This Is The End

Last month, I wrote about how a writer friend had asked: At what point in the labour of writing a book do you know you're going to finish it?

This month: another conundrum thrown up by conversation with the same group of friends. How, one of them asked, do you find an ending?

The friend was in the toils of writing a fantasy. She had invented a world which she loved, she had characters she loved, she had involved them in all sorts of tasks and situation which she was thoroughly enjoying writing about -- but she didn't know how the book would end. Or if there would be an end of any kind, good, bad or indifferent. In short:

 

How Do You Find An Ending?

 

In my experience, only with extreme difficulty. We all know that stories, novels and poems all have a shape, an arc, and you have to find and follow that structure in order to arrive at the right ending or, at least, an ending which satisfies its creator and readers. But it's very easy to say that. When you're inside a story, jumbled up with its characters and all their motivations, plus theme and even moral -- and subtexts -- well, that's like being one cat in a sack of half a dozen cats and fighting to find a way out. It's hard, if not impossible, to see what the arc of your story is or what way it's inclining.

I am far from certain that any of my books have the perfect ending for that book. I know that all of them have endings that I had to write and rewrite and hack and furiously rethink and rewrite and work my way towards. And then cut severely.
So I can't pass on any sure-fire tips here. Even if I had a sure-fire way of finding a good ending for my own books (and I don't) I'm not sure my methods would work for anyone else.
That said, one method that I always employ is to put the book aside and go and do something else. This isn't idleness. It's technique.

Experience has convinced me that the best part of a book isn't written by the conscious mind, but by the unconscious, or the daemon. I'm half-certain that the daemon knows everything about the book before you even start writing it but won't tell you (because it's a daemon.) It feeds bits to you gradually and it won't be hurried or pressured. But turn your back on the book and go away for a few days, dig the garden, go to the cinema -- anything, really, that will make you stop thinking about the book -- and before you know it, the daemon will hand you the plot solution, the next chapter, the reason why that character wants to do that, and sometimes, even the ending. I don't know why this happens. Maybe the daemon is scared you'll lose interest if it doesn't offer you a crumb. Or maybe it's just the same mental process that makes it impossible to remember something until you stop trying to remember it. Then it leaps into your head while you're thinking about something else.

 

 

I've sometimes found it helps the process along to 'prime the pump.' Take a few minutes to relax, then lay out the problem in your mind: I need a reason for this character to be here... I need to know how that character will react... Or whatever your problem is. When that's all clear, say, 'Over to you!' And go off to the river with a fishing-rod, or to the football or WI meeting or whatever it is you do for fun. Anyone for burning down Downing Street?

Peter Newell's 'Looking Glass.'
Peter Newell's 'Looking Glass.'

 

In Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, Alice is trying to reach the other side of an immense chess-board. She finds that  the harder she walks or runs towards the other side, the farther away it becomes. But when she turns her back on it and walks in the opposite direction, she immediately arrives at the place she's been trying to reach. I've always thought that a brilliant metaphor for originality. And originality is surely what we're aiming at as we try to find an ending. Our plot, our ingenious twists, our perfect ending should all have a little dash of originality to make them interesting.

But the harder you try to be original, the less you will succeed -- because you're thinking about it. Thinking about it uses the conscious mind and will involve you thinking about every book you've ever read and every film you've ever seen. You'll be copying them, reacting to them or reacting against them in a desperate attempt to be original and every time you do that, your own work becomes less you, less authentic. Reflecting or recoiling from someone else's work is not being original -- originating with you, that is. An interesting linguistic point is that 'authentic' and 'author' come from the same root -- the author is the originator of their work. To be original, it must be authentically of that author. Do you really want your book to end that way -- or a character to behave like that? If what you write is genuinely what you think and feel, then it's original and authentic, even if someone else thinks you copied from -- wherever.

Turn your back on the whole 'is it original' quandary and walk away -- let your conscious mind grapple with the problems of baking bread, building IKEA furniture or finding your way on a map -- and the thoughts that sneak up on you from your subconscious will be authentically yours. They have a far better chance of being seen as 'original' by your readers.

 
Something else I've found useful is to type out every possible ending I can think of, no matter how bizarre or weak or unappealing. It's a sort of brain-storming, I suppose. I also do this at the end of a chapter, when I don't know what is going to happen next.
I make each possibility a different colour and/or font. I write things like, 'If A does X, then B will think Y and will xyz.' This is writers' algebra, of course, and you have to fill in motivations and thoughts according to your book.
Down and down the page the ideas go, in blue, green, red, magenta, black, orange... I come back a while later (it may be days) and read through them. I use click-and-drag to move them into order, those that appeal most at the top.
If, on re-reading, one has no appeal at all, I delete it.
I add more detail to the better ideas. Or other twists that occur to me.
Sometimes, when I come back to the idea fresh, one stands out immediately as the answer to my problem, but this doesn't always happen.
Sometimes some of the ideas are combined -- or one of them will suggest another, better idea. And so I inch forward.

Usually one of these ideas emerges as the way forward or as the ending. Or, at least, as the beginning of an ending, with much work to be done.
One final suggestion from me:- Don't ask, 'How will my book end?' Instead ask, 'What mood do I want it all to end in?' Another good question is, 'Who do I want to come out on top?'

 

If you want your central characters to end in unconfined joy, happiness and prosperity, fine -- how are you going to get them there? What plot strings will you have to pull, what scenery will you have to shift, in order to bring about that ending?

 

Do you want villains to be punished and cast into outer darkness? Or do you aim at something more Bhuddist and compassionate? (Dissatisfaction and suffering exist and are universally experienced, even by villains. And Alexander De Piffle Waffle Johnson must be deeply unhappy and dissatisfied to behave like such a shameless dick.)

Do you want lessons to be learned by your characters, spiritual growth to be experienced? If that's the mood you want at the end, what are you going to have to change in order to bring that about?

 

This works for me because I usually don't have any idea how a book's going to end, but I usually do have a strong feeling of the colour or mood I want it to end with, and I can work towards that.

 

 

Writing is so individual that I doubt this will be much use to anyone else, although I hope it is. But if you are, like my friend, having trouble finding an ending, do not despair. Everyone does, no matter how experienced they are. Writing is hard and writing the end is the hardest bit of all.

The End

 

 

 

Some Books By Susan Price