Crafting an Ending that Sings

EndingsLast week, I got a tough question in the Misfits & Daydreamers forum:

I usually have a beginning and middle, but endings are torture for me. I can never ever find one that lives up to my standards or really fits with my vision. Some writers just have an ending in mind and I don’t understand that T_T. How do you choose your endings and how do you know it won’t disappoint your reader?

That’s hard for me to answer for 2 reasons:

  1. Everyone is different and what works for me might not work for you.
  2. I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I DO. Ahem. Which meant I needed to sit down and figure out my process.

Fortunately, I am in the middle or rewriting an ending that sucked. So analyzing my method couldn’t have come at a more convenient time. (Thanks Sue! ;))

An Anecdote on Messing Up (we all do it!)

See, I decided to completely gut the last 1/3 pages of Truthwitch. Yep. You read that right. 300 of 465 pages were polished and ready for my editor. I was just awaiting feedback from a CP (critique partner) on the last chunk of the book.

Well, when I got her notes on a Friday afternoon, they were not as positive as I’d hoped. Plot-wise and setting-wise? Great! Character arc and romance? Pfffffftttt….1

For those of you who are writers, you know how much it sucks to get less-than-positive feedback. Especially because endings are the easiest and most incredible writing experience for me. I LOVE endings. The momentum of drafting hits its stride right before the climax, and suddenly I’ll just SEE how all the plot threads and character arcs are going to gel together.

To find out that this ending, which I’d also written in a flurry of joy, lacked a HUGE component of that (emotional resolution and power)…I was, well…I was crushed. And very angry with myself for not seeing what my CP so easily noticed.

But part of being a writer is always striving to make the best book you can, right? So I hunkered at my usual 5AM work time on Saturday…and realized that simply addressing comments scene-by-scene wasn’t going to cut it.

It turns out that in the course of writing the book, I had lost touch with my characters. In my defense, I took a looooong break while the first 150 pages were on submissions (many months of break). When I tried to wade back  into the book once it had sold, I was disconnected from the characters. Totally disconnected—which has NEVER happened to me before. But I muddled onward anyway, finished the book, revised it thoroughly, and sent it off to my dear CPs. First 300 pages? Great! But the rest? Oh boy, there was something missing. It all worked on a plot level, but the story could be so much deeper and have so much more KAPOW.

But since I’d lost touch with the characters, I needed to go allllll the way back to the beginning of the book. Then  I needed to separate out each POV (of which there are 4)…and then I needed to reacquaint myself with each character and make sure all of their dominoes were falling in the simplest, most logical way. More importantly, I needed to ensure those dominoes toppled and fell toward an ending of sheer awesome.

Dominoes, whaaaa?

Look at Your Dominoes

Remember when I talked about the Domino Effect here? Well, in that post, I said:

I once heard someone compare the scenes in a book to dominoes–our inciting incident sets off the domino chain, and each scene is a direct result of the scene before…[but] the dominoes don’t represent specific events so much as our protagonist’s emotional journey through the events, and the dominoes also represent how events shape/affect the primary goal.

Each new scene will show our character reacting in some way to what happened before.

Because I’d been away from Truthwitch for so long, I didn’t have a handle on my dominoes anymore. Character reactions were falling flat, characters were acting out of character, and there was no emotional resonance at the book’s close.

But when I went back to the beginning, separated out each POV, and looked at individual dominoes, I was able to see how things should’ve fallen. I was able to rediscover the 4 POV’s voices and make sure that each step they took was a direct result of what they’d done/felt in the previous scene.

Then I rewrote the ending. Yep. Threw out >150 revised pages and rewrote them completely—new dialogue, new setting backdrops, new trajectory and choices. And AHHHHH, it felt good. The words poured like they normally do! More importantly, I sent the new ending to my dear CP, she flailed exactly as I’d hoped she would. I’d nailed it—thank goodness!

SO, all of that anectdote was to simply show you what I mean when I say: look at your dominoes before you write an ending. Look at the plot events—see how each domino hits the next until the climax. What event would need to come next based on all that has come before?

More importantly, make sure that your characters’ emotional dominoes fall in a logical, ever-growing way. Characters change, right? They start out one way and by the end of the book, they’re someone new (and hopefully someone better too). When the character reaches there “new self”, if all the emotions have been leading up to that, then your story will SING.

It’s just like watching a super-satisfying domino display—it all fell where it was supposed to fall, even if we couldn’t quite see that ending from the beginning.

You tell me: how do YOU write endings that sing?

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  1. She didn’t say it like that. She is much too nice and supportive for that. But that’s what my heart felt like hearing her criticisms.

24 Responses to Crafting an Ending that Sings

  1. JJ Mar 24 2014 at 9:17 am #

    Great post, Sooz! And something I really needed right now because endings are the Bane of My Existence. 🙂

    • Susan Dennard Mar 24 2014 at 9:33 am #

      <333 If you ned ANY HELP, JJ, I am here. Although, that said, you are at least 10,0000 time more knowledgeable than I about storytelling.

      • JJ Mar 24 2014 at 9:41 am #

        Nah, we all just have different perspectives. 😉 Right now, I’m in the “forest for the trees” place. (I may, uh, take you up on your offer, depending on how much hair I’ve torn out by the end of the day…)

  2. Kaye Mar 24 2014 at 9:26 am #

    One of your Daydreamers here! *waves pom-poms* Endings are The Suckiest Things for me, after beginnings – but my problem with beginnings is that I overthink and worry about making a good first impression. Since I usually see my stories as films in my head, I try to visualize how, if I were watching a movie, I’d expect things to lead up in the climax – and what would happen after that.

