Now that we’ve discussed the Big Boss Trouble Maker who creates the core story problem in need of resolution, we’re going to tackle…endings. When we authors know our story ending ahead of time, we gain major creative advantage.
What is this madness? How can I know the END?
Calm down. I’ve been there, too. Which is why I’m here to walk you through and help this puzzling concept make total sense.
*hands paper bag*
If you’ve followed this series on structure, you already know why the BBT is so critical. The BBT creates the external problem that launches everything to come, the problem to be resolved (ending).
No Darth Vader and Luke likely remains a moisture farmer on Tatooine. Unless there’s a major external problem—Darth Vader and a Death Star—Luke can/will never become a Jedi.
No WWI pilot crashing through the veil hiding Themiscyra? Amazons continue doing Amazon stuff. Without the pilot, and the massive threat beyond the bubble (pre-Nazis), there is no external force burdening Diana of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, to make a tough moral choice.
Remain hidden in Amazon Safe Space and hope for the best, or step into the fray? No external problem and Wonder Woman can never exist.
A protagonist cannot become a hero/heroine without triumphing over a big problem, despite all we (as Author God) will throw at them. Once we know the problem, it’s far easier to have a sense of the ending.
If we’ve crafted the core problem in need of resolution, we should have a fairly solid idea how and where the story wraps up. Granted, we may not end our novel precisely the way we first envision, but that’s okay. A general idea is totally cool. When we begin writing our story, the ending we have only needs to be close enough for government work.
This loose boundary is what will fire up the muse for endings that are ‘surprising yet inevitable‘, as the great playwright David Mamet likes to say.
Surprising, Yet Inevitable
I believe the greatest compliment any story can earn is the surprising yet inevitable ending. When we craft a story, ideally the reader will finish and say two things.
I never saw that coming and How did I NOT see that coming?
If we do a bit of work on the front end, and are vastly familiar with our core problem, then this offers us (writers) a myriad of ways to mess with the readers’ heads.
How? We know what they will expect. Why? Because (logically) we’d expect it, too. So, we don’t do THAT.
This is when the reader settles in for that smooth right turn he’d anticipated…and then we zing left across four lanes and take that weird left exit and U-Turn (for bonus smart@$$ points). Meanwhile, the reader screams and hangs on for life, simultaneously hating and loving us.
The reader is stunned, breathless, and maybe indignant.
Ah, but if he’d paid closer attention, he would’ve noticed we (the author) did put on our story blinker and it wasn’t signaling right 😉 . Yet, we had so much distraction in play, the reader missed the blinker signaling LEFT and hidden in plain sight.
Not to give an excuse for sloppy writing, but a story problem that gut-hooks can compensate for a lot of weakness. Conversely, no solid story problem and no one cares how pretty the prose is. Why? Because the reader longs for a bookmark much more than she longs to know the ending.
Case in Point
Recently I listened to an audiobook, a psychological thriller (legacy published). Overall, the novel was dreadful. I about choked on the purple prose, and if we made this author’s word echoes into a drinking game? Alcohol poisoning by Chapter Five. Why did I press on? Because the story PROBLEM hooked me.
I knew I had the mystery solved as in who did what, but couldn’t quite nail the HOW. I pushed on through the swamp of overwriting because I had to know the ending…which was surprising and inevitable.
Granted, don’t know if I’ll ever read another work by this writer, but alas, the author did the job. The writer created a compelling story problem. So compelling, I was willing to gut through the slow pace, the protagonist who was too dumb to live, and absurdly detailed descriptions of…everything.
Why? Because I had to KNOW the ENDING. And, the ending made me happy, so we’re cool.
Problems Reveal Endings
If we know an evil necromancer is taking over Middle Earth, and the ONLY way to ultimately destroy Sauron is to melt a special ring in one specific volcano? Care to make a bet where and how that story should reasonably END? Likely the ending somewhere close to Mt. Doom. (The Lord of the Rings).
When a self-absorbed teenager wishes away her baby brother to a Goblin King—who takes baby brother—and the only way to get him back is to solve the Labyrinth? Again, care to hazard an ending? Labyrinth solved and baby brother safe (The Labyrinth).
When a daughter loses her mother before she has a chance to reconcile and forgive, that’s a bad situation. But when she’s offered a chance to board a boat to China to meet her long lost half-sisters—the twins her mother ‘abandoned’ and the blade daughter often used to slice mom—how should the story END? Disembarking a boat in China to meet the long lost twins, fulfilling her dead mother’s dream (Joy Luck Club).
