Friday, 18 February 2011

Writing The End

I've been struggling with an ending for months now. I hate writing endings!

Beginnings always write themselves. I feel like I've just started a journey: flushed with excitement, not yet footsore or weary, not yet dreading the weight of my backpack or tired of the same old clothes packed inside. Later on, my beginnings tend to unravel a bit and need reworking, but they generally stay the same. They take off at a good gallop, pulling the plot merrily behind them.

They pull me right along too, panting in their wake, huffing and puffing as I plan the rest of the story. As I work my way toward the middle, all the major sign posts are there and I can see them clearly ahead, but carving the way to them is everything. Just as in real life, a straight line will seldom get you from point A to point B, in fiction, the way is circuitous and there are rocks and dips and barbwire fences. But I enjoy figuring these out and working my way around them. Yes, beginnings and middles are the part of writing I relish the most: that first heady, dizzying rush, then working my way from signpost to signpost, over all the hurdles and obstacles.

Following a basic formula helps. First of all, what happens has to be at least a little bit funny. Because for pity's sake, what is life -- or fiction -- without humor? Then you have to give your protagonist loads of problems, providing plenty of tension to keep readers from looking at their watches and thinking about what's for lunch, but you also have to let your suffering protagonist have the occasional bit of fun so they don't end up so miserable and overstressed that you hate yourself for causing so much torment.

And then slowly but surely, you pave the way to a satisfying denouement, making sure not to forget the clues, the details that have to be there from the very beginning, woven deftly through your story so that the reader isn't left wondering what the hell just happened and how did that get there? This takes an incredible amount of fine-tuning, as the clues and contextual details have to be significant, but in an unobtrusive way, so that later on, your reader can go back and think to herself, "Ah, so that really WAS a dream, it was her all along!" and marvel that even with such great clues, they never guessed.

Beginnings and middles, I flatter myself, I can do. To be sure, there are many adjustments, hundreds of reworkings, characters dropped, plots restructured, beta readers consulted, and a whole teetering crap-load of angst, but I manage, all the same. But endings are my Waterloo, and this one is driving me wild. I know the outcome, I just don't know how to achieve it in the most incredible-but-believable, satisfying-but-not-predictable way.

Not so long ago, I had an epiphany: endings are hard for me because I don't like getting rid of things. I am a pack-rat by nature: I yearn to hoard and treasure the things I prize. I don't like saying goodbye, leaving places, finishing anything. I was always the kid who ate all the way around the blueberries on my danish, saving them until the very end, the one who made a bar of chocolate last until it had started to melt down my fingers. And once I finish writing something, the story is gone -- over! -- and all other chances for how the story might have ended are gone too. That goes against my grain, and that is why endings cause me so much difficulty.

So I am going to leave this ending for a day or two. I am going to clean out my drawers right now and sort through a few boxes of old shoes. It may not work, and it will be agony to throw out all those old shoes, but I can still use the cupboard space.

Wish me luck!


Carole said...

I love throwing things away. It is absolutely liberating.

But writing an ending is tough. You want to satisfy the reader and not be dishonest with the story line. And happily ever after doesn't always work.

I am sure when the third old pair of shoes hits the garbage bin you will have a credible start to your ending.

Bish Denham said...

One pair of shoes at a time, one word at a time. A break is good.

out of the wordwork said...

I feel your pain, Mary!

I don't usually dread writing endings but they are so very important that I'm always a little intimidated by them. But middles are my big block. If I can work through the murky middle I'm so relieved that the euphoria helps me to get to the end.

Having said that, I'm now approaching my ending for a wip that needs a lot of tying up of loose ends and characters. I'm outlining that ending like mad.
And as for saying good-bye? Well, my first drafts are not a good-bye. I'll be visiting this wip a good number of times yet!

Good luck on working through your ending. I'm sure you'll find a satisfying, humourous, leave em wanting more finish!

Charles Gramlich said...

I find a few days away often helps me with endings. And with stories I'll occassionaly change the ending and save it as a different version later. I kind of like writing endings, though. Not as much as beginnings but more than middles.

Amber Lough said...

I just blogged about this! I'm in the same spot, and it IS horrible. Terrifying, actually.

Marcia said...

I love endings. I'm getting close to mine and I'm really getting excited. I just love the exhilaration of writing the last sentence, even in a first draft.

It's middles where I'm apt to wander 40 years in the wilderness.

I like your analysis of why endings are hard for you. I have to agree, though, that the ending is only goodbye if you're ready to submit. And not even then b/c of the revision requests. FWIW, when my students have trouble with endings, it's OFTEN because the MC lacks enough inner conflict and/or it wasn't resolved enough to provide character growth.

Falak said...

It's wonderful to know that I'm not the only one suffering from the pack-rat syndrome :) I always find the middles difficult since I have a tendency to go off track and give myriads of unnecessary details. Endings are okay, no great but okay. As long as I don't have to show what I've written to anyone and let go of it I don't mind endings :)

Dale said...

Yikes. I was so much happier when I realized I didn't have a narrative bone in my body, and the world was just going to have to live without my novels. I used to hate that feeling of the story closing in, possibilities being cut off, getting backed into a corner. It never occurred to me that people with a real narrative gift would feel the same way, but I see that they do!

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Oddly enough, I actually like throwing things away too, unless they've been with me for ages. I can throw newish things away very easily. It's the old, much-loved, worn-out things that break my heart to get rid of. Like my horrible old shoes.

