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Writing Excuses 6.20: Endings

Writing Excuses 6.20: Endings


Key points: Endings need to live up to the promise of the beginning. For the Hollywood formula, the protagonist has to overcome the antagonist, achieve his goal, and reconcile his relationship with the dynamic character. The closer these three happen to each other, the more emotional impact. Endings can fail due to lack of earlier groundwork, or because it's overstayed. Don't hold back on your ending, but raising the stakes doesn't always mean the fate of the universe. Root it in the wants, desires, and needs of the characters. The groundwork and promises of the beginning are a social contract fulfilled by the ending.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 20, Endings!
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And this is our last episode, folks. Sorry.
[Howard] Really?
[Dan] Isn't that what endings meant?
[Mary] No.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Lou] And I'm Ziggy Stardust.
[Howard] Lou Anders, Hugo award-winning Lou Anders, joins us. We should mention, joins Dan and Howard and Hugo award-winning Mary.
[Mary] [laughter] Mwah-hah-hah!

[Howard] For a discussion of endings. Specifically, we want to focus on, you've got a book, you need to tie it up. Are we tying it up in a bow, are we locking it in a box and dropping it to the bottom of the river...
[Dan] Going out with a bang?
[Howard] Going out with a bang, fizzle... What do we do?
[Mary] That's one of the things that I see a lot of new writers struggle with. That was one of the things that I had a... The biggest problem with when I started writing, is that I would write a story that had a great beginning, and it had a great ending, and they were from two different stories. So the ending failed. The ending failed miserably because it didn't live up to the promise of the beginning. So for me as a writer, that is one of the things that I am most interested in seeing people improve on. Also, when I'm reading slush. It's like, "Oh, this story is so good. Please nail the ending. Please nail the ending. Oh... That's too bad."
[Dan] Then they don't.
[Howard] You did a lot of flips off of that diving board, but the bellyflop at the end just didn't sell it.
[Mary] Really unfortunate. So, the two times in my life that I have really had an epiphany about ending was one with the MICE quotient, which we talked about, and the other was when we had talked about the Hollywood formula. Because I realized that I could take that idea of what was happening in the end of the book and try to have much more control about it. So, since we have Lou here, and have recently been talking about the Hollywood formula, can you... We didn't go into a lot of how that plays out in the end. Why don't we start there, and we can talk about some of the other ways, because that is not the only way to handle it an ending?
[Lou] Well, in the Hollywood formula, the protagonist has to overcome the antagonist, has to achieve his goal, and has to reconcile his relationship with the dynamic or relationship character, which is the companion character that accompanies him on his journey. The closer these three things can happen to each other, the more emotional impact the film will have.
[Howard] So, give us an example of someplace... Somebody who just nailed it. Where all three of those things happened in 30 seconds or 2 minutes or whatever?
[Lou] Well, Casablanca. The Crying Game. An example where they don't is in Steven Spielberg's Hook, which gives us no reconciliation and six separate endings.
[Dan] Only six?
[Lou] It's... um. I think they nail it in the Matrix. Neo accepts his relationship as the one, beats the bad guys. Morpheus has been trying to tell him...
[Dan] Yeah. He brings all that stuff together.
[Lou] "You're the one." He doesn't want to believe. He does. He does the Buddha breathing where he sees all the code in the hallway, then he defeats the bad guy. Film over.

[Mary] What made me... I was working on Glamour in Glass. I had them defeating the villain in one chapter, and then achieving the goal in another chapter, and then reconciling in a third. I knew that the ending was failing. I could not figure out why it was misfiring. But I could tell that it was.
[Howard] Was it Glamour in Glass or Shades of Milk and Honey?
[Mary] No, it was Glamour in Glass. Sadly, this was after I wrote and turned in Shades of Milk and Honey. But I could tell that it was misfiring. So, after the conversation where Lou had talked about the Hollywood formula, I went back and I said, "Well, how close can I make these things happen to each other?" I adjusted it so that they all happen the same chapter now. Or within a chapter and a half. And started handing it to my betas, and was getting tears. I was like, "Aha!Ha-ha-ha!"
[Howard] That is why this formula works.
[Dan] I get it now.
[Mary] "I like this formula." But there are other cases where I think that that probably doesn't work as well, where the antagonist is not as clearly defined. I've got Napoleon, so that's...
[Lou] And then they shot Napoleon.
[Mary] Yeah. Oh, Lou!

