How to End a Story: Cliffhangers, Closure and Retrospective Inevitability | Fiction School Podcast #19

How to End a Story: Cliffhangers, Closure and Retrospective Inevitability | Fiction School Podcast #19

There’s that moment when a book you’re reading has just a few pages left, and you get a little anxious.  You don’t want it to end, maybe.  Or you’re dying to know whodunit.  Will the girl get the guy? Will the misfits return home safely?

There’s so much riding on that ending.  It’ll be the last thing that reader feels about that book.  But however tense it is for the reader, it’s a megaton more tense for the writer when writing an ending to a story.

Clueless at The Physick Estate - The Execution
Whodunit? Better nail that ending to make that question count!

On the show this week, Fiction School gets courageous and gives the last word on story endings.  But we don’t stop there–we talk about chapter endings and cliffhangers, and endings to books in the middle of a series.  Want to know how endings can be too neat, or what makes a cliffhanger work, or learn about the perfect balance needed for epiphany endings, or get the scoop on The Fallacy of the Talking Killer and Retrospective Inevitability?  Then tune in to this episode of Fiction School! (See there? Cliffhanger.)

SHOW NOTES FOR EPISODE 19

  • Writing the ending is just as hard as the beginning.  Sometimes harder.  It seems a universal struggle for all writers.
  • Jody mentions how some writers start with the ending and work backwards
  • Usually when Baker has an idea of an event in the story, it ends up being the midpoint more than the big finale at the end.  Once the story gets to that point, then the characters and events can dictate the ending from there.
  • Jody brings up the idea of murder mysteries.  In that context, you gotta know whodunit, and have to build it backwards carefully with an outline.
  • But one of the pitfalls of these endings?  That awkward final scene where they catch the bad guy and his gives this long soliloquy explaining how and why he did it.
  • Tommy coins the term of the week: The Fallacy of the Talking Killer!
  • This is almost a never believable ending, but for some reason this ending is really prevalent.
  • Do some stories hit a momentum shift where things start rolling downhill and the ending falls into place?  Sometimes.
  • Understanding story structure really helps Baker get towards that momentum build toward the end; but even with all the plot points in place, it’s still REALLY hard to write the ending.
  • And a writer can clean up too much in an ending too, where everything ties up in a nice perfect bow and is all pretty…so pretty, in fact, that it doesn’t affect the reader at all, doesn’t bounce around in their mind any after finishing the story.  It makes the story itself totally forgettable, if the ending is too neat and the writer tries too hard.
  • If it’s too neat, it’s not believable.  It has to feel natural rather than perfect.
  • Jody mentions a piece of wisdom: if you’re having problems in the last act of your story, there’s likely somethign wrong with the first act.  Go back to the earlier parts and see what threads and gold are there to be worked in and used to the story’s advantage in the ending.
  • Character is really key for endings–the ending of the story has to matter so much to the character that it passes on that tension to the reader.  Seeing the character change is what makes a good ending.  If it’s forced, it’s unsatisfying for a reader.
  • Tommy mentions fake endings and tricks to keep the reader reading, like the old Batman TV shows: “Will Batman escape the Towering Pit of Ice Cream Doom?  Stay tuned!”
  • Lots of mystery and thriller writers use this technique with endings of each chapter, to keep a reader turning pages.
  • Tommy’s technique of the novel-in-stories has a unique situation to pull all the different stories and character arcs together and have each character’s ending feel satisfying.
  • It’s related to writing trilogies: how do you end the second book of a trilogy?  Endings have to also have an opening for life to continue on for a character (unless the ending is the character’s death).  Sometimes the idea of life going on is the most haunting part of a character’s ending.
  • Big range of reader’s taste with endings–you can’t please everyone with your ending.
  • That’s the terror of ending a book that’s part of a trilogy: “You have to come up with this amazing revelation that NOBODY saw coming, and yet, it makes PERFECT sense.” –Jody
  • Now Jody ups the Word O’ the Week: Retrospective Inevitability.
  • It’s pretty great as a term: When you get to the ending, you feel like, Yes, that’s the perfect ending though I didn’t see it coming.  But when you look back at the story, you see all the clues you missed the first time that led right to it.  (Classic filmic example: The Sixth Sense.)
  • Another thing about cliffhangers: You can’t have the entire series end with a cliffhanger.  You have to end the story arc of each novel, and then open a door to the next story.  Like, they catch the bad guy, the the commissioner comes in and says, “There’s a bomb in the convention center, guys.  Let’s go.”
  • Baker tells the story of how he didn’t know how to end stories in his early years as a writer, so every story ended in something blowing up or catching on fire.  Until his friend Geoff told him that his first book was going to be titled, Twelve Stories Where Shit Blows Up At The End.  (Thanks, Geoff.  Still a great title to a book I should write one day…)
  • (And Baker totally loves writing about Baker in the Third Person.)
  • We discuss the epiphany ending.  It’s an unusual question: Do you, as a person, believe in epiphanies?  We make characters have them, but do they happen in real life?  Why are they so prevalent in fiction if they’re so rare in the world?
  • Jody believes in epiphanies–we change constantly, if not as cleanly and dramatically as fictional characters.
  • But it’s hard to write an epiphany convincingly.  Here’s why:
  • The way too subtle epiphany doesn’t work, when the character stares wide-eyed out the window.
  • And the too-big-of-a-lightbulb epiphany, where it feels forced or the character just isn’t capable of that kind of insight.
  • Tommy offers an interesting take: don’t put the epiphany at the end–put it in the middle and let readers watch the character try to live through this new lens to see how it affects them.
  • Baker shares one of his favorite endings, from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”  Mr. Shiftlet’s epiphany, where he feels terrible but then chooses not to act on it and keep on being a slimeball.  That’s more powerful as an epiphany: they see the world differently but choose not to act on it.
  • Jody mentions the way Raymond Carver conveys epiphanies very convincingly.  They’re subtle and emotional.
  • Tommy likes the way Hemingway ends For Whom The Bell Tolls, surprising the reader because the character is still in the same place.
  • An ending that’s a little open-ended keeps the reader thinking about the character.

 

 

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