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Writing Excuses 6.30: Help! I can't end my book!

Writing Excuses 6.30: Help! I can't end my book!


Key points: Stuck in the corner with a deus ex machina? Go ahead and do the deus ex machina, then go back and establish it. OR rewrite the situation. Look for solutions that tie into the characters, the world, and the plots -- thematically related. Look for the smallest change, so that your characters still have to work. Lukewarm ending? Raise the tension, simplify, and look for resonances, especially with the beginning. In any case, write the ending and then fix it. Early highlight? Is your story really what you think it is? Make the most interesting part the focus. Ask alpha readers what promises you made. Overlap your resolutions in one scene. Explain before the climax, not afterwards. When do you give up your formula/outline? When you have something better. How do you set up a satisfying ending with sequels? They will talk about that next season.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 30.
[Howard] Help! I can't end my book!
[Brandon] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And Howard's the best whiner in our group.
[Howard] Yes, I am.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] I don't know.
[Dan] Oh, I have five kids.
[Howard] I've been upstaged by Mary again.
[Dan] I should be the best whiner. I hear it all day.
[Brandon] Okay. Apparently we're all the best whiner.
[Dan] I have five kids and I work at home.
[Mary] We should have been 15 minutes long because we haven't had lunch.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] Hey, this is the last episode for season seven, so we really need to knock this out of the park.
[Brandon] It is.
[Dan, Brandon] Six!
[Howard] Season six, that's right.
[Brandon] Howard hasn't had lunch.
[Dan] And seven. Surprise, guys. This is the last episode ever.
[Dan] Happy New Year!

[Brandon] We are now moving actually to ending our seasons at the end of the year, rather than just making up, "Hey, we're going to end it now." So from now on, Writing Excuses will start in January every season and end in December. One of the... We decided to end with this one, number one because it's thematically appropriate with endings. But also because repeatedly the... One of the biggest questions we get, even though we've kind of podcasted on this before, is people having trouble ending their books.
[Howard] Help! I can't end my book! We hear it a lot.
[Brandon] Yeah. Endings seem to be the most baffling part. So I'm going to start throwing at the podcasters a few problems that I've seen new writers running into, and we're going to give advice, if you happen to be in this situation. The biggest one I hear is I've written myself into a corner. This means I'm at the 90% mark or maybe the 80% mark through my book, all of my characters are spread out in different places, and I've given them these huge problems to overcome. I don't know how to overcome them without doing a deus ex machina. What do you say to this person?
[Mary] Well, I have two ways of handling that, because I have done that myself. Way number one is to go ahead and do the deus ex machina, and then go back and layer in...
[Dan] And establish it.
[Mary] Everything that I need so that it is not a deus ex machina. I look at the situation and I'm like, "What do they need to get out of this? He needs a razor blade. Okay. How could a razor blade have been in this scene already?" Then I go back and put it in. I'll put brackets. I don't stop then. I bracket establish razor blade earlier bracket.
[Brandon] Right. Yup. I actually write... I've said this before, "Remember a bucket." As a villain's head reference. You'll get that if you remember...
[Dan] Yeah. Remember the garbage can.
[Mary] So that's one way. The other way is that I look at it and go, "Well, you should have... Should not have put them in the corner." I will tear out the words, and I will write them into a situation that I can get them out of.

[Brandon] I do something very similar. Now, I'm an outliner, so I'm running into this problem very infrequently, but I do run into it because often you do need to discard your outline when something better comes along. A really great conflict will occur to me, and I'll say, "I just have to go there." But how then do I overcome this? I'm usually doing the remember a bucket, but what I'm trying to do when I get into this situation is say, "Okay, I need to come up with the first couple of things that my readers will come up with." The first couple of things I come up with... And I need to toss those aside. Because I want to go deeper. I want to have something that's really working. What I'm not looking... What I'm looking for is not just, "Oh, I want this to be extra surprising." The reason I'm wanting to quote unquote go deeper is I'm looking for ways that it ties better into the characters and to the world and to the plots I've already established. I don't want just something that... The problem with the deus ex machina is that coming out of nowhere. It's not just the foreshadowing. It's that it doesn't relate thematically so I'm digging for that thematic connection. That's what... That sometimes really hard to come up with.

