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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 29: How Not to End Your Book

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 29: How Not to End Your Book


Key points: good endings go beyond the reader expects. You need to fulfill promises that you made in the first part of the book. Get help identifying promises that you have made. Avoid the third act Hollywood wimpout -- big action set pieces are not automatically good endings. A book in a series should fulfill its promises while opening up new problems for the future. Make your plots fit your books first. Bad endings usually mean bad foreshadowing. Revise to fit.

[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry...
[Howard] Dan?
[Brandon] He's not going to end it.
[Dan] That's how not to end a tagline.
[Brandon] Great. I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] And we've told that joke twice.

[Brandon] Let's give some context for this podcast. I was teaching my class a little while ago and someone actually asked me this question. They said, "How do I not end my book?" I was like...ah, um... Now I want to take another stab at it and try and talk it through. Endings are one of the things I get the most questions about. Let's tackle this. What are bad endings? Bad habits we fall into for endings? Dan?
[Dan] Not going far enough. If you've got a compelling idea and you don't take it as far as the reader wants you to, then you have failed. Ideally, you need to take it even farther.
[Brandon] Let's talk about that. What do you mean? Define that better?
[Howard] That flies in the face of "leave them wanting more?"
[Dan] I think you can leave them wanting more...
[Brandon] By expanding their expectations?
[Dan] You take an idea... the one that leaps immediately to mind because I watched an episode today is the TV show Dollhouse right now. Which got off to a very slow start. It is getting better with each episode. They are taking their core concept of memory wiping and rebuilding much further than I initially thought they were going to go. That is opening up a lot of different avenues of storytelling that I was not expecting.
[Brandon] So you want them to get done with the book and say, "Wow, what now?"
[Dan] And to leave possibilities... leave a lot of avenues open where you take an idea and you just take it as far as you can and everyone says, "Wow, that's fantastic. I can't wait to read what he does with these other seven ideas that were..."

[Brandon] Let's talk about that. One of the things that I bring up on this point often is that you want to fulfill on the promises you make in the first part of the book. In other words, if you are building a plot centered around one thing... let's say, you're building a plot centered around these two characters and their connection. Then the climactic ending is going to need to deal with that in some way, fulfilling promises. This sounds obvious, but people make this mistake all the time.
[Howard] I think they make the mistake because they don't realize that they are making that promise. That's hard. When I sat down with Dan Willis and Bob Defendi and had them help me outline the end of Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, I had them help me outline Act III and come up with a good ending. They identified a half a dozen promises that I had made to the reader that I didn't know I was making. That's critical. So I think one of the best ways to avoid a bad ending is to have somebody help you with that. Don't let them write the end of your book. Don't tell them how to fulfill those promises.
[Brandon] Just look for the promises.
[Howard] Look at Act I and Act II and find out what you've said you are going to do.
[Brandon] Let's give some specifics here. I've got a friend who is a very good writer, and she has a lot of trouble with endings.
[Howard] Oh, it's not us.
[Brandon] It's not either of you.
[Dan] How can you be sure?
[Brandon] Not going there.

[Brandon] A lot of trouble with endings. Looking at her current story that she had just finished, one of the big problems was, she had set up a mystery. She had set up a whodunit. Someone was killed in one of the early chapters and all of the other characters started working on who did it. But she wasn't writing a mystery -- at least, she didn't think she was. Yet right there, chapter 4, I'm promised we're going to find out who killed this person. In that case, what she's doing is, she's setting up, "Oh, try and outthink me." The promise is I'm going to surprise you with an interesting resolution to who killed who. So when she got to the end and they had been right all along... they decided on someone pretty early and then worked on it and found out, lo and behold, it was them and chased them down and got them, there was a feeling that something was unfulfilled here. It was because it was... they had made a promise but... she thought, "Oh, my promise is that the bad guy will get caught." That's not actually what the promise of a mystery plot is. The promise of a mystery plot is I am going to surprise you with an interesting mystery...
[Jordo?] Unless you're expecting [inaudible]
[Brandon] One of the problems also is, she's very good with character. She was setting up this interesting character interaction, and she was able to pull that promise off very well. Characters had a very fulfilling ending, and yet it felt overshadowed by this other thing. For her, it's a re-balancing. It's a... indicate to the readers this is a character drama and not a mystery.
[Howard] I was reading a Robert Reed book years ago... I don't remember the title of the book, but I'm going to tell you how it ends.
[Dan] Great. Heavy spoiler warning.
[Howard] They were escorting... the hero, it was written in first person, and the hero was escorting some sentient tumbleweeds up to their spawning grounds so they can become trees. You're very fascinated with the challenges that this alien life has and the narrator, the first person, is also undergoing some character development. The book ends when he dies, in a dam breakage or a flood or something up this stream. I was pretty unsatisfied because I thought I was going to get to see trees spawning. I thought he was going to resolve some of his issues. No, he resolves some of his issues by dying. While it had sort of a literary impact, this is not how... I was not about to pick up another Robert Reed book.

