Friday, August 20, 2021

Writing from the End: How Endings Create Satisfying Beginnings in a Book

Many years ago, I read a debut novel by M.L.Stedman, called The Light between Oceans. It taught me something important about endings and reader satisfaction.

The gorgeous title and very interesting premise called to me--a lighthouse keeper and his wife who live on a remote island off the coast of Australia find a baby in a boat that washes up on shore. The wife, desperately childless after three miscarriages, argues to keep the baby. The husband wants to contact the mainland and let them know, thinking that some mother there will be equally desperate. But the wife wins, they keep the child, and their world cracks in unexpected ways.

Although I love reading just for reading's sake, I have been reading as a writer for a very long time now. I have a writer's high expectations. I found the prose lovely, with generous use of images and tense character interaction. The setting of the rocky island and its isolation, the keen details about the lighthouse, were amazingly crafted.

But one thing bothered me: the way the writer wrapped up the ending of this marvelous story.

Imagine a book like a giant weaving. Threads of all colors and textures are woven from beginning to end. The final 25-75 pages are where all these threads become a cohesive picture. The reader reads forward with expectations. If threads are dropped along the way or if the final part of the book is wrapped up too fast or at all unskillfully, the book does not "earn out" its ending.

I read backwards through the novel, after I'd finished it, just to find out more about why I was so unsatisfied by the ending. What I learned all those years ago helped me strengthen my own endings.

Working backwards was the main lesson--something I use every time now.

Here's how it works.

When I get my draft sketched out, and again at revision, I make a list. I list all the threads I've woven into the book, from beginning through the middle. Maybe one thread in my particular book would be the changes that happen in a town. Another might be the sale of a car and what happened to that car later. Another might be an injury and how it healed.

Then I begin working backwards, using this list. I look for where the thread appears, and where it may have dropped. I'll never forget my editor asking about one of the characters in my first novel who disappeared around the middle of the book. I immediately wrote him back in!

I also track the cause and effect, asking: what needs to happen to make each event believable? Cause and effect are the basic foundation of story.

Earning your ending becomes much easier with this technique. It's a task that editors used to do for us writers, but now we must do it ourselves. And it must be done deliberately and methodically, or readers will feel confused or dissatisfied by unearned endings.

Although all the small details of continuity are tracked in this exercise, the larger thematic threads and relationships that begin in early chapters and must be carried through in some way are most important. What expectations do you set up for the reader? Are these earned out by the end?

Don't misunderstand: I'm not looking for neatness or pretty endings, just a sense that the writer hasn't forgotten any threads.

Just remember the sage advice from writer Anton Chekhov: If a loaded gun appears in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 3.

I recently worked with a writer who had an intriguing box of letters that appeared in Act 1. I kept reading his manuscript, looking for where those letters might reappear. There were a few small mentions of them, but they didn't actually come into the story again. When I asked about them, the writer just said he forgot them. Similar to my dropped-out character. It's easy to do!

I recommend starting this list anytime, even early in the process. It'll help you a lot when you get toward the end of your book.

Ideally, the threads are strong both forward and backwards. A character's return to the small town late in the story needs to work well in the middle too, through foreshadowing. We plant good clues that this will happen, but not reveal how it will happen. Good endings are anticipated but not expected. Get the difference?

So look for all the important details, especially objects, places, and any promises made by one person to another. If you use a key image--such a letters in a box--make sure it tracks forward and backward for the reader. They will look for it.

When I finished my list, I made notes about what I had forgotten, as my student did with the box of letters, and I began to weave in what was missing.

Back to my dissatisfaction with Stedman's book: The threads were skillfully woven from beginning to end--but they were tied off very quickly in the final two or three chapters.

A series of short "islands" at the end, maybe 10-12 packed in a chapter, presented how each problem was concluded. It felt somewhat summarized, as if the writer had gotten tired of the story.

Be very careful about this. You not only have to earn out your ending in a physical sense but also emotionally. The reader will need sufficient time to emotionally absorb your book's conclusion.

If the ending comes too fast, we feel cheated. It's confusing--we think we've missed some big emotional clues, but we haven't (often I read back to try to find them). So we will just feel unsatisfied.

Act 3 is often the shortest part of a book. But it needs to be long enough to let the meaning of the story really settle in our hearts. That makes for a satisfying read--one that we will recommend to others.

I liked The Light between Oceans enough to suggest it to a few more people, but with a caveat. I hope they are not as picky a reader as I am. And that they are not working on the ending of a book of their own!

No comments:

Post a Comment