Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Novel Ending

From time to time I like to feature professionals to share their experience and knowledge with us. Whether we're just beginning with our writing or are published, there is always the world's largest room--room for improvement.

My guest today is Beth Hill. She is a fabulous writer you may recall her Christmas Story, Christmas Cookies and Holiday Joy, December 23, 2009. Beth is also a gifted editor with the knack of working on a manuscript like a sculptor does on a block of fine marble. She takes good material and makes it better. The resulting piece of art is something to behold. We have been known to say, “Beth is a Goddess!” And since she works magic, sees the issues and solutions so clearly, she truly is one.

I invited her to visit with us Over Coffee to share some of her insights and practical wisdom with us. I’ll be running several of her articles in the coming months.

Today, her topic is endings and how to satisfy our readers.

As a writer, what do you owe your reader?

A fast read? A world of escape? Adventure or thrills or beauty he can’t experience at home?

Do you guarantee 300 flawless pages with characters who overcome odds or solve the mystery or promise to love forever?

Maybe your stories teach a lesson, open eyes, spark conversations over late-night coffees or breakfast-table cereal.

No matter where you take the reader, what you drag him through or under or around, you must see that he’s satisfied. Ensure that at the moment he reads the final page, he feels the satisfaction that yes, this story could only end this way.

When the hero limps home with a prize many times more valuable than the one he sought, when the amateur sleuth cracks the case that stumped professionals, when love succeeds where animosity failed, then the reader feels the world is back in balance. The ride is over. And it’s been a rewarding one.

You want him to feel his foray into your fictional world was worth every minute that he spent with your characters. That it was worth passing up every other endeavor he missed or put off in order to read your book.

But a satisfying ending is not easy to write. You must answer major plot questions without rehashing every event. You must remember to pull Aunt Edna off the roof where you stashed her when the terrorists took over her home. You must have given your readers something to love in both hero and heroine so that when you tell them they’ve fallen in love for life, the readers believe, can actually feel the love.

Your mysteries must not have been so simple they could be solved by page twenty. Your leads must face conflict and emerge victorious, even if they’re beat up by the time they reach the end.

Even if your story doesn’t include a happily-ever-after, is the end still inevitable? Did you plan each step so the reader feels that sense of certainty when he reads the final pages?

Authors don’t owe their readers a happy ending (unless it’s an expectation of the genre). They don’t owe annihilation of all evil. They don’t owe restoration for every injustice faced by their characters. But they do owe their readers satisfaction, a completion of the contract entered into when the reader laid out money and/or time to live in the writer’s world for a couple hours. It is justice, of a kind. Fair dealing between writer and reader. And if it’s done well, this completion of the author/reader contract, the writer has reason to hope the reader will both recommend the novel and look for more from the same author.

Authors owe their readers a good read. A satisfying ending is one way to ensure that good read. A reader will forgive; maybe forget, a saggy middle if the end sings. But there’s no remedy for a bad ending. The bad taste remains in the reader’s mouth with nothing good to wash it away, except maybe a different novel with a more satisfying ending. But what writer wants to send his readers from his worlds to those of another writer?

Please your readers. Pay them back for their investment in your book. And invite them into your next story by giving them the expectation that each novel will not only take them on an adventure, but also return them to their world fulfilled and rewarded for having lost themselves in yours.

Checklist for reader satisfaction:

  • Is the end inevitable? (Or would
    other endings make more sense?)

  • Was the end hard won? (Or did the hero fall
    into his triumphs?)

  • Does it make sense by every measure? (Or were
    vital steps glossed over?)

  • Is the end long enough—deep enough—for the length
    and breadth of the novel?
    (Or does a 400-page novel get a two-paragraph resolution?)

  • Are major plot points addressed without being
    (Or does the ending drag?)

  • Are burning questions answered? (Or
    are they relegated to nothing status by the end?)

To set up the satisfying ending, be sure:

  • The main character is someone the reader identifies

  • Conflict and tension are present and

  • Reader emotions are engaged.

  • Pace varies.

  • Action is seen, not only talked

  • The story is layered, so the reader must be
    satisfied by several outcomes on several levels.

  • The ending grows out of earlier

As a writer, what do you do specifically to insure your readers are satisfied with your stories?

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Beth Hill is a freelance fiction editor who loves to bring out the best in every manuscript. At the same time, she’s eager to share tips with writers so their subsequent novels will each be stronger than the last.

You can find Beth at A Novel Edit.

She edits full-length fiction manuscripts and also offers an edit of those important first thirty pages, especially helpful to those submitting to agent or publisher, or entering a contest.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Beth, welcome to Over Coffee. I'm so glad to have you here in your professional mode and I'm looking forward to featuring your next articles.

