Friday, July 24, 2009

Ending after the climax

Teresa asks:
Did the ending come too soon or not fast enough after the climax? I know the writer has a certain latitude before we give the reader their catharsis, but I beginning to think it's a more of a feeling than a technique.

If Alicia or Theresa have any hints, I'd love to hear it!

Well, it all depends on the individual story, of course. But in general, yes, most novels tend to end better with a resolution or coda scene rather than smack after the climax.

Now a lot depends on what your story conflicts are. If it's a fast-paced, entirely plot-driven story, and you've got the murder solved or the quest fulfilled in the climax scene, the reader might not care to have the story drag on. "We're done! Leave me alone already!" is not the last thought you want the reader to have.

Also beware of the perpetual ending, where you just drag on and on after the climax, resolving one subplot, and then another. One scene after the climax is usually sufficient. Truth is, most or all subplots should be resolved in the rush towards the climax. (Watch Casablanca and see how the 6 or 8 subplots are resolved on the way to the romantic/external climax, leaving only the internal conflict-- Rick's alienation-- to be solved in the short coda after the climax.)

There has come a trend in Hollywood called "You always kill the dragon twice." That is, there's a false climax where the hero/ine THINKS the dragon (or external conflict) is resolved, but noooooooo. Here it comes again! Right over that building! Miraculously alive! Must slay it again!

It's a cheap shot of adrenaline, and less and less effective now that we watch the first kill and think cynically, "The dragon's not really dead." If you must do this, make the two kill scenes dissimilar in several important ways, like use a different setting and a different method the second time.

Okay. Resolution scene. Don't think, "What threads have I not knotted up?" Think instead of the ending as resolving the major conflicts. So the climax usually resolves whatever you've set up as the external conflict-- that's what the climax is for. She solves the murder, or he wins the gold medal, or they save the king's son. Ta-da! What's left? Well, presumably, if this is a character-driven story, the protagonist has an internal journey to complete (to forgive Dad, to show trust in the future, to abandon materialism, whatever). THAT is usually a great, satisfying way to end a book, to show that the protagonist is changed by the events of the book and does in fact complete the journey. (Sometimes this is also a great place to resolve any remaining romantic or interactional conflict-- but remember, often what is holding him back from really loving is that internal conflict, so determine which has to be resolved first.)

If you have more than one scene after the climax, think about combining the events into one resolution scene. If he needs to make up with his sister AND say a final goodbye to his late father AND decide to move back to the hometown, well, how about he goes to Dad's cemetery, and there by Dad's grave, he says goodbye, and turns to leave, and there is his sister, and they kiss and hug, and she offers to cook him dinner before he leaves town, and he says, oh, I'm not leaving-- can I bunk on your couch for a few days till I find a house of my own?

End of story. Smiles and sighs all round.

(And I am NOT a fan of the "we're having a baby!" epilogue so popular in romances. If, I think, the reader isn't convinced by the story that they're going to be happy together, an epilogue of them beaming at each other over her belly won't help. But I realize I'm in the minority on this... just please don't make it TOO treacly. Make it reflect who they are as a couple. If they've wisecracked like Grant and Russell for 300 pages, they're not going to turn into simpering fools in the last scene, are they?)



Anonymous said...

OMG! That loud noise you just heard was a squeal all the way from NC!

Thank you, Alicia, so very much for tackling that thorny subject. You gave me some great ideas and I'm going to sit down and give it a good once over. Mine is character driven, so you really helped me a lot with your advice.

One day when I'm a really truly published author, I want to try what Cormac McCarthy pulled off with No Country for Old Men. That novel was a blast for me in terms of technique, especially with his climax and ending.

I'm not that good, yet, but I do have two people finding their way back to one another. And no, they're not going to have a baby at the end! ;-)

Thanks again!

Wes said...

