As this year winds down and the New Year approaches, I imagine that on the minds of most of you is not just new beginnings, but also endings.
No? Just me? Well if that's the case then that probably just reinforces my point further, and that point is that we humans are generally quite good at starting things but terrible at finishing them. This is especially true of entertainment. How many movies, TV series and of course books can you think of that started off with a bang but ended in a pathetic whimper, or worse still didn't end at all but just faded away as everyone lost interest?
I think that's because when we're incubating a new idea for storytelling, the ending is the last thing on our minds. We have the basic crux of the idea, a cool gimmick or clever setting, or maybe even an exciting opener to build from. How many times have you started a new project based around an ending?
So there’s that, and our natural aversion to endings. We don't like things to finish. That sense of finality is just so...well, final.
But it really shouldn't be seen that way. Not only is the ending the second most important component in a story (after the beginning), but it is also sets the final tone for the moment the credits roll, or the back cover is reached. For that reason, the last impressions have just as much impact, if not more, than the first impression. How many of you clearly remember how Inception ended?
So even though we typically fear story endings because that is the conclusion of the story, a good ending, even if it is ambiguous, can make the audience think about the story long after it is finished, and maybe even return to reread it or rewatch it so now that they have a sense of perspective on the whole thing.
And yet this is probably not news to you. I doubt that this is a ground-breaking new fact to anybody hearing this. But it does make you wonder why so many stories that set the scene beautifully, and have a gripping second act that builds upon that, fall apart in the closing few chapters. And it’s a shame, really, because that retroactively spoils what was an otherwise perfectly good story up to that point, as it becomes clear that the author was merely spinning his wheels without any clear sense of destination.
Now I don’t claim to have a magic formula for success (if I did you would have heard about it by now), but I do have an idea for building a strong ending. When you have the rough skeleton of your plot planned out, even your ending, be careful: just because you know how this story will end and how it will get there doesn’t automatically make it a strong ending. Your project will likely grow organically as you write it, and new ideas will come to mind as you write. By the time you come to the ending, don’t be surprised if your ending feels diminished by comparison. It’s like buying a pair of shoes for a growing child but giving it to them six months later: sure, it was a perfect fit at the time, but not anymore.
So here’s an idea: when writing your first draft, at some point between the beginning and the midway point, skip ahead and write an ending, in full. But don’t just write the ending you’re expecting to write: throw in a couple of ‘revelations’, even if they don’t make sense yet. For example:
As Izzy charged out of the house and slammed the door behind her, she held her breath until she was out of sight of the windows. When she saw that the car was missing, she collapsed against the wall and burst into tears.
Now, I have no idea why Izzy might be rushing from this house, why she is trying to get out of sight of the windows and why she would cry at the sight of a missing car. It wouldn’t be completely out of leftfield from my plan – for example, I would have already planned for Izzy to be my main character – but now I have something to work towards, something which I haven’t necessarily explained yet.
So not only do I have a more concrete idea of what I’m working towards, but the ending also indicates plot points and features that I haven’t yet sown the seeds for, so the ending isn’t diminished and constricting but actually encourages twists and turns in the narrative.
Of course, the ending that you just wrote is by no means set in stone any more than the rest of your draft is, so you don’t need to tie yourself in knots to reach for outlandish twist that you wrote on a whim. Regardless, there is no doubting that having an exciting climax that even you as the writer are looking forward to reaching will more likely result in a more satisfying conclusion to the tale.
Do you have your own clever idea for how you plan and execute the endings to your stories? Let me know!