Wait? That Was The Ending? A Writing Mini Rant from Scattered Thoughts

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I don’t know how many times lately I have come to the end of a book and then sat back astonished, thinking “wait, that was the ending?”  Usually I am so dumbfounded that I go back a couple of pages and then forward once more, thinking perhaps I missed something  only to find that, nope, the author really did end it that way. Or not end it as the case may be. No epilogue, no afterword, nothing, just a yawning chasm where the ending should be.

Now I know I am not alone in noticing this.  I do read other peoples reviews and they are saying the same thing.   Blah, blah, blah, the book would have been fine except for the ending, or lack of one.  What the heck is going on here?

Writing basics, people.  Stories should have a strong beginning, a strong middle, and a strong ending.  Not once have I ever read that a wimpy, rushed, or just plain non-existent ending is mandatory or even to be desired.  Is this something new in writing I am not aware of?

Now I am not talking about serial stories with the expected and even anticipated cliffhangers.  I am even going to dismiss from this rant those books with dangling plot ends that are a part of a series.  Yes, I know I have whined about a few books in the past that fell in the middle of a series and felt incomplete at the end.  But I am coming around to the authors way of thinking on letting some books in a series have story lines with loose plot threads at the end or even cliffhangers (argh). Those will pull you through to the next story.  Just let us know that the book is a part of a series!  No, I am talking about the stand alone stories that, for whatever reason, have no rational or logical end to them.

I have read books where the main characters just climb into bed (nothing resolved about the future or the angst they went through),  and that’s it.  The end.  I have read books where the author can’t figure out how to end the book, so they rush it, trying to tie up every loose plot thread, and making a ton of unreadable nonsense in the process.  I have read books where the author doesn’t even make the most basic of efforts to tie up anything that has gone before.  Or the worse offender, at least in my mind, the author that takes everything that they had achieved in the story so far and destroys it completely with a ending so forced, so mind-blowingly awful that you can’t believe it’s the same book you just spent all that time reading.  I have even read books where the author put good characters through an intricately planned mystery only to skip out on the denouement or “aha” moment. They might have a secondary character relate the “aha” moment, such a cop out.  Or have a character wake up having “missed out” on all the ruckus.  Well, that leaves the reader missing out too.  Talk about feeling disgruntled and deeply unsatisfied!  Check, please !  We won’t be coming back to that restaurant (or author) anytime soon.

Remember those old movies like Millennium? As the credits roll over the sight of people walking through a portal to a new planet, the letters pop up The End or is it the Beginning?  So cheesy yet some of the books I have read lately make me miss movies like that one.  At least they were trying for something different when ending their story.  I appreciated that even if I laughed about it later.   But even they couldn’t leave well enough alone when it came to the end of the movie.

What is it about writing endings that is so difficult? Most people seem to put all their thoughts and energy into starting their novels and then seem to run out of steam by the time they get to the end.  A few authors have told me that they know where their story is going to end before they write the book.  Others have just the opposite approach, letting the story flow as it wants, uncharted and unknowing.  Neither way guarantees the reader an accomplished ending.   I can’t figure out why I am reading so many bad ones lately.  Has the rise of the eBook let too many authors through the gates that might not otherwise been published? Ah, a rant for another time.

I did run across several websites all bemoaning the same problem in writing endings.  Some of the articles are terrific, laying out pointers on how to write an ending, while some are hysterically unhelpful (kind of like writing an ending).  One Wikihow page includes pictures, like a man with a frowny face, who obviously can’t figure out how to end his story.  Clearly they think pictures will show a writer the way.  Like a sign that stating “The End – This Way” and an arrow beside it.  Oh,  if only it were that simple.

So from me and Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn to you, a few pointers :

  • Don’t cheat and suddenly have everything work out fine. This is lazy and the reader isn’t fooled. For example “And Jesus lived happily ever after”
  • You can surprise the reader but you must also satisfy them. There should be more than one possible ending to a book, so the reader doesn’t just give up as they know what will happen. It’s worth foreshadowing this ending with hints in the rest of the book though so that they are surprised but it is not entirely out of the blue.
  • Some genres have an expected ending that you can’t mess with. If your genre is romance, they have to get together at the end. There’s no getting around this unless you want to change genres! You also need to keep some characters alive if you have a series of books planned.

