final “battle.”

(Here’s more on It’s Over: Getting Readers to the End and Making Them Glad They Came)

6. Can any of the endings be smaller asides and not full blown endings?

You can also wrap up a subplot without a lot of fanfare. A secondary character who needed X might get it and be "done" as part of another scene. Characters might take a moment to smile and be happy for them, then they're off again. It resolves that minor character's story, but it doesn't require a lot of attention. Maybe this happy moment even plays into reader anticipation or raises the stakes, since readers might worry the hard-earned happiness is going to end badly in the climax.

(Here’s more on The End is Near: What Makes a Good Ending?)

7. Is the subplot even needed?

Although we don’t like to think about this, sometimes we have trouble with ending a subplot because it’s not necessary to the story. The ending ought to matter, even if it’s small. If that subplot wasn’t there, what would have changed? If nothing, then maybe you didn’t need that subplot after all.

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Tell if a Subplot is Leading You Astray)

I think one reason why endings can be hard, is that we spend so much time thinking, “How can I make this worse?” to keep our plots moving. Endings are all about wrapping up those plotlines, and it goes against our nature to stop. But there comes a point when we need to resolve a subplot, and do it in a way that keeps that main plot momentum going.

Weave your subplot endings into the story so they end with the greatest impact. Some of those will affect the plot, but others will carry emotional weight for both readers and characters. But just like the core conflict’s end, you want your subplots to have a satisfying conclusion as well.

How and where do you resolve your subplots?

*Originally published July 2010. Last updated: June 10, 2019

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Endings are tough. These are excellent points to consider. Thanks! :)

  2. The second set of eyes on my UF WIP has been invaluable. I hadn't explained the character or world to her, so she caught many little details that I knew and that affected the story, but had never actually made it on the page. (Or had accidentally been cut altogether in the fight against infodumps.)

    In general, I find bulleted lists helpful, listing each character involved and what must/will/would happen. (This works for scene progression, too.)

    I know people recommend to wait before revising, but I find it best to read through the entire thing once, right after finishing, to check the flow and maybe catch some detail thoughts that I didn't quite finish, then I wait until I don't even remember how I handled some things and revise. I reduce the "Er, what was I trying to say?" problem, that way.

    Of course, I'm still trying to get a novel to a publishable level, so possibly that's proof that the immediate-revision technique doesn't work so well.

  3. These are excellent tips on ending a story. Thanks!

  4. Whatever works, works, Carradee. Nothing wrong with doing a once over right away :)

  5. Wonderful detailed insight for finishing up our novels!

  6. Dear Janice, whenever you're ready to share, I'd be very interested in your takes on epilogues in general and in romance in particular. (I noticed that your blog features some guest posts that briefly or in passing touch upon it.)
    Should an epilogue be one scene (in the sense of time and location) or are two or three scenes acceptable if there's a mini arc within the epilogue?
    Can one minor but nonetheless important open question related to the protagonists be answered in the epilogue?
    As always, many TIA! :)

    1. I usually see one-scene epilogues in romance (in most books, actually), but if there's a lot to wrap up, you might have more. The danger is having too much after the book is officially over, and it can feel anticlimactic.

      I don't see anything wrong with a mini-arc if it works for the story and readers like it. Maybe run it by some beta readers and see how they feel about it?

    2. Thanks, Janice! :)