Reverse engineering the ending the book needs


“Compass” by Walt Stoneburger from Flickr under creative commons license

I don’t plot or pants, I orientate. I know the general direction I want the story to take, I have the compass of knowing what I want to say about the general direction I want my story to take, and I pick a scene that is in the direction I want to go and walk to it. When that scene is done, I pick the next one that says what I want it to and so on and so on until I get to where I was going.


Generally though, when I’m in the thick of the scenes, the thing the book wants to say and the thing I want to say start to conflict. Where I think I’m going isn’t always exactly or in any way where I end up, and that’s okay. It’s a deliberate decision to abandon the old idea and go with the new. But it means the ending I had in mind (if I really had one) doesn’t always stick the landing.

And when it doesn’t, you can’t just end with the new direction in mind. All that bit of traversing through the plot at the beginning now needs to show the reader that I’d meant to end up where I was deliberately, and that means a complete reverse engineering.

So if I want A to happen, I step back and look at all the things that need to change in order to make it appear to be the ending I’d wanted all along. If a brother is suddenly needed, I need to go back in the prose and put the brother in, and then mention him again somewhere important because if writers don’t have the rule of three in their tool box, it’s not  complete tool box. If a big bad needs a shot of redemption, I need to go back and put in that they are worthy of the attempt, even if they don’t take it. In all the unpublished work I’ve read, I’ve seen three major trends in endings that need to be avoided at all cost. The first is the European ending is everyone goes mad and/or dies. Usually and. And that’s okay if you’re coming out of post-occupied war zones from WWII, but for the rest of us, it’s a lazy way to end a story that’s long enough but plotwise the author is plot-bankrupt and has nothing else to say.

The second is the tacked on ending. I’ve met a couple female misogynists in my day, and they were both speculative fiction authors. One of them sent me a story to critique where in the world of vampires, there’s a bar outside the clubhouse that says you must be X smart to go in, and of course the main character was smart enough to be a vampire, but she says in the text that no other female could possibly be smart enough; every woman is a ditz besides the main character in her world. But that’s not the worst grievance. Well, okay it is, but the ending was really bad, too. The female protagonist gets a phone call just as the climax of the story is about about to happen and the *first person* voiced main character gets a call that her sister died and her nephew and niece are now orphans. So she leaves the book entirely, allowing the character who had been the love interest to finish the story in third person.

No! Bad writer! Don’t tack on your end as though it’s been copy and pasted from a different story. Tacked on endings have characters doing what they would never do, not for a moment of character development to show how much they’ve grown or accepting a fate they couldn’t before, but because it’s expedient to the plot. These endings come out of left field. In debate and the legal system, you are not allowed to enter new information into your closing arguments. If you hadn’t mentioned it before, it doesn’t belong in your close. Sure, Sean Connery shows up in the end of Robin Hood, but the whole story happened because the king had gone to war. His return had been foreshadowed. Twist endings only work if the groundwork had been laid to present the characters with what looks like a binary ending but door number three had been there the whole time.

And the third and final bad endings are endings that end abruptly…


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