    The first draft I’m finishing up, though, is still eluding me. That’s probably why I’m drawing it out.

    • Susan Dennard Mar 24 2014 at 9:35 am #

      Hey Kaye!!! Ah, yes, I’m also an imagine-like-a-movie person. Which is why I think endings usually came easily for me–but that was also when I was only dealing with 1 POV and a few subplots. This book…OY. The movie aspect is harder. It’s become more like an entire TV season, you know? The threads REALLY have to all connect, and oyyyyyyyyyyy. So hard. *massages temples*

  3. Sue Mar 24 2014 at 11:37 am #

    Thank you so much Sooz!! I love love your writing advice, as always. It’s so natural and organic–I just GET what you’re saying. This article will be a beacon in the dark as I fast approach my ending as well. 🙂

    • Susan Dennard Mar 24 2014 at 8:15 pm #

      Thank YOU, Sue!!! I’m so glad it helps. When I first sat down to write this, I was wondering how the heck I would make ANY sense. I’m glad I succeeded. 😉

  4. Traci Krites Mar 24 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Endings can be difficult to figure sometimes. It depends on what type you’re going for too, a happily-ever-after or a tragic ending. Usually, I have my ending in mind when I start my books, but sometimes like you said, they need to be changed for various reasons when they’re not working with the story. Great post!!

    • Susan Dennard Mar 24 2014 at 8:16 pm #

      Thanks, Traci! I too like to have an ending in mind, though they tend to be pretty vague when I first start drafting. I wish I could be more specific–or not have them change so much as I write/revise. 😛

  5. Stephanie Scott Mar 24 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    Endings are tough for me. Going back through and looking at each scene and reaction seems very logical and sometimes I probably miss that in the larger scope of editing. Nice ideas!

    • Susan Dennard Mar 24 2014 at 8:16 pm #

      I DEFINITELY miss it in the larger scope–or I did this time, at least! 🙂

      So glad it helped!

  6. K Mar 24 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    Usually I think of the ending first then fit the beginning and the middle to the end. If I think of the beginning first then I would wait until a plausible ending comes to me. The conclusion is very important to me. I tend to do different types of endings according to the feelings of my books.

    • Susan Dennard Mar 24 2014 at 8:17 pm #

      Very smart. You definitely want the ending to match the book’s feeling. 🙂

  7. Lori T Mar 25 2014 at 9:31 am #

    LOVE this post, Sooz! Ok, so I may be a total weirdo here, but with any story I’ve ever written (or brainstormed or dreamed about writing) I’ve always had the ending first. The rest of the story will evolve from that ending and I go from there. So, I kinda write the story from end to beginning, which would probably drive some people crazy, but that’s how I do it.

    • Susan Dennard Mar 25 2014 at 5:15 pm #

      That’s not weird at all! A ton of writers work that way. 🙂 I’ve definitely started with endings before and worked toward them. Whatever works, right?

  8. CJ Listro Mar 25 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    Such a phenomenal post! Endings are difficult for me. It’s hard to know when to end, what it should look like, where to ease the tension. It’s something I’ve been struggling with in my own writing (among other things :P). I love the domino idea. For some reason, thinking about going scene-to-scene in that way makes it a lot easier for me to wrap my head around. I think I’ll have to go back to the drawing board on a few endings of my own…

    Sarcasm & Lemons

    • Susan Dennard Mar 25 2014 at 5:16 pm #

      I’m right there with you on “what it should look like.” I am right there at this exact moment. Final pages…and…???? I actually spent today going through dominoes again to make sure I don’t miss anything!

  9. Ellis Shuman Mar 26 2014 at 9:53 am #

    Good article, Susan! I like the dominoes – that gives me some insight how to craft the ending of my new novel.

    • Susan Mar 27 2014 at 9:37 am #

      Yay! I’m so glad it helps!! <3

  10. Alexa S. Mar 28 2014 at 1:14 am #

    There have been two or three times when I get lucky, and start a story with the ending already in mind. (This has only ever happened in my fan fiction, sadly). But lately, I’ve had a hard time with my endings! This post is, as always, full of insight. I love reading your thoughts and words of wisdom and encouragement, Susan. They always remind me that I can fight for this and do it if I really want to 🙂

    • Susan Mar 28 2014 at 9:47 am #

      Yay! I’m so glad it was helpful, Alexa. <3 I have to say, other than a vague sense of ending resolution, I've rarely known my endings either. But if I can do it, you *definitely* can too.

  11. C Apr 17 2014 at 8:15 pm #

    Very helpful! Always need to be reminded it’s characters (and their emotions and problems) that create plot.

    I just hobby write, so I’m not really a good one for advice.

    BUT, I’ve found that it’s helpful for me to go back and read what my characters have said in dialogue and then think about all the ways it could be misinterpreted or misunderstood. You never know when your characters (or your subconscious) are smarter than you and you’ve hidden something in a casual line of dialogue.

    I once intended a character to say something metaphorically – but when I re-read it and really thought about it, I realized that he was being literal. Fixed so many things and created so many (good!) problems.

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