[Dan] I was just going to point out a completely different example, but if you have a question, go ahead.
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Dan] Another place where you can see this happening all the time is with the big action set piece. Where somebody says I want to end... if it's a fantasy book, they want it to end with a great big battle or a sword fight. If it's science fiction, they want a space battle. If it's modern, then they want a car chase or they want a gunfight. That's a very fun, climactic way to end a book, but character normally gets lost when you do that unless you're very careful.
[Howard] It's a fun, climactic way to end a movie because it's visually quite a treat. It's hard to end a book that way.
[Brandon] It bugs me in movies too. I call this the third act Hollywood wimpout. I can point to several distinct examples, I Am Legend by Will Smith being one recently. Where you have two very interesting setup acts, where you are dealing with character psychological issues and with the scientific plot or this interesting mystery plot, which third act becomes now we're in a Hollywood action movie. We have... it feels like... they feel they have to end with a big action set piece.
[Howard] It's like the Pinewood Derby. We spend Act I and Act II building these neat cars and positioning them on the track and then for Act III, we lift the lever and we watch all the cars run downhill in a straight line.
[Brandon] If your plot was we're going to build cars, I would expect Act III to be that. If your first two acts are a psychological character drama, I don't want my Act III to be... I call it the wimpout because it's safe. You'll see Hollywood do it a lot because pulling off a really dramatic interesting ending that's going to be crowd friendly when you're dealing with these sorts of character things and stuff like that, is difficult.
[Dan] It is. One example that I would give of when they have done this correctly is the movie Grosse Pointe Blank. Which I thought ended with a gunfight, but throughout the entire gunfight, they were also paying off all of this character stuff that they had been building up. I thought they did a really good job of intertwining those two different aspects.
[Brandon] We're going to cut for a commercial break, and then we'll come back.

[Brandon] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by my book, The Hero of Ages, in paperback out April 28.
[Howard] I loved it.
[Brandon] Thank you, Howard.
[Dan] But you haven't read it in paperback.
[Brandon] No, you haven't. It's even more...
[Howard] Flexible?
[Brandon] Hero-of-Ages-rrific in paperback.
[Howard] I like the hardback. People should buy the hardback.
[Brandon] I make a lot more on the hardback.

[Howard] And welcome back.
[Brandon] Welcome back. Let's go a different direction with this. Actually, kind of a direction we've talked a little bit about before, but... Do you need to resolve everything in an ending?
[Howard] Not if you want to write another book.
[Brandon] How do you do that then, by paying off your promises, and yet leaving room open for another book? Because I think this is a big problem. People end books poorly this way all the time.
[Howard] I think the easiest way to do it is to start hinting at promises to the reader in Act II and Act III with the understanding that, "Wow, this was introduced kind of late, we're not going to get to finish that, are we?" I think readers understand that.
[Brandon] That's one very good way.
[Dan] The mystery idea that you brought up earlier... mysteries and thrillers and crime novels, you can... you just have to be careful about how you set your promise, because if the promise is we are boring to solve this mystery by the end of the book, that's fine. But that doesn't necessarily mean that all of the main character's personal problems are going to be solved or that this mystery won't be part of a much larger mystery or a much larger conspiracy.
[Brandon] That's the one that would be... my biggest piece of advice if you are trying to write a series is you promise something happening and you give them... you fulfill on that promise in ways that exceed their expectations, but that fulfillment opens up a whole lot more. You say, "Wow, this creates an even bigger problem or this... I didn't realize was bigger... was part of a larger problem." I like to do this in my series. This is what I tried to do in the Mistborn books. I wanted to do something in the first book that involved the overthrow of an empire. I wanted to do that in one book rather than a whole series. I made a promise, I fulfilled it, and my goal is at the end for you to say, "Wow. This is a big problem now that they've done what they said they were going to do."

