Tag Archives: writing tips

And They All Lived Happily Ever After: The Art of a Good Ending

There’s nothing quite like a good ending. It can be one of the most satisfying parts of a story, but it’s also one of the most difficult things to get right. It can make or break a story. I’ve lost count of the amount of books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen where I’ve come away thinking ‘it was all fine, up until the ending’.

So how do you get it right?

giphy shrug house
I mean, I could just end this blog post here. (image: giphy.com)

First, I think it’s important to consider the kind of things people expect from an ending. There’s a handful of things that keep popping up regardless of the type of story they’re in: the resolution of character arcs, the final confrontation, the big reveal. They don’t always have to be big, world-changing things, but the events of the story have to come to a head in some way. A good ending will have been building up naturally through the course of the story, thereby building anticipation for the climax throughout the plot. This can be obvious – for example, everybody knew that the Harry Potter series would end with Harry fighting Voldemort – or more subtle, like in murder mysteries where the clues are spread throughout the story but only brought together at the end.

Of course, some types of stories lend themselves to certain kinds of endings. This largely comes down to genre or structure. In a romance story, for example, people will expect the couple to get together at the end, whereas in a murder mystery, people will expect the case to be solved. Equally, if you use any kind of numerical structuring device to tell your story – for example, getting three wishes, spending seven years at a magical boarding school, or having to complete a task in a certain time limit – then people are going to expect the story to end when the last wish is made, or in the final five minutes of your deadline.

giphy typing
Just like writing my essays. (image: giphy.com)

Having these kinds of expectations can be really helpful as a writer. It’s a good framework to build your story around, and can help with both the pacing and plotting of the story as a whole as well as the ending. If your story ends with the couple getting together, then that dictates the shape of the rest of your story – as readers, we have to see them reach that point. A ‘ticking clock’ is also a really useful structural device: as well as providing a race-against-time ending, it also helps you build tension throughout the whole story. These two types of expectations tend to merge in crime novels. The conventions of the genre dictate that the murderer must be revealed at the end, and this affects the structure of the book. A good crime author will have planted the clues as to who the real murderer is throughout the book, but will have mixed them in with so many red herrings that the reveal is still a surprise.

It goes without saying that this is hella difficult.

Having these kinds of expectations about the way a story is going to end is something of a double-edged sword. It makes it easier for the writer to know where their story needs to go in order to reach that point, but readers are also aware of those expectations. It’s extremely hard to hit all the points you need without making a story seem formulaic. In some genres, readers are so aware of the conventions that it affects the way they view the story. The most obvious example of this is in murder-mystery novels. The first law of mystery novels is that it’s never the official suspect. Even if you build a strong case for that character being the murderer as a writer, the reader will discount them automatically because everyone is so aware of the genre.

butler
I did a blog post about this and everything. (image: rainybayart.com)

Of course, this can lead to a lot of fun too. Subverting readers’ expectations can be really fun, both as a writer and a reader. But it’s extremely difficult to pull this off and still have a satisfying ending. If you wrote a murder mystery where the murderer was never caught or discovered by anyone, you’d have a very tough time making sure that this was presented in a way that left the reader feeling satisfied when they turned the final page. The proof is in the pudding – if you can pull it off, it’ll work, but if you can’t, then you’re going to have some really irritated readers on your hands.

But what do you do when you’re writing something that doesn’t have an easy ending? While there are some stories that lend themselves to ending in a certain way, there are plenty of others that don’t. Your protagonist might have defeated their nemesis and completed their quest, but is that really the end of their story? Where do you draw the line?

For me, it’s just as important for a writer to know when to end a story as to know how to end a story. There’s been a real case of sequel-itis in the stories we tell each other lately, and it’s really driving me nuts. You’ll read a book or watch a movie with a really satisfying ending, and six months later a sequel is announced.

giphy restraint
I am trying so hard not to throw some very specific shade. (image: giphy.com)

I get the appeal of this from an authorial standpoint, but I have to say I can’t really think many times where this has actually worked. If an author has put a lot of time and effort into creating a world that they really love, of course they’d want to come back to it. A lot of writers will leave ‘back doors’ into their work – little plot threads that haven’t quite been resolved, just in case they want to come back to them in a fresh book. Sometimes, this can work really well, but it’s sad to say that most of the time it doesn’t. Continuing a story after you’ve properly written an ending is difficult, and sometimes it can undermine what has already gone before. If you story originally ended with your characters saving the world, anything they do after that is going to seem like a bit of an anti-climax. If you make them save the world again, it cheapens their efforts in the original story – an apocalypse should only come around the once if you want it to retain its dramatic effect. It can be really difficult to set something aside, but it’s far better to do that and write a really good ending than to just keep going until people lose interest.

Endings are hard. They’re something that a writer needs to consider in multiple different ways. Long before you pick up your pen, you should know how the story is going to end. You should also consider how people are going to expect the story to end, and decide whether you want to play up to those expectations or not. But the most important thing is that once you’ve decided on your ending, stick to it. Commit. A good ending will be building up all the way through a story, and carrying on after it’s finished will only cheapen it. It’s far better to go out with a bang than a whimper.

giphy explosion
Heh heh heh. (image: giphy.com)

And that’s it for 2018! No more blog posts until the New Year. I’ll be back in January with a bunch more opinions – see you then!

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November is Coming: How to Survive NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us. Forget Halloween, this is what autumn is really all about: finding an excuse to sit indoors under layers and layers of blankets.

giphy blanket
I cannot create unless I am cosy. (image: giphy.com)

But let’s be real. NaNoWriMo can be a pretty daunting task. The goal is to write a fifty-thousand word novel in thirty days. Fifty thousand. That totals out at roughly one thousand six hundred words per day, and the worst part is that you’ve got to make sure that they’re actually good rather than just stringing lists of adjectives together. It’s pretty intimidating, especially if you know one of those people who insists on comparing word counts.

