I would like to note that the real reason I have this complicated numbering scheme is so I don’t forget what the heck I’m doing! This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂
There are two types of endings to cover here:
- The ending of the individual sections of a story.
- The ending of the story as a whole.
These endings have to accomplish two entirely separate things:
- Make you want to keep reading (before the end of the story).
- Feel satisfied by the end of the story (at the end of the story).
There is also a special case, the end of a story that is part of a larger series. These series can be:
- Episodic, or more focused on the story in each individual episode,
- Over-arching, or more focused on an overarching story that spans across episodes,
- Or a combination of both, with an over-arching story interrupted by standalone episodes, also known as “monster of the week” episodes.
We’ll cover the kinds of considerations you might need to take into account for series, but it will really depend on what you’re trying to do.
Today we’ll cover…
Endings of sections of a story
There are several places that you’ll need to write endings within a story:
- At the ends of chapters.
- At the ends of scenes within chapters.
- At the ends of mini-scenes within scenes within chapters.
- At the ends of beats within mini-scenes (if any), within scenes, within chapters.
Just as with beginnings, a lot of the wordcount of your story is going to be dedicated to endings, maybe a fourth of it–but it won’t all be at the end of the book.
The ending of most of the sections of your book will perform the following functions:
- Tell the reader the results of the latest try/fail (see Middles for more information).
- Tell the reader, if the results of the latest try/fail aren’t going to be told quite yet, that they will be told later.
- Tell the reader what to expect coming up next, if not already covered.
This sounds kind of dry, but the implications can get exciting: characters can have literal cliffhangers, black out, have someone sneak up behind them…
The point being, that the endings of every part of your story before the last one should all point toward some event further down the road in your book. Why do readers keep reading? Because they want to find out what happens next. Most of the endings in a book are just exciting or subtle reminders of what will happen next.
Let’s go back to “The Cask of Amontillado.” Here’s the opening paragraph:
THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled –but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
This is a beginning paragraph, so it does count as part of the beginning. However, because Poe was such a smart guy, the end of the paragraph also has an ending. Here, he hints that what will come next is a tale of revenge in which the avenger gets away with it. This is also called foreshadowing.
If you ended every structural unit of your story with foreshadowing up until the last one, you would not go far wrong.
The second paragraph, if you care to read it for yourself, is much the same way as the first.
Another good example is in The Princess Bride (the film version). When Vizzini sees that the Man in Black is still climbing up the cliff, he tells Inigo to kill the Man in Black. The end of that scene is a hint toward what will happen next: a swordfight.
“He’s got very good arms,” says Fezzik.
“He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” says Vizzini, slashing with his dagger.
“You keep using that word,” says Inigo. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
They all look down. The man in black is still climbing.
“My God. He’s climbing.”
“Whoever he is, he’s obviously seen us with the princess and must therefore die. You–” Vizzini puts the tip of the dagger on Fezzig’s shirt. “Carry her.” To Inigo, he says, “We’ll head straight for the Guilder frontier. Catch up when he’s dead. If he falls, fine. If not, the sword.” He sheaths his dagger and begins walking away.
“I’m going to do him left-handed,” says Inigo.
“You know what a hurry we’re in!”
“It’s the only way I can be satisfied. If I use my right, over too quickly.”
“Oh, have it your way.”
And off Vizzini goes.
Something to note: You don’t have to exactly tell the truth in your foreshadowing. In fact, the more you tell about what’s going to happen next, the more your audience will expect things to not happen quite as foreshadowed.
If a plan is spelled out during a scene, especially at the end of a scene, you’re almost guaranteed to have something go wrong.
For example, in the above scene of The Princess Bride, it is strongly hinted that Inigo will win the swordfight. Vizzini spells out the plan: if the man in black falls, fine; if not, the sword.
However, Inigo loses the swordfight.
It’s perfectly okay for foreshadowing to not be exactly what was foreshadowed. In fact, this is how you make something both expected and surprising.
The end of the scene in The Princess Bride starts when the characters look over the side of the cliff and see that their latest try (to cut the rope that the Man in Black is climbing, and therefore drop him off the cliffs) has failed. They are seeing the results of their try/fail. Then the reader gets a promise of what will come next: a swordfight.
Each “try” in that sequence has its own beginning, middle, and end:
- They see the ship following them and try to outrun it. They fail. The end of that scene leads to the next try/fail, climbing the cliffs: “Whoever he is, he’s too late! See? The cliffs of insanity! Hurry up! Move the thing! And that other thing! Move it!”
- They arrive at the cliffs of insanity and begin climbing, hoping that the Man in Black will be too weak to follow them. Haha, no. The end of that scene leads to the next try/fail, trying to outclimb the man in black: “He’s climbing the rope. And he’s gaining on us.” “Inconceivable.”
- They try to arrive at the top of the cliffs before the Man in Black can catch up to them. (They succeed, but the overall outcome of the scene is in suspense, so there are a bunch of witty lines to show time passing and suspense building.) The ending lines show that they’re still in suspense about whether they’ll make it or not: “Did I make it clear that your job is at stake?”
- The arrive at the top of the cliffs and cut the rope, hoping that the Man in Black will fall. He doesn’t. “Inconceivable!”
Part of the reason the “Inconceivable!” line is funny is that it’s used for several try/fails, only for the try/fails to reveal that the Man in Black’s success, no matter how inconceivable, is real.
This is just a couple of examples of how endings can be used to draw readers from scene to scene. Each author seems to have a different way of handling this, ranging from the dramatic to the subtle, the action-based to the emotional-based, and the straight-up truthful to the completely wrong-headed or false.
When an author stops to tell the audience what is about to happen, it doesn’t a) slow the audience down, or b) bore them.
Over and over again throughout The Princess Bride, the action stops to tell the audience what to expect next. It’s not boring to get a hint about what happens next–it’s exciting.
There’s nothing like the moment when Watson tells Holmes in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,”
My dear fellow, I would not miss it for anything.
We, as readers, don’t want to, either.
This post is getting long, so I’m going to split it up. Next time? The endings of stories!
A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. TURN TO PAGE 87 TO GO DOWN INTO THE BASEMENT ALONE. CLICK THE WONDERLAND PRESS NEWSLETTER SIGNUP LINK TO HAVE SOMEONE GO WITH YOU. CRREEEAAAAAK.