[Howard] I'm just reading now for the first time... well, having read to me courtesy of audio books, the Wheel of Time saga. The first book... I know that this series is long, it's really long... So listening to the first book, I remember thinking okay, there are promises that are going to be made here that are absolutely not going to be fulfilled for seven or eight books and I'm just ready to be bored. That is absolutely not what happened in that first book. That first book, I was promised a classic quest story. They set that up outside the tavern. Understand, back then, it wasn't a trope. Nowadays I look at it and think, "Oh, it's a trope." I still like it. It worked wonderfully. The promise of the rebirth of the dragon, the promise of the hero beating the Dark Lord, and I thought there is no way they can do all that in this book because the series is 12 books long. That's my inner...
[Brandon] 14 [cough]
[Howard] 14 books long. Right. Sorry. But I get to the end of that book, and I thought that was really brilliantly done. The promises that weren't fulfilled were promises that were introduced late in the book. Rand coming to grips with the fact that he is the dragon. The reader knows... yeah, he has got to be it. But the character hasn't come to grips with that, so it left something for subsequent books to work on.

[Brandon] Let's just throw out some smaller ones. Ways that I've seen people, new writers, run into trouble finishing a book, so let's say how not to do this. Dan, how did you finish your first book?
[Dan] I finished it with... pretty much what I already talked about with thrillers... the one mystery...
[Brandon] No no no. The very first book?
[Dan] Wait... the very first book that I ever wrote?
[Brandon] Very first book. How did you end your very first book?
[Dan] I did not.
[Brandon] You said, "And they all died." I distinctly remember you typing, "And they all died."
[Dan] Yes. They all died. Because I had gotten as far as I wanted and I was bored.
[Brandon] How can our readers avoid running into that problem? Can they avoid it?
[Dan] My problem in that series was that I was biting off way more than I could chew. Which is a very common problem among first authors. If you plan a story that is too big and has 38 characters because you want to write the Wheel of Time... you need to write a few smaller books with smaller plots first so that you know what you are doing, before you get into something huge.
[Brandon] Even the Wheel of Time only started with a couple of viewpoints.
[Howard] Run a 10K before trying to run a marathon.

[Brandon] This can't be emphasized enough, I think. If you end up with a terrible ending, it's generally going to be because of things that started going wrong much earlier. Maybe you'll run into a terrible ending because you're a multi-drafter, you're a discovery writer, you don't know where you're going and you get to the ending and then you write, "And then they all died." Then you set out and you plot what you actually want to happen. That may be the way for you to do it.
[Howard] In order to not write a bad ending, sometimes you have to write a bad ending, and then rewrite another bad ending, and then rewrite yet a third bad ending, and then sit down with somebody and ask, "What am I doing wrong?" And they will help you identify, "Well, there's this promise right here that you keep not fulfilling," or you keep killing everybody off because you got bored. Whatever. I think you have to write some bad endings before you write the one that you want to keep.
[Dan] Definitely.
[Brandon] My early bad endings happened because of foreshadowing laziness -- laziness in foreshadowing -- meaning the ending itself would've been great, if it would have had all of the things it needed to back it up. Which meant that if I would have spent a little bit more time... even some of my published books I still feel have a part of this issue at the ending. If I would have spent a little bit more time setting the stage, putting the pieces into the book...
[Howard] You can do that with a rewrite. If you know that that is missing...
[Brandon] But, see, you got to remember that I hated rewriting early on. This is why I had trouble getting published early on, is I would not rewrite my books because I always wanted to be moving on.
[Howard] So how not to write a bad ending -- rewrite the book to fit the end -- to appropriately foreshadow the ending that you want.

[Dan] Both of these examples that we have brought up, it's interesting to point out. Brandon used to hate rewriting, he has since learned that that is an important part of writing.
[Howard] Now he loves it. He adores it.
[Dan] I used to be horrible at endings. After writing terrible endings and rewriting them about 100 times, I think I'm fairly good at them now because it's something I had to force myself to work on.
[Howard] And I never wrote books. Seriously. For the first three years I was working on Schlock Mercenary, I didn't write books, I wrote little storylines that didn't really fit in books. Once I started thinking in terms of books, I did it wrong so many times. I think I might have two or three good endings.
[Brandon] The great thing about you doing it wrong is that we can all go read...
[Howard] You can read all of my mistakes.
[Brandon] Whereas Dan and I can bury ours in the back yard and no one has to see them.
[Howard] That's how not to write an ending. Don't write an ending that has to be published and kept public for everybody to read even though it sucks. Is that a good note to end on?

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Writing prompt?
[Dan] Write an ending in which everybody dies and it works.
[Brandon] Start your book with an ending where everyone dies. This has been Writing Excuses. Thanks for listening.
Tags: endings, expectations, foreshadowing, plots, promises, wimpout, writing excuses
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