[Howard] I look for the smallest possible change to the circumstances there in the corner. What's the smallest thing I could change that leaves one of these characters the opportunity to exploit something to turn the tides? So that I can turn the [inaudible]. What's the smallest possible thing that could happen? Maybe it's the bad guy doing something dumb. In which case... Well, go back to our dumb characters episode. That's going to have to be foreshadowed. But maybe it's the razor blade. I don't know. But I look for the smallest possible thing that could happen and make that happen. Because what that means, by making the smallest possible change to the circumstances, that means that the characters still have the opportunity to step up and be as big as they can possibly be, which is really where you want them at the end of the book. You want them to be overcoming something that seems insurmountable. If you built something that's actually insurmountable, well, okay. Shave just a little bit off the top, but make them jump for it.

[Mary] Yeah. I ran into this with Glamour in Glass, that I had written him into a corner. Then did a little bit of research and discovered that... Because I'm writing historicals... That the chicken wire that I had built the entire thing around doesn't exist yet. Suddenly it was... I was like, "Oh, I'm not just in a corner, but my room has no doors."
[Brandon] Wow. What did you do?
[Dan] Which reminds me of my book.
[Brandon] Oh, that would give spoilers, wouldn't it?
[Mary] No. I actually can talk about it without spoilers. The advice that I got was actually from Russell Davis, who was the previous past president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He said, "Look at the setting, look at the environment, and look at things that happen naturally in the environment, and see how your character can exploit them."
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Dan] Very cool.

[Brandon] Dan, you were going to add something?
[Dan] I was going to say that I ran into this exact problem with I Am Not a Serial Killer. I got to the end, and the ending just absolutely didn't work. You were in my writing group at the time.
[Brandon] I was.
[Dan] That first ending just did not work. It didn't fly, it relied on a plan that was ridiculously precarious, I couldn't think of a plausible way for John to kill a monster, basically. So what I... The two things I told myself were, I have to change this so that (A) it is true to his character and is true to the beginning of the book. The first chapter specifically if possible. Then also, I just need to put people in danger, I need to create a better sense of danger. Which to me said, we have to go back to his house and we have to put his mom in danger. So adding that extra level of tension made the story stronger, which in turn just kind of fired my imagination a little bit and got us going and enabled a good ending.
[Brandon] I think... Just keeping on that. Reading this, there are a couple of things you did there. This is actually, I think, a different problem. Related to what we are talking about, but some people get to the end and their ending is just kind of lukewarm. This is less writing yourself into a corner, and more, your ending lacks dramatic power. I think you added drama, but something else you did that was really interesting is, I think you simplified. I remember there being a really contrived plan...
[Dan] Oh, goodness.
[Brandon] Really contrived. You kind of snipped the fat off the sides and streamlined it. And said, "Why do I have to have this contrived plan? I don't have to be as contrived." One other really important thing you did is you wrote that ending anyway. Then you added tension, and then you took out the contrivances. Rather than getting frozen and paralyzed at the 90% mark, you wrote it -- poorly -- and then you fixed it. It became a really powerful ending.
[Howard] Luxury!
[Dan] Luxury... Well, specifically, one of the things that was a big revelation for me and was a big help to me and maybe it would not work for every writer, but like I said, looking back and rereading the first chapter and thinking how can I have the resolution tied directly back to what he's doing here and how he's doing it. Whether or not it helped me solve the problem, it helped the ending itself in a lot of weight because it feels so full circle-y.
[Mary] Yeah. That's something I was going to say, is that the resonance, that whatever it is that you use at the ending, whatever it is getting the character out of the corner or whatever... If you can tie it back in, if it is something that your character uses more than once. Particularly if it is something that comes from the very opening. That it's going to create an emotional resonance and a recognition and a feeling of completeness.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Mary, you are going to promo a book for us, or a sequence of books?
[Mary] Ah, yes. I was like, "What? What am I talking about?" That is Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Now audible actually has two different versions of it. You can listen to Stephen Fry read the entire thing. Or you can listen to the original radio show. For those of you who don't know, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was originally written as a radio show. If you pick up the annotated scripts, one of the things that they talk about was that Douglas Adams was absolutely convinced that they were going to be canceled. So he decided to end on a bang, and he threw everybody out the airlock. Much to his surprise, the series was not canceled, and he had to come up with a way to get them out of that.
[Brandon] Yeah, these things are wonderful.
[Howard] Hello, infinite improbability drive.
[Brandon] No, really, these original radio dramas are just beautiful. They're hilarious, they're interesting, and if you are an Adams fan and you've read the book and you haven't listened to these, I think you'll be really surprised at some of the contrasts and how interesting they are.
[Mary] Yes. There a lot of things in the books that started as ad libs in the radio show.
[Dan] Adams would very cheerfully change the story and everything from every version, when he did a radio show, when he did the BBC miniseries, the books, the movie. He's just like, "Yeah, throw this in. It sounds awesome."
[Brandon] How can they download these? Howard?
[Howard] Head on out to You can kick off a free 14 day trial membership and download the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy narrated by Stephen Fry or the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio plays, and help support the podcast.

