As authors, we can easily accept why the opening scene is the more popular topic of discussions among our craft management forums [read #amwriting and #writingtip chats on Twitter]. I, too, wrote about the importance of a good beginning on this blog once (first chapters) or twice (prologues). Okay, maybe it was three times (some bits to look out for when publishing). The reason is obvious: Regardless of how superb and valuable your story may be down the pages, write a flat opening scene and face the eternal disdain of your potential readers (agent, editor, or end audience) [or in case of self-publishing: critique partners, beta readers, and angels who give unrepresented writers a fighting chance].
But the God Honest Truth is that every chapter you write is important, right down to the last. The end may come at the end, but no way should it come last while planning your novel. In fact, I make a point of roughly ideating how I want my stories to finish at the same time as I plan the central theme and first scene. Outlining the rest of the chapters comes after. Or I don’t outline and just write scenes up for my own entertainment [which is actually not the thing to do when writing novels pay for your electricity].
The point is, a good ending serves several purposes that you simply cannot overlook:
- It brings the story to its logical (and most often desired) conclusion thus ensuring reader satisfaction and relief
- It reflects upon and clarifies the purpose of telling the story to generate active response from the reader outside the story’s realm
- It forms an enduring engagement between the reader and the story that outlasts the reading process
- It keeps the readers coming back for more, a.k.a. great marketing for your next book!
For that matter, it bears asking what makes a bad ending? Well, some of my pet peeves are:
- Characters behaving uncharacteristically [suddenly], which may have made sense with a gradual arc but the author forgot to layup the reader to expect such developments
- A forced rushed resolution to the plot conflict that leaves me stumbling around in the dark with no flashlight and a case of vertigo, asking “what the hell just happened?”
- Deus ex machinas that conveniently rescues the hero/heroine from their predicaments by introducing some unexpected new force into the story
- A long rambling essay that explains why things happened the way they did (frankly, at this point, I have read enough and don’t bother carrying on till the last line)
- No ending at all where the story just dwindles away without a resolution because the author obviously gave up
Well, that’s just the way of it, now, isn’t it? All of the above bad endings have a dank whiff of abandonment, which is just no way for an author to treat his/her work. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes even when the characters, plots, and themes of a story is really gelling together, the ending isn’t completely obvious.
Or the original ending I planned no longer seems to be working.
Or I may have worked on the story for so long that I become too fatigued to give the ending a good go.
Or, or, or.
The many reasons why an author might botch the ending may seem nearly endless. Just as there are many lookouts to guide authors to a good ending (some of which I discussed in my post on how to write a happy ending for a romance novel). But a good way to avoid ruining the end of your novel is to simply put the story away for a while. Sometimes a little distance can provide new perspectives. Just as every relationship needs a bit of “me time” to flourish, so does the author’s relationship with a novel he/she is writing.
A very wise professional once warned me, “You want to do this? You want to write novels for a living? It’s not a sprint, my dear, it’s a marathon. Gear up and hit the gym!” Clichéd but relevant. Novel writing is a long arduous process that may not always be entertaining [as one would hope]. For the most part, it’s just a lot of tedious hard work. So even if you’re just a chapter or two away from the finish line, put away your work if the “THE END” does not convince YOU and if it’s taking a toll on your general good sense. Pause for some electrolytes. Come back to it later and work on something else in the meanwhile.
Err… What about the deadline, you say?
Lucky you. You have a deadline to work with. *smirks with jealous condescension*
The alternative to “taking a break” is going back to where you started. Again, just like in any relationship, sometimes we need a little reminding as to why we signed up in the first place. Just to get through the temporary turbulence, you know?
Where was I? Oh, yeah, circling back to the beginning.
If you’re lucky, you have a detailed outline to fall back on. If you’re not as lucky [which is probably the case, or else why would you be having any trouble writing?]:
# Sometimes you may go all the way back to the sheet of paper where you jotted down the inspiration for your story. A scene you witnessed in real life, an issue close to your heart, a character in a movie that interested you. The spark that made you think “what if” and got you writing. The fact is when you started writing your novel, you must have had a reason. Your personal agenda as the author. Depend on it to guide you. The ending is where you drive your message across.
# Speaking of purposes, sometimes you have to rely on your MC’s agenda. There is a reason why the character is on this dang journey. Where did they start? Where do they need to go? Do a little review and help your MC get there.
# Sometimes this can be the first chapter of the novel. Reading back to the opening can remind you where the MC was and how can the end change that situation for him/her. Or maybe it doesn’t change at all and the MC is back to square one and now must contend with the situation. Whatever the case, allow the MC to gain new insights to be able to handle the end – feed the character arc.
In fact, the first chapter is [as often as not] a good place to end. No need to emphasize on the relevance of coming full circle to create an impact. But bookended scenes also tend to do a good trick in getting my admiration so that’s a clue for me as a writer. Here, I must subject you all to a reminder of what a bang-up job J.K. Rowling did in coming full circle with the Harry Potter books. There were so many times I had an “Aha moment” while reading the series because some element in one book tied to something so unassuming in another that I was constantly returning to a previous book while reading a new one for reference. I still do, in fact, during my annual revision season. And how about coming back to that killing curse, huh? The “Boy Who Lived” lived again! And how his willingness to sacrifice himself protected those who were present for the final fight. Dumbledore’s man? – Lily Potter’s son through and through!
But bookending scenes may also have the opposite effect from wowing the reader [bringing me to why I came to write this post today, in the first place]. Last night, I got around to watching My Cousin Rachel, starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin (two actors I generally admire but who did a piss-poor job of convincing me of the characters they were playing). While I could see how the opening and ending scenes mirrored one another in the way where Claflin’s character Philip is just adopted and raised by his cousin Ambrose at the beginning of the movie and at the end has two boys of his own that he does not know how to raise, the reason for this mirroring quite escaped me. Especially since in a story that seeks to depict a series of misguided whims on Philip’s part where he first believes Cousin Rachel married then killed Ambrose for his money, then falls for her himself and refuses to listen to reason from his friends about her attempts to swindle him out of his inheritance, and then again is convinced she poisoned Ambrose and now is poisoning him until he plays a purposely-by-accident hand in her death himself that he comes to regret, the whole point of how he is raised or should raise his children has no bearing. I suppose since he was brought up in a virtually female-free society, he had little guidance regarding how to function like an adult male when impacted by Rachel’s glory but so what? His boys have their mom. Going back to the beginning with the did she/didn’t she, I felt, was wholly unnecessary – or should I say, having the whole did she/didn’t she at the beginning? And apparently, it’s adapted from a famous 1951 novel, too. But possibly the adaptation is the usual stupendous leap away from the original literature, who knows? [I have possibly saved you from watching the movie with this whopping spoiler; maybe you can read the book and tell me it is written better?]
Anyway, my point is, the ending of your novel deserves as much careful consideration from you as an author as the beginning. To answer the titular question here, the opening you write for you, i.e. to capture your audience; the ending you write for you reader, i.e. to satisfy the audience.