My WIP in historical fiction has my protagonist completing his journey only to be totally crushed in the last four pages. Then in two short paragraphs he rides into the sunset, as it were. My critique group had a fit. They wanted him to kill someone or beat up someone, or do something demonstrative. I want to portray that sometimes life sucks. What do you think of this type of ending: a bitter climax and a quick exit?

Jami Gold said...


Yeah, yeah, I know your mention of endings going on and on is a reference to my comment that I have 3 short scenes after my external and internal conflicts climaxes. :)

So, what do you suggest when I have to do extensive explanation for how things can move forward for the character to make it believable to the reader. In my defense, I will say that I have it all worked out in scenes (not just narrative). But if you've spent the whole story saying ABC won't work and then you have the character following that path anyway, you have to give the reader some explanation. Also, my character is dealing with more internal conflict than she's even consciously aware of, so I've needed to include things to show that conflict to the reader because she can't just come right out and say it. These scenes are short, and they could probably use more trimming, but I can't imagine being able to cut them completely.

Any help for the stuck writer?
Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Well, if you have three short scenes, they probably aren't much more than a long scene. Let's say you have three important characters, and they scatter-- you kind of have to have 3 scenes to deal with them.

If they can all take place at the same time and place, then I'd suggest trying that. But if you're keeping the whole shebang to 10 pages or so, you probably won't exhaust the reader.

But if you've spent the whole book saying ABC can't work, a scene at the end that says it can is going to frustrate a lot of people. I will bet that you actually have seeded in little suggestions that maybe ABC can work, and so it's actually satisfying to have that final scene as it closes that.

What is annoying is the ending I see in some legal thrillers (Turow, Grisham), where there's a sort of upbeat "honorable men can do good things with the law," and then there's some final cynical scene where the honorable man (the hero) just suddenly does something rotten and shows that in fact, the law is unjust and there is no justice and no such thing as an honorable man, ha-ha, fooled you.

That really annoys me.

Wes, why does he exit? What's the alternative? If the alternative is, say, selling out, or dying, or having to make nice to his ex's new husband, the exit might seem like an affirmative act. I think the big question is-- what is he doing that in lieu of (that is one ugly sentence (g))? If the bitter climax leaves him in a position that is unbearable, I think the reader will be with him on the exit.

I always think of how Shane ends-- would he be Shane if he didn't walk away? If he stayed and became the mayor or whatever? No-- he wouldn't be Shane. So it's good that Shane leaves (even if it's to die).

Jami Gold said...


Thanks! Yes, there's a reason they can't be combined (they're spread over 2 1/2 months and certain things have to happen to each of the characters involved before they can come together for the final scene). Yes, they are short (that's why I call them "epilogue-ish"). And, no, my ABC really can happen is definitely not cynical (quite the opposite, it makes grown men cry). :) It's the resolution to the story goal, so of course the reader's been hoping for a way that it could work the whole time. I just need to give the details of how everything managed to work out so that it doesn't feel like a cheat.

So, that kind of confirms my gut feel, they need trimming - yes - but cutting - no.

Thanks! I really, really appreciate your take on the matter!
Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

You say:

If they've wisecracked like Grant and Russell for 300 pages, they're not going to turn into simpering fools in the last scene, are they?)

When this happens it drives me nuts!

Wes said...

Thanks. I'm going to keep it the way it is. After all GWTW was left with no resolution when Rhett walked out on Scarlet. (Shane was written by my model, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.)

Kincaid, my MC, is in an intolerable position by his standards. He is shamed in front of his men by Maria dumping him and all that he's worked for is no longer important since she is gone. Book two starts with him licking his wounds, then he comes back for a bigger journey with different conflicts, but he is always tormented by Maria.

Wes said...

BTW, Maria was a fun character to write since she was such a tart.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, and if there's going to be another book or two, you can't end book 1 on a real close-the-book resolution! Got to leave something open for the next book.

em said...

Great post Alicia;)! I'm struggling trying to work out a shorter ending. I think I like my characters to much.