When a prince in Denmark’s father dies, that is a problem. It’s also a problem when he returns home to his mom who’s married his Uncle Claudius before Dad’s body is even cold in the ground. Oh, and uncle has also declared himself king—despite Hamlet being next in line. It takes no genius to figure out, Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Also doesn’t take a ghost to put two and two together. Seems fairly clear King Uncle-Dad Claudius offed his brother to take his place.
And y’all thought your family was jacked up…
Thus, how should the story end? By Claudius in some way paying for his crime and someone other than Claudius crowned king. And, since Shakespeare wrote it, everyone dies. BUT, we do know the ending. Claudius will pay dearly and will not be king.
Ending with Intention vs. Formulaic Writing
I can hear all the howls of complaint. Kristen, but I don’t want to be crammed into formulaic writing. Having a story ending that is surprising and inevitable is not ‘formulaic.’ Great drama has an ending.
The ending to a story is as integral as scales on a lizard. When a ‘lizard’ has fur instead of scales, it ain’t a lizard. Don’t know what the heck it actually is, but reptile pretty much ruled out.
When ‘stories’ have no clear ending, we call those soap operas.
Note: Still unsure if Stefano actually dead.
Formulaic is when we write some paint-by-numbers story where nothing is shocking. We (readers) are never fooled or mislead. When and if the audience reaches the ending of a novel, play or movie and have managed to predict everything as if by telepathy? THAT is formulaic writing.
Formulaic writing abounds more now than ever because quantity has taken over quality.
Emerging writers rush to ‘write a novel’ without taking time to train and learn to ‘craft a story.’ Publishing and the movie industry are pushing the next thing and the next and the next.
The entertainment business model has shifted because the digital age has opened up distribution and drastically lowered production costs. Now, the business model is to make a little money off a lot of crappy stories instead of make bank off something truly remarkable.
This is a major reason I’ve all but given up on most Hollywood movies. Their endings inevitably make me want to throw things.
The Cage that Frees the Muse
Structure erects boundaries and parameters. Many new writers wail that structure (I.e. conceptualizing endings ahead of time) wrecks creativity. Yet, I believe quite the opposite.
Ever put a toddler in a playpen then gotten distracted? Trust me, they get REAL creative. Study any super-max prison and one thing you’re guaranteed to witness? Mad creativity, boundless imagination.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this series, I don’t care how any writer constructs the story so long as the end result is solid. It doesn’t matter if we outline in detail, write by the seat of our pants, or work out the story in jazz hands while channelling Liberace.
Plotter, pantser, or plotser? That’s process, which is personal. But all processes will work far better with a solid understanding of what the story must eventually accomplish. Having the problem and a notion of the ending, makes this way simpler.
If I know my goal is to drive from Dallas, Texas to California (ending) then this automatically rules out thousands of roads. I-20 East is a dumb plan unless my goal is to circumnavigate the globe.
Ah, but then my goal (ending) actually is to get to California from Dallas, TX by circumnavigating the globe. This ALSO rules out thousands of routes. In this case. I-20 West not a good place to start, since it is too direct for my goal of having to circumnavigate the globe to reach California (ending).
***Or it’s proof I’m using Apple maps.
Use the Ending to Torture Readers
If we don’t even know where WE are going, this craters imagination. When we’re unsure how the story will (likely) end, it’s impossible for us to misdirect readers. We lose that amazing capacity to mess with the audience’s head. Readers love books that defy expectations, that ‘fool’ them and make them suffer.
Readers relish a challenge, and look to US (authors) to present them a challenge worthy of their money and 12-15 hours of their most precious possession—TIME.
Endings also insert necessary context for dramatic tension. If we give the audience no sense of how the story should/will end, then there is no way for them to discern a setback, and thus, worry.
As an author, if I crash a plane of soccer players on a mountain in the Andes, where they’re forced to eat their dead teammates to survive, that’s morbidity. Interesting in a gruesome way, and a problem, but not yet a story.
***This is why survival alone is not a story.
Ah, but what if when the blizzard clears, off in the distance there’s what appears to be an abandoned ranger station or hunting lodge? Something to use as shelter, but that might also have provisions (beyond that center half-back) and a radio? Or flares? Some way to signal for help.
NOW we have a story because there’s something resembling an ending. Every setback that prevents the surviving soccer players from reaching THAT station makes us worry. Avalanches, blizzards, injures, hypothermia, frostbite all evolve from ‘bad situations’ to ‘dramatic setbacks.’
There are also CHOICES to be made.
Stay at the crash site or move? Staying increases odds rescuers will find our unfortunate group. But, the plane is unstable, could crash down the mountain. Also, the region is so remote, who knows when help will come?
Oh, but trek for that thingy that seems to be an old ranger station and what if it isn’t? What if it’s a hallucination? A mirage? The Unibomber’s old time-share, equipped with nothing more than rage and a typewriter?