[Howard] What's interesting to me is that I have long subscribed to the three act format. Not because I think that three acts are the way things are deconstructed, but when I construct them, it's easier for me to do it in three parts. My methodology is incredibly sloppy. I write about two thirds of the way through the second act. Then I sit down with my writers group and I ask them, "Okay, what are the promises I've made to the readers? What are the things that have to be resolved? What are the running gags you want to see more of? What is the absolute lowest point that you think the story could come to?" I make a long list of these things. Then, in the final act and one third of the book, I write... I do far more writing work at that point. The whole front end is just slop, and me telling jokes, and hanging Chekhov's guns on walls. But once I started doing that, I think I may have instinctively started compressing some of these Hollywood formula elements... The more of these things I can get to have happen at once, the better. I don't know. I've only pulled it off a couple of times, though.

[Mary] When I see things in short fiction... Frequently when something has gone wrong with the ending, it's... The ending is actually fine, it's perfectly solid. It's that they have messed up earlier in the book... Or in the story.
[Dan] Have failed to build up to it properly.
[Mary] Exactly. They have not laid promises for the reader.
[Lou] I think when it doesn't work, it's overstaying the welcome. Twice in my career as an anthologist, I have axed the last paragraph in a short story. The way it happened was... Both times, my printer failed to print the last page. I read the story, and bought the story, and then when I sent my notes and the author cleaned it up and sent it back, I said, "What's this final paragraph here?" That I had not seen. So my printer knew better than either of us. I'll give an example. There's a mystery writer named...
[Howard] We need to give your printer your Hugo. I'm sorry.
[Lou] Well, the Hugo wasn't for short fiction. The printer can get its own. But...
[Mary] It can't have mine.
[Lou] Sadly, this was an old dot matrix printer. So this was back in the day, this story. So that printer's...
[Howard] Oh, so it's dead. So we can't give it a Hugo.
[Lou] Yeah, it has no chance anymore. It can get a retro Hugo. But... Onio Deneu [sp?] sent me a story about a police officer in Louisiana, in New Orleans or somewhere... Who... In Florida, I think... Who's watching a child that graduated from strangling pets to killing girls. He knows it, but there's no way to prove it.
[Horn beeping]
[Howard] We'll just ignore it.
[Dan] Sorry, there's a monkey on a tricycle here with a...
[Howard] We'll just ignore that noise.
[Mary] Harpo, what are you doing here?
[Lou] Hiding from Groucho.
[Mary] You were saying.
[Lou] I'm just thrown. Now I'm imagining they have to shoot the last Marx Brothers film without Harpo, because all the other brothers wanted to kill him, for reasons we won't go into. But there's [inaudible] for that. And then they killed Harpo.

So he takes matters into his own hands, and takes the kid out that's been killing girls, chains him to a tree, and feeds him to an alligator. Then he moves. He's in a new location, and he thinks he's gotten all this behind him, and life is going to be good now. He sees a boy abusing a pet. That was what I thought was the end. But there is a next paragraph where he says, "I remembered the first kid. I'm going to go talk to this kid's parent, and tell the kids parent not to abuse the pet, because it leads to worse things. That way this boy won't grow up like that boy." I saw the last paragraph, and I'm like, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It ends with here's another boy doing this."
[Howard] You've cut this story off at the knees.
[Lou] "I'd better go get my alligator." That's the ending.

[Mary] This is something that short fiction, I think, can do extremely well, which is to take you up to a point where there are enough clues that the reader can finish the rest of the story.
[Lou] Exactly.
[Mary] That's... The Lady and the Tiger is the classic example of that, where they... It takes you up to the point where that decision is going to happen, and then doesn't tell you what happens next. It's not something you can do easily and often. It's very tricky. But when you do it right, it can be extraordinarily powerful. It is all about laying the groundwork before you get to that ending.
[Dan] Yeah. Now, along those lines, there's a wonderful quote from Ray Bradbury where he talks about doing that with novels. He says, "By the time your reader finishes a novel, they should be ready to step into the sequel and solve the next problem. Because this novel has prepared them for that." So giving the reader... Whether or not you let them just tell the end... The final story to themselves or whatever, you give them the tools that they need to feel like they have gained something and like they're ready to move on.

