As some of you know, when I start a book, I may have only a vague idea of the story as a whole, but I’ll have definitive knowledge of the ending. I know not only what is going to happen at the end, but what the very last line of the book will be. Writing then becomes a process of how to get to the end.
I admit, I get lost along the way. Wandering off onto roads less traveled that end up going nowhere, and then having to find my way back to the story. But always, the ending is there as my map.
There is a lot of emphasis out there on all the work a beginning must do. If you write, you’ve heard it by now. Beginnings must raise questions, hook the reader, introduce characters and setting, and so on. And yes, beginnings are extremely important. A good beginning instantly transports me into the story world and if that doesn’t happen I’m not going to wade through hoping for a good ending.
Endings have a lot to do, too, such as tying up all the plot threads, answering all the questions, etc. But this quote from John Irving says it all for me. Here, he’s talking about epilogues, which do a different job from endings, but the quote still works for me with regards to endings.
‘An epilogue is more than a body count. An epilogue, in the disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future.’
I don’t mean here that the ending of a book should be a cliffhanger, and I don’t think Irving means that, either. I don’t like books that leave you hanging simply because it usually takes a while before the next book comes out. I want to be satisfied at the ending. I don’t want to wait months because, honestly, by the time another book comes out I’ll have read many in between and forgotten what cliff I was hanging from.
What I do like about a good ending though, is when it plants a tiny seed. When the last few paragraphs, or the last line leaves one minuscule question. Not a cliffhanger. No big question that will torment you at nights. Just something that allows you to daydream about what comes next. To continue the story in your own imagination. To spend a little more time with the characters you’ve come to like, and possibly not be ready to leave.
I’m not talking about a plot question that won’t get answered until the next book. That’s as bad as a cliffhanger with too much prolonged suspense. I mean something not directly connected to the plot, something that you will find out more about in the next book, but doesn’t necessarily have to be in the next book.
It’s a fine balance between too much teasing of the reader, and giving them just a little bit more time with the story. And I love the challenge of finding just that perfect balance. Most of the time, that ending that I already know, has little, if anything, to do with the main plot. Because, like I said, it’s not a cliffhanger or teaser.
It’s just a little gift to open after the story has ended.