Now, characters can FIGHT. They fight each other, fight with themselves, fight against nature and fight to LIVE and to WIN! And this, my friends, is now a story 😉 .
À la fin…
Ennui Cat says nothing matters and life is futile, and he’s judging your book…and you.
In the end, mastering structure unleashes imagination, provides opportunities to create mad twists, turns and endings that leave readers breathless. By gauging an ‘idea’ for our ending, we make plotting simpler.
Some added bonuses?
We’re far less likely to write ourselves into a corner unable to figure a way out. Also, since the structure is sound, revisions will be more pleasant…and less like water boarding while getting a root canal.
For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .
Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!
I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 15th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Were you like me and when some ‘expert’ told you to write from the ending you were all SAY WHAT? Are you INSANE? Does it make a bit more sense now?
Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.
I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?
I love hearing from you!
And am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of FEBRUARY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.
Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.
NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!
GET READY TO ROAR: THE BUSINESS OF THE WRITING BUSINESS
Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, March 1st, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST
Being a professional author entails much more than simply writing books. Many emerging authors believe all we need is a completed novel and an agent/readers will come.
There’s a lot more that goes into the writing business…but not nearly as much as some might want us to believe. There’s a fine balance between being educated about business and killing ourselves with so much we do everything but WRITE MORE BOOKS.
This class is to prepare you for the reality of Digital Age Publishing and help you build a foundation that can withstand major upheavals. Beyond the ‘final draft’ what then? What should we be doing while writing the novel?
We are in the Wilderness of Publishing and predators abound. Knowledge is power. We don’t get what we work for, we get what we negotiate. This is to prepare you for success, to help you understand a gamble from a grift a deal from a dud. We will discuss:
- The Product
- Types of Publishing
- Platform and Brand
- Marketing and Promotion
- Making Money
- Where Writers REALLY Need to Focus
AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER: SELF-PUBLISHING FOR PROFESSIONALS
Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $99.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, March 2nd, 2018, 7:00-10:00 p.m. EST
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you going to go KDP Select or wide distribution with Smashwords as a distributor? Are you going to use the KDP/CreateSpace ISBN’s or purchase your own package? What BISAC codes have you chosen? What keywords are you going to use to get into your target categories? Who’s your competition, and how are you positioned against them?
Okay, hold on. Breathe. Slow down. I didn’t mean to induce a panic attack. I’m actually here to help.
Beyond just uploading a book to Amazon, there are a lot of tricks of the trade that can help us build our brand, keep our books on the algorithmic radar, and find the readers who will go the distance with us. If getting our books up on Amazon and CreateSpace is ‘Self-Publishing 101,’ then this class is the ‘Self-Publishing senior seminar’ that will help you turn your books into a business and your writing into a long-term career.
- Competitive research (because publishing is about as friendly as the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones)
- Distribution decisions (because there’s actually a choice!)
- Copyright, ISBN’s, intellectual property, and what it actually all means for writers
- Algorithm magic: keywords, BISAC codes, and meta descriptions made easy
- Finding the reader (beyond trusting Amazon to deliver them)
- Demystifying the USA Today and NYT bestselling author titles
- How to run yourself like a business even when you hate business and can’t math (I can’t math either, so it’s cool)
Yes, this is going to be a 3-hour class because there is SO much to cover…but, like L’Oréal says, you’re worth it! Also, a recording of this class is also included with purchase.
The class includes a workbook that will guide you through everything we talk about from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution, and much, much more!
Time is MONEY, and your time is valuable so this will help you make every moment count…so you can go back to writing GREAT BOOKS.
EVEN MORE CLASSES…
Check them out at W.A.N.A. Int’l.
Great advice and info. Thanks!
The advice is wonderful, as I’d expect from you. My first story came from a simple 200 words flasher, but it came as the middle. It wasn’t long before I had figured out the ending and was off on the 30K little piece to find their beginnings.
My current WIP is much like you described. I began with the ending knowing where my MCs would be and where/who the true BBT would be in all this. I mixed it up by having two others who could be BBTs as central antagonists. Then I threw the reader to the rails with hints on something sort of profound while revealing a flaw in the works to make you question the importance and true nature of the ending place in the story. At least I hope it works that way.
Your classes always teach a wealth of info while having a lot of fun.
This is how I write! I start with the ending in mind, even if it’s vague. I usually have a beginning and ending and just have to figure out the middle.
Again, so marvelously over the top & utterly compelling for any writer. Thank you!
This is my first opportunity to read your blog. Absolutely thrilling – my new learned word last week was horripilation, and when I read this post my hair did stand on end. Thank you for confirming my ending is on track.
