Nancy: And In the End…Elements of Strong Finales, Part I

I’ve been thinking a lot about story endings for the past few weeks as I near the end of the first draft of my Women’s Fiction WIP. But in truth, I’m always thinking about story endings – mine and others’ – from the first page or a manuscript or book, the first episode of a TV series, or the opening scene of a movie. (Cue PSA: This is your brain on writing.) But when I’m actually coming up on a final page of my own, I have an irresistible urge to procrastinate look at beginnings and endings of other stories.

This topic was an important part of the McDaniel course training of the eight ladies, and with good reason. The ending has so much weight to pull. Tie together disparate loose ends, but not too tightly. Illustrate the character arcs with subtlety and call-backs to other important moments in the story. Keep the story promise that made the reader/viewer join you for the story journey way back in the beginning when you were just saying hello. And then there’s the kicker that applies to every part of the story, but is magnified for the writer at the end of a WIP (often resulting in a frenzy of head-desking, second-guessing, and thinking that something else – anything else! – would be a better/smarter/easier use of one’s time than writing): there is no universally right ending to your story, only less wrong ones. For proof of this, you need only read online discussions and dissections of every movie and TV series ending that has occurred since the advent of the internet.

I’ve had many of my own moments of ‘Oh no, they didn’t!’ at the ends of books, movies, and TV series. Looking just at TV, I was annoyed and let-down by the end of How I Met Your Mother, and am wont to believe the story (rumor?) that the writers expected a much shorter run, and never really adapted their vision of the ending when the series ran for many more years than they’d expected. Don’t get me started on the Seinfeld ending. And – yes, I’m going to go there – I have mixed emotions about the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series ending, which missed a lot of obvious opportunities for emotional impact and story promise fulfillment, but that also got a lot right.

So over the past few weeks, as I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding my own ending preparing for the important task of writing a fabulous ending, I’ve revisited beginnings and endings of several books and TV series, and have broken them down into elements that set my little writer heart all a-twitter.

The Story Promise Revisited.  

When we here at 8LW studied story openings with our mentor Jennifer Crusie, we talked about the opening scene of our story being the invitation to the reader. Here’s the kind of party this is going to be, the type of people you’ll be meeting, the story questions you’ll be pondering should you choose to join me on this story journey. Done well, this will ensure that by the end of your story, the whole journey – including the final chapter – will resonate with those who enthusiastically accepted your invitation at the beginning. Lots of techniques can bring the story promise full circle at the end including revisiting settings/locations, calling back to minor issues and subplots that might not have been wrapped up in the big showdown scene, and even calling back to similar situations and language used in the opening scenes. When I rewatched the beginning and ending of the series Justified, I was blown away (again!) by just how well those writers did all those things.

Mirrors to Opening Scenes. This is often a pretty blatant reconstruction of where we started, but with changes. We might be in the same or similar places as we were in the beginning, but with a twist, a through-the-looking-glass feel. Events, types of characters, settings, and even language might show up again, completely recognizable, but turned on their heads. The Americans series finale, which just occurred a few months ago, did a great job of this.

Contrasts and Irreconcilable Differences with Opening Scenes. These endings often show not only character arcs and changes, but include a new world order, at least figuratively, although sometimes literally as well. This often occurs when such enormous, high-stakes events have happened that by story’s end, there’s no way to mirror early scene settings and events, because those places/people/happenings do not even exist anymore. Such was the case in the  Buffy finale, and this technique created a lot of the ending elements that I loved, as well as some I didn’t love quite so much.

As next Monday will be the first Monday of the month, I’ll be sharing my June accountability and July goals. But the week after that, I’ll be back with part 2 of my discussion about endings and a dissection of TV series endings I mentioned above (with the understanding that I’m bound to take some heat for my opinions about Buffy). In the meantime, what are some of your favorite endings, and why did they work for you? Anything stories I should not miss during my beginnings/endings binge (for research purposes, because I’m definitely not procrastinating!)?

4 thoughts on “Nancy: And In the End…Elements of Strong Finales, Part I

  1. Parks & Rec had several good season endings that could have sufficed as The End; the real ending was a little soppy, but a good kind of soppy with all sorts of Fan Service that might not have been Good Craft, but was emotionally satisfying.

    The Mentalist had a fairly good end to season 2 or 3 (can’t remember when they “caught” the murderer). At least it was done, and justice was served. And in fact, I pretended that that was the real ending, because I couldn’t see how they could escalate the action any more without grossing me out and making me feel very sad — they were already pretty borderline creepy as it was, and the ending was a relief.

    That is a problem with series: you never know when the real ending is going to be, in most cases. So, it’s hard to plot a good arc.

    Short stories can be much nicer!

    But I’m lousy at endings. I noticed that with Alice Hoffman’s early books — so fabulous in the beginning, and one wanted them to go on forever. And then, suddenly, the Hero shows up, and the day is saved in short order without having the satisfaction of the people who had been there finishing what they started.

    So, I don’t want to do that. But somehow, when I see the end in sight, I get an uncontrollable urge to wrap things up, and the end comes more quickly than it should. It’s not so bad with short stories because I can have a little patience and know I won’t lose the story in the day or two it takes to finish it. But with longer stuff, like NaNo, I worry that I can’t subconsciously keep the whole ending in my head for a week or ten days. I finish early, and short of words, and with a story that feels hastily wrapped up. I guess that’s what second drafts are for, but it’s so hard for me to change things; it feels like the story is set in concrete at that point. I have to break the WHOLE thing up in order to change the last third.

    • That’s funny about the Alice Hoffman books. Either I wasn’t reading them during those early days, or I simply don’t remember (maybe blocked!) them. I’ve heard fabulous things about Parks & Rec. My daughter LOVED that series. It’s definitely on my TBW list, but I find it difficult to get myself to watch half-hour comedies these days. You’d think with the state of the world, that would be easier!

      One of the ways a lot of writers and writing coaches (editors) suggest novelists handle endings is to write the opening scene, then the ending scene, before moving onto the middle. The important thing there to capture is the character arc. That way you’re aiming for a target as you write the book, and you know you’re tacking toward a changed character/world, as opposed to writing 300 pages to find you’ve ended up in the same place. I’ve done that second one. That sucks. Really, really sucks.

      • The first season of P&R was not all that great, and I regretted buying three seasons . . . until I started on season two. After that, it had found its heart, and was great!

        The Alice Hoffmans were great books; I just felt let down by the fast endings. Practical Magic? I think the other one I remember is Turtle Moon? I’d read something from later in her career that was much better in the ending department. The beginnings are just so lovely and romantic and wonderful that it might be easy to forget the endings, which do wrap up all the odds and ends, pretty much.

  2. Pingback: Nancy: Echoes and reversals, beginnings and endings – Eight Ladies Writing

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