Wednesday, February 24, 2016

5 Common Problems With Endings

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Today, we wrap up my mini-series on common problems in beginnings, middles, and endings. Week one focused on beginnings, week two discussed middles, and this week, we’ll take a look at common problems with endings.

The ending resolves the core conflict of the novel and puts the protagonist up against the antagonist. It’s the moment readers have been waiting for the entire book (no pressure), so the most common problem is not living up to that promise in some way.

The only thing tougher than an ending is the middle. Except for the beginning.

If an ending isn’t working, it’s often because we’ve forgotten what the point of the novel was. We end the story, but it’s not the ending we promised, or it doesn’t resolve the things we set out to resolve.

Let’s look at five common problems with endings:

1. It's the Wrong Size

Structurally, endings are about the same size as beginnings (roughly 25%). They follow similar paths, but instead of getting the protagonist onto the plot path, the ending gets her off of it. When the ending is the wrong size, it either feels too fast and everything resolves so quickly readers don’t have time to absorb (let alone enjoy), the climax, or it’s so slow it feels like the novel will never end.

Endings that are too short: Look for places where the story is rushing to the payoff and not letting enough tension build. Watch for places where you’re summarizing the action instead of dramatizing it, as this is often seen in too-short endings. Also check to see how the ending compares to the beginning size-wise. If one is 100 pages and the other is 35 pages, odds are a lot is still missing. Try fleshing out what feels sparse and slowing down a little to let the tension build.

Endings that are too long: Look for places where the ending rambles on after the climax is over, or it takes too long to get there. It could also be that there’s too much description or infodumping as loose ends are tied up and explained. Try resolving some of those issues earlier in the ending (closer to the beginning of act three than the end), or leaving some loose ends untied. You might also need to trim excess description, infodumps, or internalization

(Here’s more on crafting strong endings) 

2. It Doesn’t Resolve the Core Conflict

The whole point of an ending is to resolve the core conflict of a novel. But sometimes we forget what that point is and end up solving a problem in the climax that doesn’t actually fix the problem posed at the beginning of the story—and the one the protagonist has been trying most of the book to solve.

Try letting the climax solve the core conflict, and resolve the problem the plot set out to solve in the first place.

(Here’s more on the core conflict) 

3. It Doesn’t Involve the Protagonist

This is more common in larger-scale novels with multiple point of view characters, but it can happen anywhere. The characters finally fight their way to the climax, but the protagonist isn’t the one who defeats the antagonist and saves the day (however that unfolds in the novel). This is especially problematic if you could take out the protagonist and the ending still works.

If the protagonist isn’t the hero, then why have readers been following her all book? Put the protagonist back in the driver’s seat and let her solve the problem.

4. The Protagonist Doesn’t Grow

In most novels, the protagonist is going to learn something and grow in response to her experience in the novel (the character arc). When she doesn’t, readers can wonder what the whole point is and the novel can feel like a waste of their time.

Look out for endings (and arcs) where the protagonist has gone through all the deliciously evil things we did to her to get her there, but by the end, she learns nothing, and is no better or worse off than when she started. Had she not gone through this experience, her life would not have changed at all, or so little it doesn’t matter.

Try giving the protagonist a character arc and a reason to experience the plot of the novel. Make what she does matter to her.

(Here’s more on character arcs) 

5. The Ending Doesn’t Fulfill the Story Promise

We make a promise to our readers at the beginning of a novel (sometimes before then, with what we say in the cover copy). “This is the type of story you’re going to read and you will have this reading experience.” Readers expect us to live up to that promise, and when we don’t, it affects how they feel about the book.

Look for endings that don’t fit the beginnings, and don't keep the promise made at the start of the novel. Maybe it started out as a political thriller and turned into a romance, or started as an adventure that turned into a story of self reflection. Whatever the reason, the story promise made at the start is not kept.

Keep the promise. Try adjusting the plot to fit the story you want to tell, even if that means changing the ending, fixing the beginning, or adjusting other major events in the novel.

(Here’s more on keeping the story promise) 

The ending is often what determines how much readers like the novel, so we want to do our best to make sure our endings are satisfying, and live up to all the work we did to get there.

Do you have trouble with endings? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I guess this could fit under 5, but what about the endings that aren't endings, but set up for sequels?

    The X-files miniseries just did that, and it drove me up the wall. Nothing was resolved--what happened to Scully, what happened to Mulder, what happened to the mini-me's, what happened to the world? It felt like a big "gotcha, dummy! you want to know how the story ends, better hope enough people watched for the network to pick up a second miniseries".

    Those are the most frustrating to me. The rest are disappointing, but I don't want to read a book (or watch a TV show, or movie) where the story is completely unresolved at the end.

    1. You said it, Leah! I just watched that episode, and couldn't believe how disappointing that ending was.

    2. Yes! That ending made me so irritated. I love when endings plant the seed for the next season or book, but you gotta harvest the tomatoes I've been waiting for if you expect me to invest in your next farming venture. Especially when a next season isn't a given.

      (that metaphor got away from me)

    3. I haven't watched it yet (it's on the DVR) because I wanted to hear how folks liked it first. Sounds like maybe I made the right call there. So sad! I loved that series.

  2. Thank you for this!
    Often, my endings feel very rushed and then sort of "unfinished"--I've gotten into the bad habit of doing "deep" endings that are filled with ambiguity and don't actually end/close/resolve anything.

    1. You might try looking at what the core conflict goal of your story is. It's possible you're not sure what the book is "about" and have no clear goal to resolve. So the ending can't end. Goal issues could be the problem there :)

  3. I think I broke all of those the same time...
    Thanks for this. Now I can hopefully fix it.

  4. "If the protagonist isn’t the hero, then why have readers been following her all book?"

    Because a novel from a passive character's pov may be interesting?

    In the Palantir chapters, Pippin is of course much less of a hero than Gandalf. And yet we see them more from Pippins pov, because an author being intimate with an angelic mind is somewhat daunting.

    And in my Susan fic, perhaps, ultimately, the peace someone can have after having been to Narnia, in an English 50's decade where psychiatry is more and more powerful, may be bought by letting others do the fighting. Which is also what Aslan or Father Christmas told her: "battles are ugly when ladies fight". (Have to read up on my CSL sources again, I think).

    1. A POV character is different from a protagonist though. A passive observer (a la Great Gatsby) might be telling the story, but the protagonist and the one driving the story is the one they're observing.

      I'm talking about characters who are supposed to be driving the story and do nothing to advance that story.

    2. No, not "passive" as inactive.

      Passive as being the MacGuffin, as being who everyone else is trying to do sth to, as being the one who makes the narrow escapes ... but without doing very much herself about it.

      I mean, Susan was doing that role in Horse and His Boy, right?

  5. Thank you for this! I might have broken some of those points. Often I tend to come up with a rushed ending, leading to unresolved issues. This will come in handy especially for an aspiring author like me. Here's another link that you might be interested in: