At one of the panels for Avalon Expo, someone asked “How do you know when to end a story?”
I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I’ve had time to think about it and I thought I’d share some of my current musings. This is especially relevant since the big project I’m working on has spun so far out of control that I have no idea how it’s going to end… Or if…
Honestly, this advice is for me as much as you.
So, how do I know when to end a story?
Short answer: Mostly intuition.
Long answer: There are a few ways…
- I’ve written the ending first.
Usually I know the end before I even start writing. Most of my short stories start out with that final moment, and then I just have to figure out what happens to bring me to that point. It happened with The Gemini Project; The Invisible Boy; and the two horror stories I’m currently working on.
There were a few times where, when I got to the end of a longer story, I realized that the original idea no longer fit and it was going towards a new ending. But that’s not a bad thing – stories change, it happens. Sometimes you plan on killing all of your characters but a few of them end up surviving somehow. But then you write the final line (for the new ending) and you think to yourself “Yeah, that’s a fantastic ending line”. And all is right with the world again.
- I’ve written a really good end-line.
I love a good ending line as much as I love a good opening line. In fact, if I write a so-so ending line it bothers me to no end, because I know it can be better. It’s like looking at a row of pencils that aren’t quite perfectly in line….
Some examples are: Virginia Wolfe’s To the Lighthouse: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” And George Orwell’s 1984: “He loved Big Brother.” There’s something about those lines that are so final and yet mean so much more.
- The story I wanted to tell is over.
Once I wanted a project to have 25 chapters (for symbolic purposes), but when I reached the end of chapter 22 I realized that I was done. My character’s journey had ended. I’d said all I wanted to say about this particular story, and to write any more would do a disservice to the fantastic ending scene I’d just written. Yes, I wanted to continue with these characters, but I knew that it would be best to start a new plot, with new themes and ideas, instead of dragging this one out.
The Hobbit ends when Bilbo returns home; The Fellowship of the Rings ends with the breaking of the fellowship; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ends when Harry’s school term ends. Even though their stories continue, their current task has ended and it’s time to take a breather before the next adventure.
Typically, when I plan my ending, I try to resolve matters – either for better or worse. I don’t like leaving huge plot holes or dangling plot threads. It’s fun to have hints and intrigue and something to look forward to, but I’m not happy when the ending to a book is more like the ending to a chapter (yes, there’s a difference – As Fierce As Steel left me wanting more, while Mindspeak made me regret the time I’d spent reading it).
When in doubt, I think of who’s journey this is. Then I try to find a way to bring them to the end point – to let the character finally achieve their goal, or fail horribly, or realize that they need to change their way of thinking.
Originally, I had no idea how to end The Six Elemental. I tried to resolve what I could, while leaving certain things unsaid, but the end just didn’t feel end-y enough. Finally I thought about Kit’s journey and how she had changed over the course of the story. I thought about what I was trying to say with this story and made that the ending, so when people close the book that’s the impression they’re left with.
And with that, I return once more into the void from which I came…