Help yourself to whatever takes your fancy, I even borrowed a fountain just for you to provide you with your favorite caffein fix. (you wouldn't believe the deposit I had to pay to McDonalds, lolol!

readwriteandedit said...

Sia, thanks for inviting me and thanks for the caffeine. Yum. You know the cold stuff is the best.

I look forward to hearing what the writers here at Over Coffee do to ensure satisfying endings in their books and what readers have to say about novel endings.

A Novel Edit

Judi Fennell said...

Beth is a free-lance editorial GENIUS!!!

I highly recommend her services (

And I think I'm going to name a goddess Beth in one of my books. :)

readwriteandedit said...

Thanks, Judi. Maybe "Beth" could be a pseudonym for your goddess whose real name is something full of music and charm. I've always thought the name homey and common. But I'd love to be immortalized as a fictional goddess!


Helen Ginger said...

Good tips and advice for all writers, even those who are multi-published. It never hurts to review the basics to keep your writing tight.


Kat Sheridan said...

Beth IS a goddess, says one who has benefitted from her services! And I love this article. When I was writing my first manuscript, I kept wondering how I would know it was time to end it. Not by page count, but by when the story itself was ready to end. Would my characters just keep misunderstanding, falling into traps, etc.? Then--all unexpected on a Sunday evening--I just knew it was time to write "The End". The conflicts had been resolved (I hoped), all the questions answered (but well enough?), and it was time for the happily ever after (right?). I wasn't sure about anything. Too abrupt? Too long? Did the H/H linger too long, like annoying guests refusing to go home? How would I know if it was right or not?

Lucky for me, Beth (and several other crit partners!) read it and signed off on it. Whew! But honestly, I think the ending was far harder to write than the beginning.

And I love all the tips you've offered here!

Sun Singer said...

A good reminder here that after all our storm and stress spent creating a fictional world, it's all about the readers.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Helen, I know you're an editor too, well said.

readwriteandedit said...

Helen, you're so right. A review of the basics every so often reminds me not to forget elements that should be considered.

Kat, you tell fabulous stories, with word choices that sing. I look forward to reading many, many of your books.

Sun, it is about the reader, isn't it? Yet I've heard that some writers write only to please themselves. That's okay if you're not intending to publish. If we want readers, we do have to give them more than a passing thought as we write. Yes, the story has to be true to itself. But writing with the reader in mind doesn't have to get in the way of that.


Sherilyn Winrose said...

Good points Beth.
I usually think about them as I'm going for the end. The end is an illusive animal. There always seems to be a dangling plot point to tie up.

On my latest book I had to completely rewrite the end. I was never happy with the original and if the author is unhappy, chances are very good the reader won't be happy either.

Working with you on Escape to Love was an absolute joy.

Dana Fredsti said...

Excellent post, Editing Goddess Beth!! You certainly hit on the things that, as a reader, I want from a book.

VA said...

I'm definitely on the side of ensuring that the reader is entertained and has found escape from reality for as long as they flip those pages. I like the contract analogy, and I think of the blurb as the writer's intention/contract with the reader.

Fine checklist Beth.

readwriteandedit said...

Sherilyn, I rewrote the end of one story too. Switched the POV for that final chapter. It just seemed to play stronger. And it matched the POV from the opening chapter, so the symmetry seemed appropriate.

Dana, I want them too. I really dislike getting to the end of what should be a good book, only to find myself disappointed for some reason.

VA, you're right about the blurb being the contract. As a reader, I've sometimes found that what I'm delivered is not what was promised. I don't like being disappointed with books that could--and should--be better.

Thanks, all, for dropping in.


Olivia Cunning said...

Excellent blog post, Beth, and how timely for me. I'm reworking the ending of my novel right now. Not because it didn't satisfy (I don't think), but because the tone didn't fit with the rest of the novel and my characters seemed to be "out of character" in the last scene (which is now six chapters earlier with a better lead in). I did like the way it tied up all the loose ends in the original version, but with some rearranging, I think I can still tie the ends up, but in a different order. Geez, I hope I can pull this thing off.

And Beth already has a secondary character named after her in one of my manuscripts. Not a goddess, but my heroine's best friend who's there for her through thick and thin. And one thick-headed man.

Other Lisa said...

Great interview!

Hmm, the first thing I do is, I try to write each sentence as best I can, and hope the rest follows...

readwriteandedit said...

Olivia, what is it about a thick-headed guy? As long as they catch on by the end of the book...

Lisa, your sentences are good, so you must be doing it right.