Know your Ending

Once when I was young and read a novel with a fabulous twist at the end (I’ve forgotten the book, but I recall its effect), it hit me that the writer had to have known the ending all along. He’d planted clues throughout, but as a reader, I hadn’t put two and two together until the end, and when I did, wow. The story blew me away. Remembering the title would be a bonus here, but my point is that on that day, although I was only in elementary school, my wow moment had to do with craft.

Shortly after recovering from that wonderful wow, I recall that I felt sorry for the author. Poor thing. When you know your ending up front, doesn’t it spoil the story? Doesn’t it ruin the enjoyment of reading it? Of writing it? And when I realized that all authors would have to know their endings while writing their beginnings, I felt sad for them. Why would anyone want to become a writer? Imagine having to spend all that time writing a novel when you already know up front what the ending will be. The anticipation is lost. How dull. Why bother?

Okay, so I was a kid. I was impatient. I liked to write stories (nothing lengthy), and I never read books twice. As soon as I finished one, I was on to the next, excited to enter into a new world and find out how another set of characters would survive or thrive… or not.

As an adult I’ve developed lots of patience and have re-read plenty of novels, but the purpose of second go-rounds hasn’t been entertainment. I’ve wanted to study how writers do what they do, how they invite readers to suspend disbelief, how they merge ordinary worlds into extraordinary ones, how they pick up the pace, how they hook readers and make us care.

While drafting this blog post, I’ve perused articles about how to write endings, and I’ve linked to two that I thought were good. Click on the images above to read the articles; Lakin looks at literary fiction and Smith (Writer’s Digest) at commercial fiction. We’ve all heard that Margaret Mitchell wrote the last chapter of Gone with the Wind first, and according to this article, a number of successful authors, including John Irving and J.K. Rowling, have done the same.

In the month ahead, I’m going to take Lakin’s and Smith’s advice and draft an ending to my latest work-in-progress. I’m currently wallowing in the muddy middle, and it’s hitting me that if I want any chance of getting out of the mud, I have to know how this story ends. Once I figure it out, once I see and hear what the characters do and say in the final scene, I suspect that my newfound knowledge will cause me to rewrite the opening, too. But hey, it’s all good, right? It’s all about loving the process.

Do you know how your current WIP ends?

Happy writing, y’all!

4 responses to “Know your Ending

  1. Thanks, Anne. In my first ms. I knew the end, early on. After that ms., I’ve had a general idea. Once I wrote an ending, without planning. Then I rewrote it, then went back to the original after thinking about it for a few weeks.

    If a writer writes to the ending, it can be too limiting. I love the surprise of not exactly knowing, until I get there. You’re right, sometimes the opening has to be rewritten if the ending changes.

    In my current WIP – no idea how it ends. Only on page 80. Thanks for posting this. Makes me think.

  2. Good thoughts, Lenore. I’m with you on loving the surprise of not exactly knowing. And I agree that “writing to the ending” can be too limiting. But not knowing the ending at all can be too amorphous, and that’s where I’ve found myself this month. My characters are drifting. I’ve let an anything-could-happen feeling dominate my writing time, and random stuff has come up, inviting the mss to go in any number of directions. It’s gotten unwieldy. Time to rein it in, at least somewhat. I’ll see what happens…

  3. I think it’s a good idea to write your ending if you’re stuck in the middle. For my latest manuscript, I had several ending scenarios in mind, but I didn’t know which one it was going to be or how my main character would get there. That kept me writing through all the obstacles I faced, from moving to a new city to my editor leaving the profession and my publisher put up for sale. Even if this book would never find a home, I wanted to know how it ended.

    What brought me to my ending was the way my characters’ relationships developed from the beginning through the middle, specifically my protagonist’s relationship with her best friend. I’m very happy with how the ending turned out, and it also helped me solve another problem with my protagonist. Now I’m going back and making those changes in her character development. Yes, lots of revision in my beginning, but worth it. I really like how this book turned out, and it helped to have a general idea of what could happen but be surprised.

  4. I like hearing that the way your ending turned out helped you solve a different problem with your protagonist. Sometimes I get stuck thinking that the current way I’ve written my protagonist is THE way, when of course, that’s not necessarily the case at all. Everything can change. I need to remember to stay open to possibilities. Sorry to hear about all the obstacles (I’d heard you mention some of it before–ugh), but at the same time, Lyn, I’m inspired by your perseverance and tenacity. Yes, things do work out eventually. Some things take longer than other things to fall into place both in life and in fiction.

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