Beginning an Ending

The past month has been a writerly whirlwind. Forging ahead from my final editorial pass on Book 3, I proceeded to fully outline Book 4, and then to complete its Prologue, Overture, and first numbered chapter in short order. Book 4 now stands at 14K words, or roughly 12% of its estimated total length.

For me, this is an unheard-of pace.

Having an outline—and being constrained by the narrowing potentialities of a sprawling epic now barreling toward its climax—has certainly accelerated matters, but these early chapters had to do a lot of work that can’t be reduced to discrete plot-points. They had to establish and distinguish between the mental states and interpersonal dynamics of all the returning POV characters, establish a new POV character, establish several entirely new settings, flash back in time in order to tell a self-contained and emotionally-gripping story with huge-yet-opaque implications for the present situation, and, most importantly, establish the prevailing mood which will carry through the remainder of the narrative.

Since that work’s now done, I imagine the ensuing chapters will speed by even faster.

In recent years, it’s become a commonplace for epic fantasy authors to grind to a halt as their series’ conclusions loom. Now, granted, all four books that comprise “The Heir and the Herald” will together just barely surpass the wordcount of—to pick a totally random example—Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear (~400K words), but at that length we’re approaching The Lord of the Rings territory (~480K words), and no one considers Tolkien’s magnum opus either short or shallow. Sticking the landing is, I believe, not merely an important step but central and essential to the integrity of the entire work. A good series with a bad ending is like a house with sturdy walls and a leaky roof: one single oversight compromises everything else. A strong ending validates whatever led up to it, and a weak ending makes readers wonder, quite reasonably, whether all the time they invested in said run-up was ultimately wasted.

The ways in which an ending can suck are innumerable, but the things it must do in order to meet or surpass audience expectations are simple (not easy!). Firstly, it must proceed organically from what came before. If the story swerves into seemingly-unrelated territory at the last second, or if a plot-device solution appears out of left field, then the ending will feel tacked-on, as though the author stayed up all night to finish it before a deadline. A truly great conclusion, by contrast, will in retrospect feel inevitable from the very first page.

Secondly, the ending must confront and solve the real problems (not necessarily the problems readers are focused on!). Hopefully the author knows better than the reader where the fault-lines lie, and which tectonic plates need to shift in order to relieve the narrative tension. Since problems tend to proliferate, this typically requires multiple layers of resolution: within characters, between characters, in the practical realm of the story-world, and, most importantly, within the minds and hearts of readers. If the story has explored a theme, an idea, a way of viewing the world, then the logical implications of that concept must be dealt with so that a conclusion may be drawn.

Thirdly, the ending must resonate. What I mean by this nebulous term is that the reader must feel it. This is, after all, the payoff, the moment of truth. Narrative fiction is art, and all true art inhabits the realm of the emotions—of instinct. Beauty is sensed, not scrutinized. So if the protagonist goes on an emotional/psychological/intellectual/spiritual journey, if he or she experiences growth, an arc, or any degree of catharsis, then the reader must experience it too. If when the curtain drops readers are still coldly deciding what they think, that’s a failure mode. They should be feeling the ending despite themselves.

Fourthly, a genre-specific directive: the ending must blow the reader’s mind. This is the “unexpected” element of the coveted “unexpected-yet-inevitable” designation. Whether this takes the form of a eucatastrophe, a Sherlock Holmes-esque retrospective monologue, a “Sandersonian avalanche,” or some other form of sudden blinding illumination, the reader must be surprised. A lot of this depends on writerly opsec. Have you sufficiently covered your plot tracks? Thrown in enough red herrings? A solution that can be figured out ahead of time is boring, and it fosters readerly contempt for characters who fail to pick up on the seemingly-obvious. The element of surprise—the future’s unpredictability—is one of an author’s most powerful tools precisely because it forces readers to get down in the trenches with the characters and sympathize with their frustrations.

These are the sorts of things I’m constantly mulling over as an author. Whether my writing meets these criteria—scene by scene, chapter by chapter, book by book, and ultimately as a holistic series—is up for you to decide. But I promise I’m making the effort.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s