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Category : The Writing Craft
I’m nearing the end of my series on how to write great endings, and am talking briefly today about one of the most frustrating types of endings to read, for an agent, editor, or any other reader, the “bait and switch” ending, particularly in terms of the tone of a story.
I’ve talked several times throughout this series about the importance of being fair to your reader in your endings– that you satisfy their sense of justice, that you’ve laid some groundwork for any surprises, etc.– yet I’m constantly surprised by the number of manuscripts I read that end in a way that is completely dissimilar to the tone/story universe/set of expectations the author has spent the entire preceding manuscript establishing. If you’ve spent 200 pages developing a nice, sweet, wholesome romance, don’t try to get all depressing and cynical at the end. If your comedic cozy mystery stayed on mostly “safe” ground for the first 3/4ths of the book, don’t turn it into a chilling, violent crime novel at the end. If you spent the majority of a book developing deeper themes and a more literary voice, don’t just slap a conventional romance ending onto it and call it a day.
I want a book to end with the same “flavor” that compelled me to follow the story through to completion. It’s as if someone ordered a mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cone but the soda jerk decided to put a dollop of lemon sorbet at the bottom– even if the lemon sorbet is good, it’s not what the customer was expecting, and it’s not going to compare favorably to the mint-chocolate-chip, coming as it does when they’re not expecting it and have their mouth all set for something completely different.
There are a number of reasons this happens, even to experienced authors. First, writing is largely a solitary profession. Even if you have a critique partner/group to bounce ideas off
Someone sent in this question: “How do I clean up my writing voice? My critique partner just sent her feedback and said, ‘There are times when the writing is very formal and sophisticated, and then suddenly a slang word or colloquialism is thrown in, and it can be a bit jarring… there needs to be more uniformity in the voice of your writing.’ The fact is, I never studied literature and could only put this vocal difference down to writing on different days, in different moods, and often in between family members pestering me (er… seeking my attention). How do I find these differences and tidy up?”
The fact that you sound different at different times or under different circumstances isn’t unusual – most writers experience that. It’s possibly you just need to spend more time writing in order to determine what your voice is, or how it sounds the most true. But there are a few suggestions for cleaning up your writing voice.
–First, go back a day or two after you created something, and read it out loud. Your ear will tell you if it sounds correct or not.
–Second, read a long passage of your work, not just a few pages (or even just one chapter). A longer body of work will help you see how your voice changes from one passage to another.
–Third, see if you can make a list of the way your voice changes. Is it attitude? Word choice? Sentence length? Emotional content? Seeing how it shifts over time will help you know what to watch for.
–Fourth, ask your proofie friend to read your work specifically for consistency – what is it that changes? What is it doesn’t seem right to him or her?
–Fifth, consider hiring an experienced outside editor to read your work and comment on the voice sometime. Sometimes an outsider who doesn’t know your voice or personality
There are few things worse than being in the middle of a great book or movie and having someone spoil the ending for you, right? All the fun of the building tension, the suspense as to who’s going to live or die, the question of which guy the protagonist will choose– I personally feel that you’re totally justified in punching anyone who ruins the ending of a great book for you. Now, imagine someone is reading your book and some jerk decides to spoil the ending for them– and instead of being furious, the reader’s reaction is, “So… that’s it?” The best endings, the ones that readers can feel the strongest emotional connection to and find the most satisfying, aren’t just a checklist of “resolved the conflict, established the immediate future, wrapped up subplots.” While these elements might meet the “requirements” of an ending, your readers are looking for something more than just mathematical resolution at the end of a story. Our favorite endings are surprising, or complex, or poetic, or even aggravating or sad or cynical, but they’re rarely just “fine.”
The best endings are those that it is impossible for the reader to be ambivalent about. They should love it, or hate it, or be deeply conflicted about it, or be left with lingering questions about it (in a good way, not in a the-author-dropped-four-plot-threads-and-so-the-reader-has-no-clue-what’s-going-on kind of way). Think about some of your favorite books, specifically their endings– if asked to talk about how one of these books ends, you’d probably say things like, “It’s so beautiful!,” or “It’s SO sad,” or “It’s really happy!” Your reaction to the ending of a book isn’t specific to a certain kind of ending– happy, sad, poetic– but to your
As a fresh kid rounding the bend on the second half of life, and after a series of challenging events, I’d determined again to dive into a childhood calling of becoming a writer.
