Monday, July 18, 2011

Some thoughts on story endings

I was thinking about story endings - basically, for two reasons. First, I have been taking a break from writing my novel for a few weeks because I felt like the ending wasn't lining up strongly enough, and second, because I just finished a short story. And then after I'd submitted it for critique, grabbed it back for some last minute edits to the ending.

I have a tendency to rush endings in first draft. I'm sure people get my story drafts and say, "I'd better take a close look at the ending." I think this is because it takes me so long to write a story that by the time I reach the end I'm going, "get me to the end of this thing!!!" This means, of course, that I do twice as much work on it in the revisions stage.

I'm an outliner, so I generally have a basic idea of what needs to happen for my ending. My Allied Systems stories are puzzle stories, so at a certain point somebody has to go "aha!" Aha moments can happen at any point in a story, but in these stories the aha moment is usually at the climax. I don't mind if readers figure out the solution before my characters, but it's ideal if they arrive there at roughly the same time, so I have to take the puzzle pieces and distribute them through the story, with the last couple arriving right at the end. I then have to make sure that the aha character doesn't sit down and explain at length the solution to the puzzle, because that would be - well, annoying. I'm not writing Sherlock Holmes here. The most important way for me to get around that is to make sure I'm considering the emotional impact of the puzzle solution. In my current story, the solution to the puzzle does not make Adrian Preston very happy at all - so when I went back to tweak it, I changed the aha moment from an explanation to a questioning sequence. Less like "and here's how it works, folks" and more like "oh, darn, can it really work like this? Let's test..."

I also like to make sure that every major character has something to contribute to the ending. Otherwise my readers would be sitting there going "what happened to Lydia?" The core protagonist (Adrian) has to be the one making the major moves - in this case, solving the linguistic and cultural mystery - but because his relationship with his wife Qing has been at issue, the ending has to bring her together with him - and because Lydia the activist friend was the one who started the worst of the trouble, she really has to bring something of value to the end solution so we don't feel angry with her. In the case of this story, "The Liars," she causes something of a revolution, and I think it's deserved.

The question of the core protagonist making the major moves to bring about the ending of the story is a really critical one. I'll say it again: the core protagonist must be the one to solve the problem and cause the ending. This was one of the things I felt was missing in the outline for the novel ending I had planned. I knew that Tagret brought about the final twist at the end, but I had a feeling that he wasn't really behaving as an actor/agent driving the story toward its conclusion in sections leading up to that twist. This had bells of alarm going off in my head until I took a step back and was able to re-outline.

Here's the thing. I've seen this happen even in otherwise fantastic published books, where the author's desire to make the ending MEGA HUGE ends up causing the protagonist to get pushed to one side in his/her significance to the events of the ending. And while the ending remains mega huge, I find its emotional significance to a reader is diminished by this. In the case of trilogies I've read, the constant need to up the stakes in each book makes the problem of sidelining the protagonist even trickier as the end of the first, the second, the third book comes along. I was working with Janice Hardy on Darkfall some months ago, and I remember having this very conversation with her, because her initial draft had drifted off of Nya as its primary driver when it reached the end. Needless to say, she and I and other critiquers put our heads to this problem rather assiduously, and ended up with a better solution that kept Nya right at the center of things (while still satisfying the need for mega huge).

In the case of Tagret in "For Love, For Power," I knew where and how he would take action to achieve the love he was seeking, but I hadn't yet grasped precisely what the piece of power was that he would wield in order to bring about the events of the ending. (I suppose you can see the pattern here: every major character in this novel has both a love arc and a power arc.) Once I realized that he had a piece of knowledge about his brother's weaknesses that no one else possessed, I saw how he could use that against his brother in an escalating sequence that would get us to the climax of the story.

I always like to feel that at the end of a story, each major character gets something he/she "deserves." It's the way we like to see the hero(ine) triumph and the bad guy get his/her comeuppance. When you've got more than one major character, you should consider how to fit into the climax something that each one specially deserves. A character who has been defined by a relationship with family through the book should have some family-related personal twist at the end. A character who has struggled with a dependence on someone or something else should be able to achieve a change of some sort in that dependence (as when Rulii was partially liberated from his addiction at the end of "Cold Words"). A character who has been filled with hate and had to act against his own worse judgment through the whole story should be able to achieve a resolution that changes the nature of that hate (for better or worse!) at the end. Paying attention to this sort of detail for each character will make the ending more resonant and satisfying for readers.

It's something to think about.