[Howard] Who's got our book of the week?
[Dan] Once again, that is going to come to us from Lou Anders. You were going to pitch to us very quickly a James Enge book.
[Lou] Very quickly. James Enge's Blood of Ambrose. Which was a World Fantasy award nominated author... Novel. It is a classic sword and sorcery about Morlock Ambrosius, the son of Merlin. Morlock is the master of all magical makers, which is a very hands-on alchemy. He is the greatest swordsman of his world, having killed his mentor, the previous greatest swordsman of his world. His blood burns with contact with oxygen due to his magical heritage. He is in exile from his homeland and a surly, dry drunk. I describe him to people as if you were to take Elric's black sword Stormbringer away from Elric and give it to Hugh Laurie on House.
[Dan] Okay. I want to read this book now.
[Howard] Sold. So head on out to, kick off a 14 day free trial membership, and download a copy of...
[Lou] Blood of Ambrose.
[Howard] Blood of Ambrose by...
[Lou] James Enge.
[Howard] James Enge. E. N. ...
[Lou] E. N. G. E.
[Howard] E. N. G. E. Help support the podcast, and enjoy yourself some World Fantasy award nominated fiction.
[Mary] Brilliant.

[Dan] Okay. I want to take us away a little bit from structural models looking at endings, I just have one point from my own recent experience. I am doing a book with Harper called Partials, coming out next year. Big science fiction. This was a new experience for me because I wrote it based on a pitch rather than submitting a full novel. So we kind of put together the book, and especially the ending, in talks with my editor. As we were looking at the various themes we were dealing with and the various problems that were confronting this society... Post apocalypse. I realized at one point that we were not going big enough. That this novel could be telling a much bigger story than it was, because if we end it at this point, then, yes, we're revealing some stuff and we're solving a couple of problems. But if we end it about a week later, we can solve some enormous problems and still have plenty left for books 2 and 3. So that would be my next piece of advice. Don't be afraid to go as big as you can. There's no reason to hold back in your ending.
[Mary] At the same time... Don't...
[Dan] There sometimes are reasons...
[Mary] Well, no. Don't be afraid to have the big problem not be world shattering.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Mary] Like one of the problems that I fought myself on with Shades of Milk and Honey was not introducing an evil overlord, essentially. Was the instinct to go bigger and raise the stakes by making it a larger world thing, was very, very strong, because that's something that we see in fantasy and science fiction a lot. But just... Raising the stakes does not necessarily mean the fate of the world.
[Lou] Yes, yes, yes. Speaking rapidly, I am sick to death of Doctor Who saving the universe every single episode.
[Dan] Every single week.
[Lou] The entire universe, sometimes the entire multi-verse, but never less than the whole universe. Sometimes it's just the entire earth and everyone on it forever. One of the most powerful episodes of Doctor Who ever written was Robert Holmes' The Caves of Androzani where absolutely nothing is at stake, except the lives of about 20 people all of whom die. All that the Doctor accomplishes in that episode is he saves his companion. Not even himself. That was Peter Davison's last episode. Incredibly powerful. Nothing world shattering at stake, except for the personal. I love Douglas Adams. But I noticed in... Douglas Adams can't end things. The way atoms ends all his novels is to skip to the week after the ending, and have people reflect on what you didn't get to read.
[Dan] Look back and say, "Well, that was a big epic battle, wasn't it?" Like every battle in the Game of Thrones TV series.
[Lou] Budget! There'll be battles in the second season, I'm sure.
[Dan] Along those same lines, and I know many people disagree with me, but one of my very favorite episodes of Battlestar Galactica was the boxing episode. They were not dealing with a huge Cylon war, they were not dealing with a massive crisis, they were just dealing with all of their personal problems and working them out. I loved it.
[Mary] But the reason that these smaller things work, like with Battlestar Galactica, is because there is something at stake that is distinctly personal to the character, and they lay all of that groundwork ahead of time, so that you care enormously by the time the ending comes around.
[Dan] Well, in defense of my go big statement, within the bounds of the story they are deciding to tell, and even with Shades of Milk and Honey, within the strictures you set for yourself, you gave it the biggest ending you could.