A trip to the Oregon Coast never failed to give me the much needed kick in the aft, so off I went. I strolled the docks at Newport, admiring the wizened characters of assorted commercial fishing boats, and recalled one summer of my first youth when I considered donning a flannel shirt and chest waders to become a commercial fisherwoman in pursuit of romance and valiant endeavor. But my goals, while no less valiant and only slightly more realistic, had since changed course.
I moved along, skirting tackle and dock debris, and shooting portraits of the more experienced, therefore more aesthetically interesting vessels, until there before me, requiring an entire length of dock, I saw an imposing black giant of a boat, moored with the others but not of their ilk. It arrested my attention for its sheer mass and for her name. Her hull was free of rust and barnacles, like they scrubbed her clean after each run and added a freshen-up of marine paint as needed. Ropes as thick as my wrist tethered her close, while trios of fat, orange fenders cushioned her side. Rigged for success with high-powered lights, radar equipment, and the most rubbish-free deck of the lot, this lady floated high for action. And her name in bold gold against the black read, PERSISTENCE.
I wondered what kind of struggles and disappointments her skipper and crew had overcome, with a handle like that. I was curious about how long the owner had sweat and waited to save enough for a boat of his own. How many legal hassles or personal setbacks? How much waiting.
Suspecting I’d have need of it along the course I’d chosen late in life, so-called, I snapped
I spent last week talking about all the resolution the reader expects from the denouement– resolve the events of the climax, answer unanswered questions, wrap up subplots, and establish main characters’ immediate futures. Sounds like a lot of content, right? But you as the author have a delicate balancing act to maintain, because while it’s true that the reader is going to be dissatisfied if you leave out the resolution they expect, it’s also true that there’s no better way to make sure your reader’s enthusiasm has flagged by the time they read the words “The End” than by dragging the book out two chapters after the story has actually ended. Ending on an anticlimax leaves a dull taste in the reader’s mouth and causes their last impression of your book to be a less positive one than if you send them out on an emotional high note, and the way to do this is to fit all your resolution in before the excitement of the climax has fully worn off.
The reader’s emotional high point usually coincides with the characters’, which is usually the climax– in a romance, the climax is not the wedding, but the dramatic moment when Slim rescues Peggy Sue from the train tracks and confesses that he always loved her, he just didn’t think a lawman had any right to ask a nice well-bred young lady to marry him and share his dangerous life. This is the moment when tension and emotions are the highest, and this is the moment that readers have been waiting for. Sure, they want to read that the happy couple got off the train tracks in time and know that Salty Sam is going to jail for his crimes, but the story is effectively over
- Have something worth saying.In his book Culture Care, artist Makoto Fujimura tells a story he confesses may be legendary about a Yale student taking Hebrew from the great Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs. The student, discontent with his grades, asked the scholar how he could raise them. Childs’s answer: “Become a deeper person.”
Peggy Noonan writer of seven books on politics, religion, and culture, and weekly columnist forThe Wall Street Journal, was at one time the speech writer for the man considered The Great Communicator. In her book Simply Speaking, she says that what moves people in a speech is the logic. The words “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” are not all that poetic when taken at face value. But they express something that resonates in the human heart. In the words of Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
In the same way that logic is what moves people in a speech, logic is what moves people in writing. And to have logic, to move people, we must have something worth saying. In fact, probably about 90% of writing is having something worth saying. And how do we get something worth saying? By expanding the world of ideas to which we expose ourselves and by cultivating a rich inner life.
- Decrease your vision. That is, “think local.” Start with your family. Doug Bender, the bestselling author of I Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. wrote a book for an audience of one. When Doug’s wife had a miscarriage, it grieved the Bender’s little girl. So Doug wrote a child’s book about death and loss just for her.
My husband’s favorite seminary professor told his students, “Stop thinking you will go out and save the world, and instead become the best family member you can be, the most grateful child of your parents, the greatest and most dependable encourager in your church, the
The Google dictionary definition of “denouement” is “the final part of a narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.” “Denouement” is one of those literary words that most of us learned somewhere in high school or college English classes and then filed away along with “synecdoche” and “antithesis” to be trotted out when we need to sound smart, but whereas you could probably write a pretty great novel without being able to identify the areas where you used antithesis, it’s REALLY hard to end a book well without having more than a dictionary understanding of the functions of a denouement.