Wes said...

Right, Alicia. The last sentence is "He be back." spoken by Joe the black slave Kincaid freed. I'm about halfway thru book two and about half of New Mexico is out to get Kincaid and Joe, plus Joe's former owner.

Petronella said...

This is my first comment - I've finally gotten up the courage to post in this great Blog.

My problem is that I can't decide how to end my novel about the synths - synthetic organisms/people. My two synth characters, Jay and Nella, have been parted and I do want to bring them back together before the end of the story. Nella is expecting a baby and I can't make up my mind if she should give birth before the reunion or after.

Another complication is Nella thinks Jay is dead - she saw his body being used for target practice in a game at the Eternal Carnival - and she might not or will not accept that Jay is her Jay.

How do I make up my mind? I'm not the sort of writer who has an ending in mind and writes toward it. I begin at the beginning and the ending arises out of what happens during the story. Trouble is, the story is leading to more than one ending.

Sorry to be so long winded ;-)


Edittorrent said...

I like it that you are debating what sequence the events should be. That's something that preoccupies me too!

Why not think it out both ways? Maybe sketch out how each would play out, all the contingencies either way, and then decide which you want.

Think about what the birth means thematically and emotionally (the end of the story is where you want to bring the theme home). Birth is REBIRTH, a very important symbol of continuing life. But for a synth, it's also a sign that they are more than just synthetic, right?

So think about Jay returning-- they're reunited. If she's still pregnant then, he'll see right away that she has this proof of "real life". So how does that work for your theme and emotion?

But let's say he comes back AFTER the birth. (I'm assuming that she doesn't tell him ahead of time-- the pregnancy and birth is a surprise to him.) Then he can see her and not realize that she has changed (she's not pregnant). And then there'll be this amazing moment when she brings out the baby. How does that fit in with your sense of the story and theme?

And then Jay has to do or say something that makes it clear that he is HER Jay. What would that be? What would it take to convince her? I actually think that should happen AFTER the revelation about the baby.
Not sure that helps, but I do think this is something that lends itself to experimentation. :)

Jami Gold said...


Welcome to the blog. This is a very helpful and friendly group. :)

If I were in your place, I would imagine how the reunion scene would play out under each option. And then I'd ask myself - Which way did I like better? Which way did the characters like better? Which way felt more "true" to the story? Did one way match up better with your story goal, premise, or theme?

Be honest with yourself here and hopefully you'll see that one ending is better for the story than the other.
Hope this helps!
Jami G.

Jami Gold said...


We were thinking the same thoughts at the same time!

Yeah, what Alicia said. :)

Jami G.

Petronella said...

Strange, I'm sure I left a comment last night.

First of all, let me thank Alicia and Jami G. for the nice welcomes :-)

I have been trying out both endings and am leaning towards the one in which Jay and Nella are reunited before the baby is born. I want him to be there for the birth.

Okay, a bit about how synths communicate. They interact with each other in two ways: synths in a group will talk to each other much like we do, two synths will link with each other as well as talk. The link is physical through the hands and results in a literal sharing of the minds.

To let Nella know it is him all he has to do is link with her. But she won't let him. For him to force her to link would be the equivalent of rape - not a good thing for him to do.

So I have to work on a way to get her to trust him enough...

Hope this one will post.

Jami Gold said...


Interesting premise! Is there an intermediary that she trusts? Could he link with someone else first to vouch for him?

Good Luck!
Jami G.

Petronella said...

Hi Jamie,

Yes there is someone they are both in love with, Piper, and he would have linked with Jay as soon as they had a private moment. Piper would then link with Nella and verify the imposter - as Nella calls him - is truly Jay.

Thank you for the perfect solution!


Leona said...

Sorry to see green knight go :(

I have a question for everyone. What do you all think of the Lord of the Rings' endings? they all worked and tied up loose ends, but not sure they'd work today. (I'm LOTR geek)