All good things must come to an end. That applies to books, of course, and to the Flip the Script series itself. Last month I suggested you Start Anywhere and — fittingly, for the series’ ultimate entry — we’ll cover the last bit of non-rule-based advice: End Anywhere.
As with any part of a book, there are “rules” that you’ll hear about how things should end. Endings are important, and difficult, since they’re the last thing that lingers in the reader’s mind. A great ending can save a saggy middle, but an ending that’s abrupt or ill-thought-out can ruin all the goodwill built painstakingly page after page by an otherwise good book.
Of all the rules and guidelines and old-chestnut-fallbacks on the topic of endings, here are the three pieces of advice I would advise you to reject:
Readers require happy endings. Outside of straight-up category romance, no genre demands a Happily Ever After (HEA). If your characters have struggled mightily, and darkness has been present throughout the book, the tacked-on HEA will feel just that — tacked-on. Rather than trying to deliver a cheerful solution that will reward your characters for the struggles they’ve endured along the way, you need to find the ending that matches the story. Maybe it’s happy, maybe it’s not. Hopefully it’s not Game Of Thrones-level depressing with heads getting hacked off and whatnot, but if you’re writing the kind of book where heads get hacked off, so be it. Don’t think of it as happy or sad. Think of it as an ending that fits.
End with something they didn’t see coming. This applies more to mystery and thriller writing, but the chestnut is that you don’t want your reader to have figured out the ending ahead of time. Don’t let them guess the murderer is another way to say it. But this rule is dangerous — the surprise solution that comes truly out of left field can leave readers feeling not just surprised, but deceived. The perfect achievement, instead, is to deliver a murderer (or solution to whatever question has loomed over the whole book) that is hard to guess on a first read, but crystal-clear on a second. In other words, readers who know the answer will go back and see that the clues were there all along. Now, “perfect achievement” is a pretty high bar, but in short, signaling a bit too much is a better sin than not laying the groundwork at all.
Tie up all your loose ends. Sure, if you’ve been dropping hints and sprouting subplots for the first half of the book, readers have a reasonable expectation that most of them will start wrapping up somewhere after the halfway mark. If your plot raises questions, at some point you have to lay down some answers. But a slavish adherence to this rule can result in a rushed, overstuffed ending. Your last 50 pages can’t be crammed with every single thing that happens to every single character who was mentioned along the way. If you use a checklist, it’ll read like a checklist. Resolve your main action first. Everything else is gravy.
Hmm… too abrupt?
(image from Flickr via ncanup)