Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Final Act--Are You Ready to Finish Your Story?

Sunset always happens. The day ends. So does your book, essay, poem, story. Eventually you have to tie all the loose bits into reasonable conclusion. Great books leave us in love with the story we've just read, excited about the ideas we've just heard. There's an effect of satisfaction and engagement. How does a writer achieve that?

I learned about it one summer long ago, when I took a writing course at the University of Iowa. My instructor taught me a concept that was new to me: earned outcomes. He referred to good endings, how they make sense because the hints are built in as we go along. Yet they are not overly predictable. I was attempting my first novel back then (one which will forever remain in the file cabinet) and I'd never before heard the question: Have you earned this outcome?

He advised going back through the chapters, seeing if each thread brought into the ending actually wove, unbroken, back through the book.

In that novel, there were so many broken threads, I couldn't finish it. Conclusions I planted in my ending chapters were not foreshadowed earlier, so readers would certainly feel unpleasantly surprised, not pleasantly satisfied. A good ending, or Act 3, of any piece of writing must be anticipated but not expected. In other words, you plant the hints and you deliver the result in a way that makes us think, Wow, that's great, and I suspected it might be so.

I learned a lot from that U of Iowa instructor. Ten years later, when I was writing Act 3 of my second novel, Qualities of Light, I asked myself this "earned outcome" question. I made a list of how I wanted the reader to feel about each character and major event by the last chapter. Then I brainstormed that outcome, working backwards.

How to Not End with a Whimper I'm a great fan Phillip Pullman's children's book, The Golden Compass, and its sequels. I read the book long before the movie came out. When I saw the movie, I was pleased with its translation from print, but the ending frustrated me terribly. Of course, Hollywood will sell many seats to the sequel, but I wanted a real ending, a sense of satisfaction that Lyra, the heroine, had changed and grown. The book contained this earned outcome. The movie left us hanging. As a viewer, I felt manipulated and gypped.

Even if you are planning a sequel or two or three, work your Act 3 so that readers linger in the glow of a good ending. Start by asking yourself, Where would I like a reader to be by the end of this book? If it's memoir, what changes in the relationships between you and the world? If it's nonfiction, how jazzed would you like the reader to be about your material or method? If fiction, how in love with the story?

Remember, Act 3 must do three things:
1. Resolve or redeem the crisis or main character
2. Present new arrangement of players, situation, learning
3. Create a loop with the beginning (an echo of elements)

All of these mean an earned outcome.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This week's exercise is best done over several writing sessions, since it requires you to get some detachment from your writing project.

Spend 20 minutes or so brainstorming on paper about what you hope the reader will feel by the end of your book or writing project. What experience would you like the reader to have? List the qualities. One might be enthusiasm to try it, if your book is about a new theory you're trying to present. Another might be a total engagement with the characters' change.

Next, begin a list. What moments could you weave into the earlier chapters that would create this kind of effect in Act 3? What have you already written to earn that outcome, and what needs to still be put in place?


  1. Thanks for this wonderful information. I have heard (or read) this same information before, but your explanation was still like a light bulb going off. Every writer should read this blog.

  2. Thanks, Angela! I love helping light bulbs go off. Really appreciate you reading the blog and so glad it helps your writing.

  3. This is just where I am on my book, and just what I needed to hear. I have learned so much from your blog. Thank you, Mary!

  4. Really great information. I'm working on the ending of my novel right now, and I've been struggling. This is very helpful. :)

  5. Really great information. I'm working on the ending to my novel right now, and I've been struggling. This is very helpful. :)

  6. Thanks, Heather! I'm so glad it's timely. Best wishes with finishing your novel. How exciting is that!

  7. Mary, thanks for responding to my request and adding an RSS button. Now I won't miss anything. I envy you those lilacs --

  8. You're so welcome--I finally had help to figure it out. I'm very glad to be in the modern age at last. :-)