[Brandon] All right. Let me throw out another problem people have with endings that... We hit the most pernicious one, but I think people run into this one without realizing it quite often. That is the worry that the highlight of their book happens at about the 75% mark, and then their ending comes across... Not because it's a bad ending, but is overshadowed by things that happen right about the beginning of act three. This happens with people in my writing group, our friend Kay Lynn complains about this a lot. How do you stop the highlight of your book from being...
[Dan] Well, there's two big reasons, I think, that the highlight comes early. One is that you have your kind of major problem show up and just be a lot more interesting than the solution you eventually have for it. Or, you're trying to cram too much falling action after what should be the climax. So, I'm going to let other people resolve those problems.
[Howard] I finished a short story recently. I did a reading of it at DragonCon. When I talked to people about it at DragonCon, I pointed out, "This story is broken. Now that I've read it to you, this story is broken, and what's broken about it is, the first half of the story is far more interesting than the second half." It has this exact problem. The end of the beginning is more interesting than the end of the end. I solved the problem... I'm going to give you metaphor rather than the whole story. Pulling the trigger on a gun, and then we're watching the bullet, and then we're watching the bullet strike the target. What I had was the mechanics of pulling the trigger on the gun were far more interesting than watching what the bullet does. What I did is I carved up the story in such a way that we are watching the operation of pulling the trigger... It's magic, so now the bullet can be moving at the same time the trigger is being pulled. We're watching the operation of the gun at the same time we're watching things happen on the target. So that the big moment... The big fun moment in the beginning of the story is actually hitting at about 90% in the story, and we can cut to the ending, and it all flowed very, very naturally. A much stronger story that way.

[Brandon] What I think is happening here is that people think their focus of their story is not actually the focus of their story. For example, they think they're writing a mystery, but readers are finding the character interaction, the relationship more interesting. Their focus is really a romance with a mystery subplot. So they think that, "All right, I need to clear up this romance, and then together they can solve the mystery that is the big plot." Where really what you need to do is reverse those. You need to have the mystery get solved, and in doing so, the characters come together for the romance. This is habitually a problem when readers are making their villain more interesting than their protagonist or they're making some feature of the world more interesting than the mystery or the fight that they think they're writing about. That can be solved very interestingly... Or very compellingly by usually just saying, "Okay. You know what? People love this world. Let's make the climax have to do with the setting, instead of with this character interaction."
[Howard] I solve this problem a lot lately with alpha readers. I sit down with Bob Defendi, Dan Willis, my brother, my wife, and we go through the first two thirds of the Schlock Mercenary book. We go through some of my outline for the ending. Then I ask them flat out, "Okay, what are the promises that you felt I made to the reader in early strips?" They will pull out punch lines and things that I thought were throwaway gags that were perhaps far more interesting than I thought they were. I look at that from my alpha readers, and I realize, "Oh, that completely re-colors my approach to the ending." As a result, I get much, much stronger endings. I've found that endings that would have fallen flat are far more interesting because now I'm doing exactly the sorts of things that we talked about, I'm pulling elements from the beginning and putting them at the end when that hadn't occurred to me. But the process... Pulling alpha readers through the beginning of the book... Not asking them how to end the book, but asking them, "What are the promises that I made to you?" I'm going to decide how to fulfill that promise, but you tell me if you think you've been promised something...

[Mary] Yeah. This is one of those things where Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient, which we've talked about in other podcasts, comes in very handy for looking at the structure. I always think of it as like nesting code... If you start with a mystery, you need to end with a mystery, but if you have that romance in between, you have to wrap the romance before you wrap the...
[Brandon] Yup. If your romance is more interesting...
[Mary] Then you reverse the code.
[Brandon] You may want to reverse the code.
[Mary] Reverse the polarity.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Dan] Now, one way to make an ending really powerful, especially if you're having this problem where it peaks too early or whatever...
[Brandon] Tachyon!
[Dan] What?
[Brandon] Tachyon. Sorry.
[Howard] We're reversing polarity. But keep going.
[Mary] We need lunch.
[Brandon] Reflector dish.
[Dan] I'm going to talk about science fiction. The first Matrix movie, for my money, has one of the coolest endings I've ever seen. It's because they take three different plots, which is Neo loves Trinity, Neo becomes the One, and Neo stops the bad guys. An action plot, a romance plot, and an inner character plot, and resolves them all in a single scene. Any one of those plots, if they had tried to resolve it earlier, would not have been nearly as strong by itself. But doing them all together, it becomes very powerful.
[Brandon] I was going to say... One of the... You kind of stole the words out of my mouth... Overlap your character conflict and your plot conflict into the same scene will be a great way to just have a wonderful pow moment.
[Howard] If you're having problems with your endings, go back and listen to our Lou Anders episode with the Hollywood Formula because that formula is a perfect tool for helping you recognize where that scene happens, where you need to pack all that resolution.