And from me, always keep in mind the story you started out with at the beginning should still be with you at the end.  Pull it all together in one final, emotionally satisfying product that will keep the readers returning time and again to your craft.   There are reasons you see the same author and same book titles on list after list.  It is because they leave a reader totally satisfied while still wanting more.  More of the story, more of the characters, and more from that author.

So, authors of stories with non-existent or bad endings, I am imploring you.  Find some crit partners, a great editor, take some writing classes, do what you gotta do to hone your writing skills and deliver to us, your readers, a story with all its elements accounted for.  Great strong beginning? Check.  Strong middle that moves your plot forward with great characters and storyline? Check. A strong ending that ties up in a satisfactory and sometimes surprising manner all the plot threads your storyline came with? Check.   Missing a check mark or two? Go back and start over again until someone else, not just you, are happy with the story you have written.

I don’t think this mini rant will in anyway stop the flood of incomplete or poorly  resolved stories.  Think of this as one finger (select one) plugging a hole in a dike that resembles Swiss cheese.  But at least I feel better, hoping to pave the way to better stories one rant at a time.

How do you feel about the books you have been reading?  How many have ended with you thinking, “wait, that was the end?”  Write Scattered Thoughts and tell me your pet peeves about the stories you have read lately.  Help put an end to the ends that leave us gnashing our teeth and pulling out our hair!  I want an ending to leave me cheering, or crying, or satisfied that I spent that time reading that book.  All readers do.  So go, find the path to the perfect The End.  It’s out there, somewhere.  Help it find its way home.  The End.  Or is it the beginning?  Only time and more books will tell.

– Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words

Links:

The Creative Penn, How To Write The Ending of Your Novel by Joanna Penn

How to Write the End of a Novel by. C. Patrick Schulze

How to Write an End of a Novel: 6 Steps (with Pictures) – wikiHow

When It Comes to Understanding People or Characters Is Music the Key? Thoughts on Novels and Playlists

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When you are reading a story and the characters within are people you can relate to or commiserate with, do you ever stop to wonder why these fictional people seem so authentic?  How has the author made them so real to you that you cry over their pain and  or laugh in shared joy when they do? For me an author accomplishes this goal by giving their creations the same mental and emotional makeup (for the most part) that every person is born with. The fictional characters must come complete with a backstory as well as the same emotions, thoughts and behavior that we would be able to relate to as well as understand.  If they lose someone or fall in love with someone, it should be in a manner that we not only recognize and empathize with. Another way is with descriptions of  the items the character keeps around them.  It might be many things such as clothing, cars or even pets but I think music is a huge component. Music is a shortcut to helping a reader understand who this character is in much the same manner as it would when looking through a collection of CD’s of someone we just met.

There you are with someone new in your life and you are at their place for the first time. You are checking them out either as a potential friend or romantic partner.  Do you remember what the first, ok second thing, you looked at?  Either surreptitiously or blatantly?  For most people, it’s their music (and then maybe their movies).  Maybe you take a sneak peak and flip through their albums as they are pouring some wine,  or scope out their cassettes (don’t give me that look) when they are warming up the fondue? Who hasn’t quickly perused someone’s CDs on the sly?  Yep, done all those and more.  Perhaps you casually ask if you can put some music on while the appetizers/dinner/breakfast (you slut!) is being prepared and ask where they keep their music?  Another popular and subtle approach.

It didn’t matter what method you employed, the goal was the same.  Checking out the songs they liked and the bands they followed to see if you meshed with each others tastes. It was and remains an instant glimpse into what makes a person tick.  And god forbid you find that Tiny Tim album, Chumbawumba, or more recently Whip My Hair by Willow Smith.  Because, once found, never forgotten.  And that chance of romance? Dead and gone.  Because while you might forgive a friend’s lapse in judgement, the same can’t be said when first contemplating a romp in bed with someone who has questionable taste in music, for god’s sake. I mean what other secrets are they hiding? Clown shoes?

It was so much easier in the past to excuse that odd Tiny Bubbles cassette or Leonard Nimoy’s sings Bilbo Baggins album.  They could always say a past roommate or old boyfriend/girlfriend left it when they moved out or even the dreaded “it was given to me as a gift” workhorse.  There was always the possibility that it might be true and you could, maybe, give them the benefit of the doubt until later.  Didn’t matter whether it was albums, 8 tracks, cassettes or CD’s, those excuses were valid.  These days how do you explain away the fact they exist on your iPod or MP3 player? Hmmm, yeah, that’s what I thought. Can’t.

