Las Vegas is the home to writers in all stages of developing their craft. They create many types of books and understanding how to use proven techniques helps them to make their novels compelling. As an author with one foot in Las Vegas and one in Los Angeles, I contribute real world tips I learned during years of writing novels and short stories and giving workshops.
Good endings vs. Bad endings. Sometimes it’s a real challenge to figure out how to end the story.
There is one thing for certain. The wrong ending could leave the reader with a bad taste in their mouth. I remember listening to an audio book that did exactly that. I can’t remember the author or title because upon hearing the ending I was left hanging, frustrated and ready to push it out of my mind. To make matters worse, the last CD had problems with skipping and I really worked to clean it so it would play smoothly. Otherwise I couldn’t find out how it all ended.
I should have saved my energy.
The ending slammed me with an over-the-top twist out of nowhere—throughout the book there wasn’t even one subtle clue that this might happen, and as a mystery writer myself I am on constant alert for those. To make matters worse, after investing all those hours listening to the story, there was no real ending. All I can remember is that the book took place at the High Point Furniture Mart. As a former interior designer who has wandered the halls of furniture marts, I also questioned some of the Hi Point Furniture Mart scenes because they seemed very unrealistic. But that’s another story.
A few good ways NOT to end a book
All of a sudden, the revelation hits the protagonist like a lightning bolt. The story has been clicking along, and it’s perfectly fine if an opinion or life altering thought or event causes the protagonist to change his stripes. That’s very typical. Maybe he gets the message that his thoughts were wrong all along, or what he tried so far hasn’t worked and he has to change direction or perish. Then, what he tries at the end either fixes the situation or doesn’t and the curtain falls.
Here is where a problem could occur. Was there any prior indication or did this hit him out of the blue like he should have expected Moses to come down from the Mount with the tablets held high? When an author doesn’t set the reader up for the ending, it’s not that different than failing to drop clues.
Even if the possible alternatives are miniscule, the reader needs subtle hints that foreshadow what might come. Otherwise they are apt to scratch their head and say, “Hmmm. I just can’t imagine that character doing something like that. It really doesn’t sound feasible.” Other reactions could be, “Why did he just think of that now? I realized it several chapters ago,” or “What? That’s much too pat. Things just don’t happen like that in real life.”
I’m sure all of you have that that kind of reaction to poorly crafted endings. In the story I mentioned above, I was assaulted by all of these mistakes and left feeling like I was the bride left at the altar.
To show a radical change of heart or direction successfully, it is much better to set the groundwork from the beginning. Know your character, know typical action and reaction for them, and set the circumstances in place that allow him to fail or prevail with credibility in whatever scenario you choose for the end.
The good guy rides in on the white horse. Let’s assume it is a complicated plot that had the reader transiting all over the place in search of continuity. Often books without clear cut connections do hold the reader’s attention as they wait for the pieces to come together. At last you’re down to the wire and about to hit the proverbial pay dirt. At last you’ll know what all the confusion and hoopla was really about.
Then, without warning, just like in the corny old western movies, we look to the top of the hill. The hero appears on a white horse and he’s wearing a white hat. He is “truth” and he holds all the answers. But the guy was never in the story before. Where did he come from? Without one appearance in the book, this pillar of knowledge wraps it up in a chapter by supplying every answer and every connection the reader labored over for 300 pages.
I think not. If you include a character with all the answers, please let him or her have at least one previous appearance in the book. Sherlock Holmes unlocked all the answers, but he and Watson were on the job from the get-go. The books certainly wouldn’t have worked as well if at the very last moment, after the two sleuths had explored a wealth of disjointed possibilities, someone appeared out of the blue and glibly rattled off every answer the duo spent the whole book trying to find.
As in the previous example, good setup equals good ending.
You mean it was all just a dream? When a protagonist or character awakens at the end of the story and everything was just a dream, guess what? The same caveat exists. The reader had to have even a slight indication that this might not be reality. Weaving in the necessary information to pull this surprise ending off is a very tricky situation. But if done skillfully, the ending really can pack a punch.
On the other hand, if it blows away everything the reader has previously been fed and wraps the whole mish-mash up by revealingit was a dream, the reader might get angry. POV can play a big part of how everything is perceived. Who is telling the story? Are multiple people telling the story? Is the protagonist first person and the rest relaying what they know to be true? There are many possible techniques to mix real details with fantasy. When there is an indication of a possible predilection for a protagonist’s fantasies or compulsions that could be playing out in dream sequences, the reader doesn’t feel cheated. In plain terms, there has to be some flaw, some real detail or details that make the reader think what they are reading is real. The trick is to include that little something that may not seem quite right. Something that still makes them harbor doubts.
When the payoff comes, if they figured out it was a dream, they are thrilled they were so clever. If not, they understand how and why it could have been.
Writers tricks of the trade appears every Thursday in the Las Vegas edition and every Friday in the Los Angeles edition. To receive emails from joltleft.com when new articles are added, just click the SUBSCRIBE button. If you have something to say about this article, by all means scroll down to COMMENTS and add your “two cents.” And, if you liked it, please take a moment and click the LIKE button.
MORGAN ST. JAMESwrites mystery novels under her own name, and also writes as ARLISS ADAMS. For more information, visit her other websites: www.silversistersmysteries.com, www.devils-dance.comVisit the new Writers Tricks of the Trade blog: http://morgan-stjames.blogspot.comorhttp://writerstricksofthetrade.blogspot.com The newsletter launches August 15.