[Mary] One thing that I also want to mention, that I thought of when Dan was talking about too much falling action, is that a lot of times what will happen is that you have the big climactic moment and then you have the explanation for everything that happened. You really need to make sure that when you get to the climax, the reader understands what happened so that if you have to explain anything, it's only like one or two things. Preferably like one.
[Brandon] Right. Keep those down. Keep those way down.
[Mary] Maybe one. And preferably not even that.
[Dan] You want to see this done really poorly... One of my favorite movies of all time is Psycho, which gets to its end, it has its big, fantastic ending, and then it has like a 10 minute speech by a psychologist explaining everything. Even film buffs will look back and say that was just such a weird thing to throw in there. It just kind of throws everything off.
[Howard] That movie needed Lou Anders printer.
[Brandon] It probably was one of those darlings that was hard to kill. If you watched the Sixth Sense, one of the deleted scenes is a... That sort of thing that had to get killed. Anyway, I'm going to let this cast go just a little bit long. It's our last one of the season. Because there were two things that are readers... Our listeners mentioned about endings in a previous podcast, that they asked us about. So I'm going to quickly throw these out, and let's talk about them. One was someone asking, "How do you decide when to abandon your formula or your outline to help your ending, and when don't you?"
[Mary] When it's not working? Which is not particularly helpful.
[Dan] When you come up with something better. The point at which it's not working is not the point to abandon it, it's the point to really start thinking about it. Once you get something better, then throw it away.
[Howard] For me, when I was writing Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, the ending I had planned did not have the entire space station threatened by destruction. As I went through this stuff with my writing group and talked about promises made to the readers, Bob said, "You've pretty much promised us that the whole station could be destroyed in a simple accident." I said, "Yeah, I know it could. But if I do that accident, I have to blow it up." Bob said, "No, I'm pretty sure you could punch a hole in a horrible, horrible place in this space station and still manage to save everybody." He was throwing down the gauntlet. He was saying you can make this a whole lot worse before you make it better. That was the point at which I realized I need to depart from my outline. I need to introduce some more pieces so that I can punch a hole in the space station and then have the longshoreman save the day.
[Brandon] Now, I don't know if this will be of help. But I'm a heavy outliner. Do a lot of outlining. I have really never kept an ending as I have outlined it. I like to have explosive endings, people... Things that feel like they've been plotted from the beginning. Even I usually toss the outline by the end. I keep parts of it. So I'm going to say, almost every time, you're going to end up deviating by the time you're at your ending, and just be okay with it. No matter how strict an outliner you are.
[Mary] I have a short story right now that has had five different endings and I'm still not happy with it.
[Brandon] Now, the second question, I think I'm going to can of worms. Because it was, "How do you then set up a satisfying ending with sequels? How do you be satisfying and leave sequels at the same time?"
[Howard] We should talk about that next season.
[Brandon] Yeah, we'll talk about that next year. Which for us will be in about 10 minutes.
[Mary] No. After lunch, after lunch.
[Dan] No, because I'm eating a fricking hamburger.

[Brandon] All right. Dan, bring us our last writing prompt of the season, of the year.
[Dan] Help! I can't end the season!
[Mary] So what you have to come up with...
[Brandon] Dan needs a hamburger...
[Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] You need to write a story about Dan needing to get a hamburger, about all the things that stop him from getting to this hamburger.
[Dan] Then, in the end, I don't eat a hamburger, but I get something far more satisfying.
[Mary] Christmas leftovers!
[Dan] I was thinking chile relleno, but that will work, too.
[Howard] Mama Chus...
[Brandon] All the Writing Excuses crew is salivating.
[Howard] I'm sorry, we're going to start naming restaurants we love, and that's not what you wanted.
[Dan] All right. We are completely out of excuses, and so are you.
[Brandon] Thank you for listening all season. We'll see you next year. Go get some writing done.
[unknown] Whew!
Tags: climax, deus ex machina, ending, explanations, resolution, resonance, tension
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