So I was thrilled/intrigued to find some of the books I was reading this year had playlists attached to them.  And the more I investigated and the more I listened to the songs and bands the authors included, the brighter the wattage of the light bulb that clicked on above my head.  What a wonderful (and underused) avenue to flesh out your characters, to give them a human dimension or layer that would otherwise be missing!

One of your characters is lost in memory as he listens to a Bach Violin Sonata 2 in A minor and it brings him to tears (Shira Anthony’s Blue Notes).  How much richer is that scene if the music is available to the reader to listen to as the scene unfolds?  Then the meaning behind the described emotions jumps into clarity, and truly you are literally in tune with the person on the page.  Or maybe, if you are like me, when I started reading  Andrea Speed’s Infected series, I was clueless as to who These Arms Are Snakes were and what they sounded like.  How could I possibly get a grip on an important part of Roan’s internal makeup if I don’t understand his music? And boy is his music a definitive facet of who he is.  The chance of Hootie and the Blowfish on his iPod? Zero. Because that is not Roan. Whether Roan was listening to Ritualz’ Baba Vanga or The Twilight Sad’s A Million Ignorants, if I know the songs, the bands and the lyrics, then I can access more of the character’s thoughts and headspace, in this case Roan’s. Both Andrea Speed and Shira Anthony produce playlists for their novels, but so does Katey Hawthorne (Riot Boy, By The River among others) and Josh Lanyon (Fair Game, etc) to name a few.

To be sappy about it, music is the rhythm of our lives. We access important memories by it, people and places are associated with songs as are significant milestones in our lives. Feeling sad? We have go to songs for that.  Want to dance about the kitchen as you bake brownies or making a roadtrip to the beach?  We have songs for that too.  They leap to mind with all the familiarity of old friends and lovers, and yes, we have music we associate with them as well.  I know just reading this has brought some of yours out before you realized it. So why not the same for the characters they write about in stories we love to read?  In Sarah Black’s latest story The Legend of the Apache Kid, Johnny asks Raine McGrath if  “You know anybody who sings like a bird with broken wings?”  And Raine replies “Gram Parsons….You can hear his heart weeping in his voice.” Then you listen to Gram Parsons’ singing Wild Horses and you understand, not just the reference but also the men in the story (and author) who appreciates it.

And that brings me to my final point about music, playlists and characters, the authors and their appreciation of the music they use to enrich their characters.  The authors I have referenced here all have a deep connectivity to the music in their stories that reaches beyond their characters.  While I don’t know most of these authors personally, I can tell you that Shira Anthony comes from a musical family and background as a opera singer from reading her blog and author notes.  Andrea Speed often tweets the bands she is listening to with links so we can hear the new indie group that has snared her attention. Music is all over Josh Lanyon’s website and Katey Hawthorne sent me a CD of the music that snarled like a sentient ribbon through Riot Boy.  And Sarah Black? Well, just read a paragraph or two and you can feel the love of old cowboys, the dry heat of the American Southwest and the refrains of old country songs to be heard from pickups as they head down the highway.  And without ever having met them, I can tell you how central to their lives is the music that sings to them and through their stories, to us as well.

All of us have a soundtrack of our lives, a list that is perpetually being added to.  From the earliest of childhood lullabies to a song we may have listened to and connected with as late as five minutes ago.  So why not have your characters have the same, feel the same way as we do about our music?  How much more relatable or realistic is Roan, or Johnny or Jules when we can hear the music that accompanies their actions and thoughts?  How much easier is it to empathize with them if we can understand their songs? To me it’s the difference between Technicolor and watercolor.  There is a rhythm, a song to everything we do and are.  The crucial beat of our hearts or the frivolous flip flopping of sandals hitting the sidewalk, that’s us. So let us hear the soundtracks of the characters we love and love to read about.  We are richer for sharing their music and they are more memorable for having it.

Do you have favorite novels and characters who have music associated with them?   Drop me a comment, or link.  I am compiling a list and am sure I am missing authors and titles.

To listen to some of my favorite playlists by authors, see below:

Shira Anthony’s website.  Look under books extras for the playlists for each novel (and Youtubes links)

Andrea Speed’s Playlists for all of her novels, not just Infected series.

Andrea Speed Infected:Lesser Evils

Katey Hawthorne’s Superpowered Love website. Link for By The River playlist.

Josh Lanyon’s Fair Game  playlist,  Dead Run playlist