Sunday, April 1, 2012

Week 13 - The Ending

25 Mar - 31 Mar: Happily Ever After...?
(Yes, I've changed the dates to make it easier for me to track).

There are two obvious questions on endings: what should happen (the idea), and how should it be presented (the technique)?  How the writer handles each will, to a large degree, determine the level of satisfaction the reader will be left with (and whether they'll pick up another book by the same author, in the future).

As far as the idea is concerned, this can only originate from within the writer's head (with or without a source of inspiration).

With respect to technique, a writer might know exactly how a story will end before laying fingertip on the keyboard, or he or she might arrive at the ending seemingly by accident.  Alternatively, a writer might experiment with a number of possible endings and decide on the most effective long after the body of the first draft is completed.  A story can even be written backwards from the ending to the beginning, if one so wishes.

Regardless of how one arrives at an ending (which is an achievement in itself), here are a few basic tips I've picked up from others, and from my own observations:
1. Just end it!  Endings don't need to drag on.  One suggestion I read was to place a hand over the last sentence or paragraph and see if the story still ends effectively.  Keep working up the page until you reach the natural ending.
2. Tie it all together.  Loose ends are frustrating.  I laughed when I read a quote Stephen King included in his book; when a fellow writer was asked, What happened to the driver? he replied, Oh him.  I forgot about him.
3. Avoid melodrama. As a reader, I am disappointed when a writer overdoes an ending with unnecessary sentimentality.  I feel a bit cheated, actually.  I would like an ending to inspire a feeling within me, without being told what it should be through oversympathy with one character or another.
4. Be logical.  Every scene is written for a reason, and must lead to the finale.  It's not fair to the reader to withhold key information until the last sentence or to introduce new elements late in a story that play no part in the lead-up.  Nor does it make sense for characters to suddenly do or say something that contradicts what the reader anticipates.
5. Respect the reader's intelligence.  Actions or dialogue or images can speak for themselves.

In 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark provides an  excellent description of techniques for writing endings.  They are summarized below:

1. Closing the Circle - the reader is reminded of the beginning, by returning to a place or being reconnected with a particular character;
2. The Tieback - the ending is tied to an unusual element in the body of the story;
3. The Timeframe - the story concludes at the end of a specific timeline;
4. The Spaceframe - the story ends at a specific destination;
5. The Payoff - the mystery is solved or a secret is revealed;
6. The Epilogue - the reader is provided with a snapshot of what happens after;
7. Problem and Solution - the central obstacle is overcome;
8. The Apt Quote - the character has the final word;
9. Looking to the Future - the ending considers the consequences of the events;
10. Mobilizing the Reader - the ending contains a message to the reader, eg. plant trees, read etc.

Clark makes the important note that other elements of a story have endings too, and sentence endings, paragraph endings and chapter endings need to complement the overall finale.

The Middle Bit, will be next week's topic.  In the meantime, the following exercises aim to explore ideas and techniques in developing an ending.

Exercise 25.  Write a short happy story and make it ‘sad’ (tragic, shocking etc) in the very last sentence or write a sad story and make it ‘happy’ (inspirational, heart-warming etc) in the final sentence.  Be sure to plant the seeds of the ending in the lead-up.

Exercise 26. From the story above (or another of your choice), end it with:
1. A line of description;
2. A line of dialogue;
3. A character's action;
4. A character's internal thought.
(This exercise is adapted from the article The Perfect Ending Writing Exercise, as it appears on Writer's Digest.)

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