If there’s anything that can put me off writing, it’s endings. I never imagined completing a story in a way that is plausible, logical, moving, satisfying, hopefully a little surprising, and memorable could be so difficult. That’s probably because I never gave any thought to what a good ending must be before I started writing. Now I frequently think about it and I can tell you this: knowledge may be power but it is also sorrow. But you already knew that.
Of course, it’s all subjective. I’ve been surprised to find out a lot of people don’t like Stephen King’s endings. No, I wasn’t surprised, I was stunned. What do people want from a book? What better ending could there have been to the Dark Tower series? No, seriously, what? Anyway, I wouldn’t enter an argument about book endings for love nor money because it’s pointless but I will continue worrying about my own endings.
The Lamiastriga gave me almost literal pains in that respect. I just couldn’t make the story end. In any way, satisfying or not. It was only at the third draft that I managed to make the story lead to something that could have an end. And it did, and the exhilaration was so strong I still remember how it felt when I finally had it. I may well have yelled “YES!” but I’m not 100% sure. It would’ve been well deserved, though, this I am sure about.
I left Eleven Doors at Draft 1. You know why? Because I wasn’t sure about the ending. So I tricked myself into thinking I had to first visit those tombs where the final clash between The Good Ones and The Bad Ones takes place before I could write the ending. This is, of course, complete and utter crap because nobody will be paying attention to things like intricate, thousands of years old wall paintings or anything else in said tombs but it worked. I have postponed the inevitable by a couple of months. Yes, I’m a bit ashamed of it.
In the past week or so I’ve been struggling with the ending of Dansk Finanzbar, which – o, joy! – will also need a new title because the story is so different from what it was at the beginning, the bar is only mentioned once. I thought I had the ending about 10,000 words ago but it turned out to be a, well, turning point in the plot. And then as I wrote I noticed my enthusiasm about the story began to wane. The closer I got to the inevitable moment when it all had to end, the less of an idea I had about how exactly it will end.
I knew what I wanted, though. I wanted to give the characters a happy ending. I just wanted a happy, death-free ending for reasons I’m not sure I can explain. I like happy endings. However, for this ending to happen, they had to defeat a creature that is to all intents and purposes undefeatable. So I had to make the creature defeatable. This is where I hit a wall: I had no idea how to make the undefeatable defeatable without resorting to any tired old – I’m sorry, classic – tropes featuring magic potions, blood sacrifices, spells or who knows what else. Not that I didn’t consider all these. I’ve just never been any good at giving tired old – classic – tropes a fresh twist.
I got so stuck I couldn’t write. From that point – the point when I hit the wall – onwards the narrative had to move in a very specific direction to make an ending work. But since I had no idea what this ending should be, I couldn’t steer the narrative in the right direction. I sulked for a while. I sulked some more. Then I got angry. I got so angry, I tried to tear down the wall by applying an alternative to the “Upon stumbling into writer’s block, jump ahead in the narrative and have the characters make out.” In my case, I made my villain rant about why she was the way she is.
In the process of applying this technique, I learned that: the villain was not a purebred villain being villainous for the sake of villainy but a relatable, albeit non-human, entity; the characters would have to suffer some more (sorry but a happy ending is nothing without prior suffering); folk tales are full of wonderful ending ideas. I’m particularly proud of the last conclusion because it gave me the actual ending.
Folk tales and their fundamental role in the evolution of narrative deserve their separate blog post, so I won’t go deeper into them here. I’ll just say with some self-satisfaction that I’m happy I read hundreds of them hundreds of times when I was younger and yes, I still read them and enjoy them. It has been useful besides highly enjoyable.
I know not all books can tap the great pool of ending ideas that folk tales offer, in which case you’d have to rely on logic and sense-making to avoid the deus ex machina trap. Or you can intentionally fall in it and make it yours. Which is exactly what I (hope I) did in The Lamiastriga and I’m not in the least bit ashamed of it. Sometimes you need gods to do their job and that’s that.
Still, I like logic and sense-making better. That’s the reason I like thrillers and crime novels –because it’s all about logic and sense-making with these genres. Which means those of us who write supernatural stuff can read them as instructional literature and learn a thing or two about making endings meet expectations. There are, in other words, tools to help make endings great and that’s good news.
The bad news is that if you can’t make the ending work you’ve probably gone wrong earlier in the book. At least that’s what my not-so-long experience suggests. If the story is good from the start, the best ending will present itself smoothly and unobtrusively. I think. For most of us, it’s a struggle but that’s okay because without a struggle they can’t be victory and this particular victory, over yourself, really, is a sweet one. Here’s to good endings even if it takes a dozen tries to pull them out of their hiding holes.