Fortunately for you guys, I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times before and have picked up a few tips that might make things easier:

 

  1. Plan beforehand, and only beforehand

Trying to write roughly 1,600 words a day is going to be difficult. It’s a lot of words to get down in one go, particularly if you’ve only got one time window to do it in. But if you don’t know what you’re going to write it’s going to be twice as hard to actually get it on paper because you’ll be working out what you want to say as well as how you want to say it.

This is where your plan comes in. I’d recommend starting this a week or so before NaNoWriMo, assuming you’ve already had the vague idea of what you want your story to be about. Start plotting things out in more detail, including character and setting. If you do it every day, this can also help you get into the rhythm of regular writing. But when you start writing, stop planning. It’s easy to wind up with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the plot of your novel and no actual text, so don’t rely on this too much.

 

  1. Start your research in October

November is for writing. If you’re writing something which is going to require any kind of research, start it a couple of weeks before you’re going to write. Read as much as you can and get comfortable with the details before you launch into your novel. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been plodding along with a paragraph when suddenly, I’ll go “Wait, when were pyjamas invented?” and it’s off down the rabbit hole I go. If you’re writing anything historical, I’d recommend starting even earlier, but this blog post is going up with less than two weeks until November so NEVER MIND YOU’LL BE FINE.

 

  1. Writing nine to five

WHAT A WAY TO MAKE A LIVIN’

No, seriously. It’d be great. But unfortunately it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have all that time just for writing. Just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean the world will stop and wait for you to finish it. Realistically, you’re going to have to look at your schedule and try and work out when you’re actually going to have time to write. I’d recommend trying to find an hour each day, either in one go or in short chunks. Be a little flexible – if weekends are always really busy for you, try and find some time on weekday evenings. If you commute on public transport, consider taking a notebook with you and working there. See what works for you!

 

  1. Just do it

When it comes to November the first, just start. There’s nothing more intimidating for a writer than a blank page. It can take hours to come up with a first line (mainly due to all those writing advice blogs which tell you to make sure you have a good first line). But you don’t have time to dither – you’ve got a fifty-thousand-word mountain to climb. Just start, and worry about whether it’s any good later. That’s what the second draft is for.

 

  1. Get on with it

Sometimes, inspiration does strike. Sometimes your synapses are flashing, your neurons are firing and an idea comes into your head like a beautiful sunrise. You seize your pen, your notebook, your laptop and don’t look up for hours – for you, dear author, are inspired.

Ninety percent of the time, that won’t happen.

There are going to be days when you just don’t wanna. You’ll be tired. You’ll get home late. You’ll have a bad day and want to spend your writing time curled around a hot water bottle in front of the telly. But when you’re writing to targets and deadlines, sometimes you’re just going to have to make yourself do it. You have to –

– yes, exactly.

 

  1. Just keep swimming

Resist the temptation to go back and rewrite what you’ve already done. Focus instead on progressing through the narrative and get your key plot points down. This is where your plan can really come in handy (although hopefully having a plan will have helped you thrash out any potential plot holes). If you’re having some doubts about something you’ve already written, make a notes section in your plan and add them to that. That way you’ve kept a record of your ideas and you can keep going without needing to slow down. You can always go back and redraft when NaNoWriMo is over.

 

  1. Keep an eye on your daily totals, but don’t stick to them

There are special NaNoWriMo calendars you can find where the ideal word count for each day is written on them. They measure out the month in chunks of 1,667 words and some people find them really helpful.

nanowrimo_calendar_by_reapthebeauty-d31npzj
Such as this one. (image: deviantart.com)

Personally, I don’t. Some days are going to be better than others, and some days I’m going to come home too tired to do a sentence, let alone like, 160 of them. On those days I write what I can and try and make up the total another day, and I find that works much better than keeping to very strict limits.

 

  1. Details, details

Don’t be afraid to fudge some of the finer points to avoid getting bogged down. Obviously the really important details (i.e., the plot) should be in your plan, but it’s perfectly fine to put in placeholder names for minor characters and places. Just remember to replace these with real names when you’re done and you’ll be fine.

 

  1. More like guidelines

Some people are real sticklers for the rules of NaNoWriMo. I’m not. I once extended my NaNoWriMo project until the New Year because November isn’t over UNTIL I SAY IT’S OVER. I always found I got a lot less stressed about NaNoWriMo when I didn’t take it quite as seriously and that way, it was easier to balance writing with everything else going on in my life.

 

  1. It’s not for everyone

I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple of times now and on balance, I’ve decided it’s not for me. I could do it fairly easily when I was a student, but that was because I was on a course where I only had ten hours of class time per week.

giphy nap
It was blissful. (Image: giphy.com)

Now I have a full-time job, I find it way too stressful. NaNoWriMo has taught me a lot about the discipline required to finish a novel, and writing every day has helped me get into some really good habits, but I find the obsession with word counts kind of counter-productive. The structure was really helpful, but now that I’ve taken that framework and made it work for me I don’t find the old model quite so useful any more. I learned a lot, but it stopped being something I did every year a long time ago.

 

 

And that’s it! My advice for surviving NaNoWriMo. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful. It’s very easy to get swept up in NaNo Fever – it can be really fun, and it taught me some good writing habits which I still use. But I don’t think anyone should take it too seriously. It’s a good way to get into writing longer projects, but it doesn’t have to be the only way you write.