Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fixing the End Point

So, maybe this is one of those Pantser-versus-Plotter* dilemmas, but some of us were talking on twitter recently about how to wrestle a recalcitrant ending onto the page. There were two side-by-side discussions unfolding in my stream simultaneously. One involved an author who had written the ending but thought it was flat and maybe a little to overcrowded with extra plot threads. The other involved an author who had brainstormed a dozen climax scenes and hated them all. She had no idea how to end her book.

I know both of these writers pretty well. In fact, I've edited both of them, so I have a strong sense of how their work is put together. I could be wrong, but my sense is that one of them is very controlled about her plotting methods, and the other prefers a more "discovery draft" type approach. Either method is fine, of course. The process is never as important as the final product -- in fact, the process serves the final product.

In any case, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at some of the strategies we batted around. I think these are probably useful for either plotters or pantsers.The thing that struck me about this situation is that no matter the method you employ, you can still run into the same kinds of problems with the endings.

When I'm editing a book, the first thing I do is read it straight through to get a sense of the story elements. I might pause to mark up a few details or make some notes along the way, but my goal for this first reading is to grasp all the large-scale and mid-scale elements as quickly as possible. Almost the first thing I do after reading the last page is return to the first chapter. I read the opening and ending together like this so that I can be sure the ends match. Ordinarily, they do. If the book opens with a dead  body, it ends with the arrest of the murderer. If it opens with a man and a woman seeing each other as potential romantic partners, it ends with them committing to each other. These kinds of big story questions -- Who done it? Are you the one for me? -- provide the large-scale structure for most books.

It sometimes happens that they don't. It sometimes happens that the initial problem in the first chapter has no impact on the outcome of the book. If this is the case, I have to figure out why. Did the plot get off-track? Or did the author use a false opening of some kind to get the plot moving before the real conflict could be established? Which piece better matches the middle of the book, the beginning or the end? Asking questions like these can often help pinpoint structural plot issues and identify possible solutions.

After I do this particular analysis, I think about what actually happens in the end scenes (the crisis and denouement scenes). Which details were surprising and which were expected? Some mix of both is usually best. That is, we might not know who is the murderer until he's revealed (surprise), but we can be darn sure he'll be revealed (expected). We might know that the hero and heroine will end up together (expected), but we don't know how (surprise). In other words, the innovative ending innovates in particular ways, within the established parameters of the type of story and the plot as it unfolds up until the end.

Then I think about all the loose threads that need to be tied up. Can any of them be tied before the denouement? Or before the crisis? A lot of times, authors try to withhold all of the answers until the very end, but this can lead to a crammed-text feeling that might interfere with the reader's enjoyment of the ending. For example, if your historical romance has an external plot about pirates and an external subplot about spies, you might be tempted to finish those plot lines during the same scene in which the hero and heroine demonstrate their commitment to each other. This might work. Or it might be better to wrap up the externals first (subplot, then main external plot) and let the internals have their own moment on the page. How do you know which would work better? It really all comes down to impact on the reader. If the externals and internals each have a strong enough impact to stand alone, it might be better to separate them. Let the hero swash and buckle and perform heroic feats, and then, after they've returned to safety, let him declare his love for the heroine. Especially if that declaration is going to be a powerful moment.

A similar type of crammed ending appears in mystery plots when the heroic sleuth gathers all the suspects in one location and dazzles them all by analyzing the clues and revealing the murderer. Every suspect represents a type of subplot, you could argue, that is being resolved in a single scene. In this case, of course, you don't want to eliminate all of the red herrings before the final scene. You want to keep some suspense about the ultimate outcome. But a clever writer will still analyze each of those bits closely and think about which can be resolved in advance. Focusing on some of the lesser suspects between the midpoint and the climax can actually help keep tension high in the rising action, as long as each eliminated suspect leaves the reader in doubt of the outcome.

So, if the ending is crammed, I try to think of ways to reel it out so that smaller threads can be tied down earlier in a way that will help the rising action. But sometimes, a final scene will have the right combination of characters taking the right combination of actions, and it will still feel flat. In that case, my knee-jerk reaction is to change the setting.

Does this seem like an odd solution? Remember our formula for a scene. A scene is:
  • Characters
  • In meaningful motion
  • Against a background
If you've got the right characters and the right actions, then this leaves the setting. In my opinion, this is the most overlooked aspect of fiction writing. It's not that we don't create good settings. We do. But then we use the same settings over and over again. Or we fail to incorporate setting details in ways that affect the characters and action. Or we always use the expected settings -- the bedroom for a sex scene, a coffee shop for a meeting between friends, and so on. Sometimes, if a scene feels flat, the best thing to do is change the setting and force a different backdrop into place. This almost always has an effect on the way the action unfolds and the way the scene reads. I mean, what happens if you take that sex scene out of the bedroom and place it on a balcony? Or under a moonlit waterfall? Or in the backseat of a car on the side of a busy highway? You instantly "see" a different scene, and it might be less flat.

(We brainstormed setting possibilities as an exercise for NaNo a couple of years ago. We also looked at some ways to use those setting lists to generate better scenes. Take a look at those posts for ideas about ways to leverage settings.)

So these are sort of the global things I examine in each book: matching the ends, testing the resolution of various threads, and setting. Specific books might also require other kinds of analysis, but these are the things I tend to do with each book.


*In case you're not familiar with these terms,
Plotter = someone who plans the book in advance, often with scene charts, indexing systems, and other tools.
Pantser = someone who "discovers" the story by writing it, usually in several drafts, and usually generating many discarded scenes along the way.

1 comment:

green_knight said...

Mary Gentle once gave me the tip that in order to find the ending you need to work out which question you ask in the beginning of the book. In genre Romance or Mystery that's pretty obvious, in speculative or literary fiction there are many more possible endings, to finding the right one can be harder, particularly when a lot of words are involved. (Mary Gentle herself provides the ultimate measurement of long fiction: the Ash, or 500.000 words.)

The answer wasn't so much in the plot as in the underlying themes - I started with a character isolated, doubting himself, wondering whether he would face a war. I ended it with him surrounded by friends, knowing his strengths and weaknesses, and having a fairly good idea about the challenges that lay ahead. And I could stop there.

(FWIW, I don't plan ahead at all, but I don't do much in the way of exploratory drafts, either - second draft is a sharpening draft, but much to my surprise, my plots make sense in the end.)