[Howard] Well, one of the things that Pat Rothfuss pointed out during... Oh, I want to say it was our first Worldcon episode several weeks ago. Pat said that there's much worse things that can happen to a character than dying. There's much worse things that can happen to your universe than "Oh, Doctor Who! Oh, no, the earth got blown up!" I was the most touched in the Doctor Who episode where Rory got temporally disintegrated and then Amy forgot him.
[Mary] Yeah. Oh...
[Howard] That was far more powerful to me than any of the rest of that. So I think the take-home for our listeners is find ways to sell that big threat, and find ways to sell that big rescue without resorting to, "Oh, no, the evil person is going to nuke the Earth from the Moon!"
[Lou] Well, you've rooted it, even if it is nuking the Earth from the Moon, in the wants and desires of the characters. Which brings us back to the Hollywood formula, and how they have to either achieve or abandon those desires. Then bring the curtain down.
[Dan] [inaudible mumble]
[Mary] Absolutely. You have, in fact reminded me, Dan, that in Shades of Milk and Honey, I veered off from the Jane Austen formula. Because Jane Austen actually has horse chases and duels in her books, but they all happen offstage.
[Dan] That's true.
[Howard] That's interesting.
[Mary] So I deviated from her formula and raised the stakes and went as big as I could by having them happen on stage. Which confuses some of the purists.

[Howard] I'm working on a short story. I read it to... I read it at my reading here at DragonCon. Everybody liked it. Then I explained to them, "This story is very, very broken." As I explained that, they were all, "Oh, yeah. The ending was really good. But the action scene, we all kind of knew what was going to happen. The really interesting bit was the first bit." When I pointed out to them is, yeah, this story has a personality problem. The personality problem is that first bit is really, really interesting, and wants to be paid off at the ending. That's not what's being paid off at the ending. When I go back and rewrite the story, I either have to throw away the first bit so that the current ending is what's being paid off... And I think that would be a bad idea because the part everybody loved was the first bit... Or I have to completely rewrite the end of it so that the groundwork that's been laid is the groundwork that's being built upon at the ending.
[Lou] You've just succinctly explained everything that's wrong with the Matrix 2 and 3.
[Dan] And another example is the movie Hancock by Will Smith. Which is two completely different movies. Both of them very good, but not related to each other. That's why... In my opinion, that's why most people don't like that movie. Because the first hour promises you one thing, and the second hour gives you very effectively something completely different. So it just doesn't hold together.
[Mary] This goes back to the MICE quotient, which is... Which we've talked about before, and how you can tie the ending to the beginning by looking at what promises you make to your reader. You're making a social contract.
[Dan] Excellent.
[Howard] All right. Well...

[Dan] This is not, as we said, our last episode. Don't worry. That was just our little joke.
[Howard] Oh, good. Thank you, Dan.
[Mary] It was so funny.
[Dan] It's your last episode, Howard. We're replacing you with Lou. We can only have one bald guy on the podcast.

[Howard] What if I give a really good writing prompt?
[Dan] Okay.
[Lou] The writing prompt to end all writing prompts.
[Dan] Let's see it and we'll see.
[Howard] Take your least favorite recent movie. Take the first 15 minutes of your least favorite recent movie and write down what you believe the groundwork was that was laid. Now ignore the rest of the movie. Write the ending. I'm not playing how it should have ended with the... We should have just flown the eagles to Mordor. Do something tricky and sensible and wonderful with the first 15 minutes of your least favorite recent film.
[Dan] Excellent. Okay, we'll let you stay.
[Howard] Thank you. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now, go write.
Tags: beginnings, endings, goals, groundwork, hollywood formula, promises, protagonist, raise the stakes, relationship, social contract
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