Let's hope that filling that bin will make me decide whether my guys are going to go to Glasgow or not. I keep vascillating!

Bish -- The problem is, I might just have the chance to wear them again! That's what keeps me from discarding freely -- and what keeps my cupboards full of old shoes. But breaks are great and I certainly need one now.

Nelsa -- You're right: a fresh ending won't be a real ending for, at the very least, a couple of weeks and after several beta readers. So it's not goodbye. And besides, maybe I'll write a sequel!

It's SO awful to get to the end of an ms and realize you've left a couple of plot threads dangling. I like to think I've tied up most of mine, but I'm pretty sure I'll lie awake tonight trying to remember anyway.

Charles -- I'll take one of your middles if you'll tackle my ending. I just need to figure out if my protagonists are going to go for option A or option B. I was sure it would be option A two days ago, then made the mistake of talking to someone about it. Now I'm back to B.

Amber -- How odd that we both blogged about the same thing, the same day! We must have been on the same thought wave (cue spooky music).

Marcia -- I really wish you were here to give me advice. I want this ending to be so good, to be true to the characters and true to the story. I don't want it to disappoint or strike readers as a Deus ex machina; I want it to be a credible, fitting end. That's a TALL ORDER!

Believe me, I've got big, pillow-padded middles, shamelessly over-written. But I'm definitely learning how to edit.

Falak -- I am the queen of unnecessary details. I've come to realize I must like the sound of my own voice -- why else would I clog up my plot lines with all sorts of nonsense that just gets in the way and does nothing to advance the story? It's hard to break the habit, but I'm trying.

Dale -- Thank you for those kind words, but my gift is chiefly for being long-winded. I'm thrilled and grateful that there are people who are prepared to read me.

The thing I love and hate about writing is that it gives me a windmill to tilt at. I've come to see I can't live without some sort of challenge. Most of the time I love it, though paradoxically it's a huge pain in the neck.

Anne M Leone said...

Hah! Too funny. I'm an ending gal myself. But those beginnings are murder! And awfully hard to get very far without them.

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- I wish we could trade! Even if I know exactly what is going to happen in the ending, fleshing it out is pure agony.

Bianca said...

Finishing a really good back makes me mourn a little...

angryparsnip said...

Setting aside and coming back to it with a fresh mind will help. Often your first idea is the right one it is all that second guessing that kills a piece.

With paining especially watercolors your have to mindful of the ending.
You can overwork a piece and when you know you went to far and you have to throw it away and start over again.

Wishing you luck !

cheers, parsnip

Vijaya said...

Mary, I love beginnings and endings. It's the middle that gets tangly.

And what do you mean goodbye? Haven't you heard of revision(s)?

Just race on through ... no matter how bony it is. You can always put the flesh on later. Good luck, kid.

Robert the Skeptic said...

You could have the hero and villain engage in a pitched battle wherein they both fall into Reidenbach Falls. It worked for Doyle, anyway.

But if you sell your story to Hollywood you won't have a choice - A Happy Ending is all they will ever entertain.

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain. I rewrote an ending to my wip, changing it drastically, but it was better than before. It was just hard figuring out how to end it with a bang and tie all loose ends.

Kit said...

Good luck with your ending and your shoes. I'm always sad to end books, from a reader's point of view, however satisfying the ending, because it means I have to say goodbye to those characters, with whom I have been living and identifying for the last little while. It's a wrench!

Mary Witzl said...

Bianca -- I feel exactly the same! And then you go on to the next book and get caught up in the magic of it. It's such a great way to lose yourself, isn't it?

AP -- It is funny that you mention watercolors. Just yesterday an artist friend and I were talking about the difference between painting and writing and how with oils, an artist can rework a painting over and over, but with watercolors, that's almost impossible.

Thank GOD you can rework chapters and endings in writing! I'm working on something different right now, so I will come back to this ending later, with a fresh eye.

Vijaya -- Trade you a couple of my endings for any number of your middles! :o)

You're right about editing and rewriting. But at some point, after all those dozens and dozens of revisions, the end is the end, and eeeek! I want to get the skeletal structure of that ending perfect so I won't have to go back and re-sculpt it!

Robert -- I go for hopeful endings. There is no such thing as truly happy endings (outside Hollywood, that is). Still, I'm not a fan of 'and then they all died' endings; I always want my money back when I find one of those.

Selling my story to Hollywood? Get out of town. But even that would be a merely hopeful ending.

Medeia -- That's the whole thing, isn't it -- making sure the ending is as exciting and charged and full of oomph as it ought to be. All the people who've been good enough to read all the way to the end deserve a really good pay-off. The potential to disappoint is SO high and that's terrifying!

Kit -- Me too! Whenever I'm reading a book, I'm sucked right into the world, the house, the forest, the seaside -- wherever it took place is where I am. The people break my heart a little when the story ends and they get on with their lives. It's so hard to leave and go off to a whole different world, but as soon as I start a new book, I'm sucked right into that one too. It's great feeling, isn't it?

Girl Friday said...

Such a good post! I had trouble with my ending too, not because I didn't want to finish, but just because the story got more and more complicated as it went on and there was so much to sort out :)

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Girl Friday. I've left that particular ms for a couple of weeks while I whip another one into shape. That's the great thing about writing a number of ms: you get a break as you go from one to another.

Complicated plots are hellish and a challenge. But they are so much fun!