What you say about knowing the ending ahead of time and using that knowledge to inform the writing of a novel makes sense. I’ve always loved a nice tidy ending where all the loose ends are tied up with a ribbon. And I rage internally when the BBTM doesn’t pay the price for his or her evil deeds in the end. But then I read Steven King in his wonderful book “On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft” say that real life stories never have endings. He says life goes on afteer the book ends. Other things happen — unless the entire world is destroyed cataclysmically. So if we leave the reader wondering what happens next, that’s perfectly okay. I made good use of that idea in writing a series. I was so thankful because I was always so stressed previous to reading that advice about how to end a story. Using King’s advice, I got into a habit of setting up an expected resolution of the BIG PROBLEM and then yanking the rug out from under the reader by writing an entirely different and unexpected ending, one that even I, the Author/God, didn’t expect. I didn’t do it to be mean to the reader or to get them to buy my sequel. I did it because I discovered a technique of going deep into the minds of my characters and letting them do what they would do if they existed in real life. I relinquished control to my characters. I loved the result. My characters came to life. I like to think that this technique made my readers care more about what was going to happen to my characters. That said, your post has given me ideas for my next novel. I have a complete plot outline for it, all except for two things. I don’t have an ending. I know what I would like to have happen at the end but I don’t know why it will happen and, if I give my characters free will like I have always done, I don’t know IF it will happen. I think one of my issues with the plot outline is I do not yet have a clear image of the BBTM or the BIG PROBLEM. I know I should get that better formed before I start writing or the story will just ramble. I will, I promise, but I’m still conflicted about whether I want to, or should, have a tidy ending in mind as I begin writing the story. Help please.
Endings should be surprising and inevitable. Never mentioned tidy 😉 . The core problem needs to be resolved. To riff a handful of examples since you mentioned Stephen King. In S.K.’s ‘IT’, the creature is ultimately defeated, and Derry freed. In ‘Carrie,’ Carrie finally accepts what she is and embraces her raw power. Her tormentors pay dearly…and so do a lot of innocent bystanders and the entire town.
In ‘1408’ the grieving and jaded writer is adrift, his marriage imploded and career a joke. It’s only when he’s held prisoner in the room, subjected to its unending torment, that he finally overcomes his bitterness, selfishness, and relinquishes control.
He faces his guilt over his own powerlessness to save his daughter, comes to terms with his rage at a ‘God’ who would permit her death as if ‘good’ were the only supernatural force on the board. When he finally admits if that room is HELL, then evil exists. If there’s hell, then this suggests perhaps there is also a heaven. Regardless, he changes enough as a person where he willingly sacrifices himself so the room can never have another victim. He might have been powerless to do anything to save his daughter’s life, but he DOES have the power to end 1408’s capacity to claim more lives/souls.
Endings can be scrubby, rough round the edges and leave one wondering about this or that and should. These little fuzzy threads are what generate conversation, debate and all-in-good-fun division among fans. But when we take an audience along for THAT long, the major problem should be resolved even if tragically (I.e. Hamlet).
You can gain a general IDEA of a reasonable way the problem could be solved and use that. You’ll find your subconscious will be at play along the way and surprise even you 😉 . I hope that helps.
Yes it makes good sense thank you. SK’s “The Stand” had an ending that drove me nuts wondering what was going to happen to the two main characters. SK didn’t say. The book just ended, leaving their fate unknown. But you’re right, the main good-versus-evil conflict was resolved so “The Stand” fits the Ending-First approach just fine now that I rethink the whole issue. Like you said, there’s a minimal duty authors owe to readers who have come along for a long ride.
Yeah he had BETTER have had an ending for the core problem. After 75 hours of reading time, LOL.
Some of the feedback on my first novel said that readers were fairly sure where they were headed, but enjoyed the trip nonetheless. Not bad, but I think I can do better. So this time I’m planning plenty more twists.
Two good examples: Corpse Bride – how is a happy ending possible without going down the necromantic bigamy road? (yuck!) and Ted Dekker’s Thr3e – you think know what the twist is, it hits, you feel smug for a moment and then Blam! unexpected further twist hits you between the eyes with a steam shovel.
Actually, Luke could have gotten his way and been chosen for the Imperial Academy. Lord Vader inspects the newbies (one of Those Obligations of the people in power, etc.) and oh, wait, there’s someone with the Force. Big time.
On Monday mornings my inbox looks like a list of who’s who in the world of romance authors, but I always look forward to reading your posts. I find your blogs easy to relate and I know you offer great advice.
Look forward to next week’s post
THANK YOU! I really appreciate that ((HUGS)).