Think of the denouement as “the beginning of the end.” If you’re plotting the arc of a story or plot, the denouement appears right after the climax and generally encompasses everything else taking place between the climax and the end of the story. Let’s start by looking at the jobs a denouement needs to do:
- Resolve the events of the climax. If the climax occurs when Slim pulls Sue off the railroad tracks seconds before the train thunders by, we don’t have to see every second of what happens next, but we would eventually like to know how they made it back to town after Slim’s horse ran off, how Salty Sam was finally apprehended, and whether or not Slim’s sidekick died of his rattlesnake bite. The actual top-of-the-tension moment is when Sue and Slim declare their love seconds before they might be smushed by the train, but these other events were all pieces of the climactic scene and the scenes leading directly up to it, and the reader wants to know how they turned out, even if it’s in a paragraph of narrative at
I started out my career writing mystery and now I write mostly suspense novels. What is difference between mystery and suspense anyway? It’s a question I hear often. I suppose I ought to know the answer since I’ve written twenty plus books in the suspense genre. I tell folks who ask that suspense is a situation in which the stakes are high and some is usually running for their lives. Yes, stakes are high in mystery, too, but there is not the same level of danger to the protagonist. It’s more about solving the puzzle, than survival.
Creating suspense is trickier than it sounds for the hardworking author. Conflict is not the same as suspense and neither is surprise. Those are lessons I’m still learning! A while back I stumbled across an interesting view from the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s idea was that the difference between surprise and suspense has to do with what the audience knows. Surprise occurs when something we don’t know is going to happen, does. For example, a car bomb goes off. Suspense is when the audience knows and watches it play out on the unwitting protagonist. “Don’t turn that key,” we silently shriek, wondering if what we know is going to happen actually does. The bomb doesn’t necessarily have to explode, but the suspense comes in our knowledge that it most likely will.
Dana Mentink is an award winning author of eighteen mystery and suspense novels. She is honored to have received an ACFW Book of the Year nomination, a Holt Merit Award, a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award and two ACFW Book of the Year Awards. Please visit her on the web at www.danamentink.com or find her on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. Dana hosts monthly contests at www.dmentink.wordpress.com.
I’m starting a new series today, one that will last until I run out of things to say on the topic or until I get bored, whichever comes first. I’ve received several ending-related questions over the past few weeks as well as been disappointed by the endings of several otherwise-good submissions I’ve read lately, so I thought we’d spend a few weeks talking about how to end a novel as effectively as you began it.
There are a whole lot of resources out there to help you craft a dynamite beginning of a novel– plenty of “first five chapters” workshops, lots of conversation on the importance of a great opening sentence, a bunch of opinions on how soon in a book the action needs to kick off– but not as much attention paid to how to END a novel well. It makes sense; the beginning is what makes someone decide whether or not to keep reading, and therefore gets most of the responsibility for selling a book to an agent, editor, or reader, but too often, all this emphasis on the beginning of a novel leads to some neglected or rough endings by comparison, and endings are what make someone decide whether or not to look for another book from that author. If you’ve managed to entice a reader into picking up your book and making it all the way through, you want them to stick around longer than just that one book. This week, we’ll talk about how the end of a story and the end of a book are (or should be) connected, as well as preview some of the topics we’ll address over the next few weeks.
“When is a book done?” “When is a story over?” These questions came in separately, and while they’re asking about two different things, the answers are related. A complete story has been told when the major conflict has
Before I opened my freelance doors for business, I worked as an associate editor for a small publishing house. Long before that I earned a degree in Journalism. But much of my training for my current job came from many hours writing fiction and working with my critique partners. Since I started this freelance venture, I’ve worked with all sorts of authors, newbies to multi-published veterans on multiple projects, fiction and non-fiction, in various genres—contemporary and historical, romance and suspense, memoir and magazine articles. As a writer, a critique partner, an associate editor, a copyeditor, and a freelancer, I’ve learned a few things.
- Talent matters. All great writers begin with talent. I can’t carry a tune, but suppose the height of my ambition was to become a famous singer. Suppose I took voice lessons and spent lots of money and time honing my skills? Suppose I spent thousands of dollars going to singers’ conferences (are there such things?) and hob-nobbing with the best? I might possibly be able to carry a tune someday, but would I ever be singing at Carnegie Hall? Heck, my church’s worship team wouldn’t even want me. I can become a better singer. But I would never be good enough for people to fork over hard earned cash to hear me. Hard as this is for some of us to hear, talent matters.
- Hard work is everything. I’ve seen many writers with only a modicum of talent transform their writing through sheer determination. These writers don’t rely on instinct. Rather, they work with good critique partners, question their editors, and subject themselves to arduous rewriting sessions. They don’t settle for that’ll-do writing. They read craft books, attend writers workshops, and devour great works. Eventually they hear the words, “You’re so talented.” And they are, but that talent would still be raw without these writers’ passion for excellence.
- Writing is hard. You’ve heard the joke about the