Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read, Part 2

Today: Part Two of my series “Three Kinds of Writing Books Every Writer Should Read” featured at The Caffeinated Writer.

The Caffeinated Writer

Part 2: The Art of Writing

It’s sad but true: you can craft grammatically perfect prose, turn a nice phrase, and even come up with an insightful metaphor or two—and still write forgettable fiction. How many books feature the same stock characters and predictable plots? Or worse: unbelievable characters and clunky, hole-ridden plots? So, if you’re going to write, if you’re going to pour your time, your energy, your life into a world that doesn’t even actually exist—if you’re willing to do all that—why not make your writing the best it can possibly be?

In my last post, I featured a wonderful little book on the craft of writing, The Elements of Eloquence. It drills down deep into phrases, sentences, and rhetoric. Today, we look at the second kind of book that should be a part of every writer’s reading diet: a book on the art of writing…

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This is the end…

the-endWriting the ending is hard. Really hard. Sticking the landing is no mean feat. And it’s what I’m trying to do with my current work in progress.

I recently received an email from a writer I follow; the subject: avoiding anticlimactic endings. How timely! The same day another email came in, this one titled, “Why Writing Fiction Is Hard.” Okay, I get it. This is going to take some work. I’ve already restructured the opening four times (and need to do it again), I shouldn’t expect anything less of the ending.

The stakes are high

Endings matter. A lot. It’s why people reviewing books and movies have to announce SPOILER ALERT if they are going to discuss the ending or even major plot points. Want to get sucked into an endless internet debate (you know you do) that isn’t about guns or politics? Find a discussion on the ending of your favorite long-running TV show—Lost or Battlestar Galactica or The Sopranos or Seinfeld or even Little House on the Prairie, anything that had built up anticipation for its ending. Claims and counterclaims fly in every direction as people attack and defend and disparage and debate… work of fiction. Nail the ending and people focus on their favorite characters, the amazing plot twists, and the profound themes. Falter in those final moments, and the greatest virtues of the work get overshadowed by the final imperfections.

It’s why I will never watch Lost again, no matter how enjoyable and moving individual episodes were. Why? Because so much of it ultimately meant nothing. There were no real answers to far too many plot questions (like, pretty much all of them!). And while I was deeply moved by the new Battlestar Galactica, the ending left some things to be desired… or was an utter disaster, depending on your point of view. To say it was polarizing is an understatement. One extensive and persuasive analysis is straightforwardly titled, “Battlestar’s ‘Daybreak’: The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction.” Ouch! At least we know where the author stands. The reaction by some was so strong that it led another reviewer to write: “Sure, it was a letdown, but people act like that episode personally broke into their homes and stabbed their mothers.” Endings can affect us that much.

A tall order

The ending of a story of any significant length has a big job to do, a lot to take care of, including:

  • Complete the story, wrapping up the principal plot and answering the “dramatic question.” (Want to know more about what the dramatic question is all about? Check out the links at the end of this post.)
  • Resolve the story arcs of the principal characters.
  • Tie off loose ends—but not so tightly that it all seems contrived.

But an ending can have all this and still fail. How the ending is accomplished is crucial. Ideally, the ending will:

  • Have an element of surprise. This doesn’t have to be a big twist (although a well executed twist ending can be especially memorable), but the ending can’t be something that was utterly obvious from the first page (or opening shot). We may be confident the guy’s going to get the girl in the end, but at least surprise us in how it all comes about.
  • Be inevitable. That may seem to contradict the previous point, but the best endings will be both surprising and inevitable. We might not have seen it coming, but once everything came together, we’re struck that it couldn’t have happened any other way. It was inevitable. All the threads of the plot have come together to make sense and the mysteries are resolved.
  • Be the best part of the story. After all, it’s a drag if the best part of the story is the beginning (or even the middle, for that matter), and then everything is all downhill from there. This doesn’t mean the ending has to be the most exciting moment; it’s quite possible to have a satisfying ending that isn’t bombastic. But it needs to be gripping, have punch, and not just peter out.

Stick the landing

You know the phrase “stick the landing.” It may be a bit of a cliché, but it  really is a useful metaphor. Think about the gymnast doing a floor routine. It’s full of all sorts of wonderful athletic moves and jumps and acrobatics that make us mere mortals shake our heads in amazement and imagine how even attempting such feats would send us right to the ER with back trauma. But more than that, it’s a joy to watch. And it all culminates  when the gymnast performs a final sequence of flips and lands on her feet and sticks the landing, her arms shooting up in the air and her head held high in that final victory pose. Yes! She acknowledges the crowd; the applause fills the arena. But if she doesn’t stick the landing, if she takes an extra step, or wobbles, or falls down, it colors everything that went before. The applause is muted as disappointment at what could have been clouds the moment. Whether that’s fair or not is immaterial; that’s how it is.

So it is with writing. The opening can be gripping, the characters compelling, the action heart-pounding, the plot twists jaw-dropping, but if the ending isn’t satisfying, it tarnishes everything that went before.

“All’s well that ends well”

…so said a rather talented fellow—and even titled one of his plays. How ironic that the ending of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well has been criticized as forced, rushed, and unearned. Still, the point is a good one. Make the ending all it can be. A good ending covers a multitude of writing sins. And so now it’s time for me to get back to working toward just that…

Your turn

What are the endings (to books, movies, TV shows, whatever) you found most satisfying? Leave a comment and let me know what made it so great.

As promised, links to articles on the dramatic question:

A day in the life of revising a manuscript

November is NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. But while literally thousands of intrepid novelists are well on their way to their goal of 50,000 words, I’m neck-deep in the midst of revising the novel I started plotting in the fall of 2014.

I wonder if this is what it feels like to shoot a film. Hours of footage that have to be crafted into a coherent story. Endless editing of scenes to get them down to their essence. Cutting other scenes entirely. Realizing that even with all that’s been done, new scenes still need to be shot. Then going over it all again. And again.

In the last few months I’ve radically reconfigured my opening at least twice. Probably three times… maybe more! A pivotal moment at the end of the first act has been surgically removed and transported to its new home in the middle of the novel–as well as transposed to an entirely new physical location in the story, and most of the characters involved have been cut from the scene. So: pretty much a total rewrite. (Deep breath.) But not today.

I’ll pull back the curtain and give you a peak at what two cups of coffee and three hours at Coutume Café near Napoleon’s Tomb got me this morning (actually, this work carried over into lunch and then into yet another cup of coffee back home):

  • I gave one of my characters an addiction. Another one finally got a name—at least a provisional one (it’s a character I only started developing when I started revising the first draft).
  • I wrote yet another page of longhand notes on the what the main character is like.
  • Since writing a novel always means coming up against one’s own limited knowledge base, I compiled a list of questions related to astronomy, communication and satellite technology, etc. that I need to send off to a smart person.
  • Other tasks are mundane, but necessary to keep everything straight: I added a bunch of internal headings, not to be included in the final product, but to help me keep track of where all the pieces are.
  • I picked a few of the new scenes I’ve come up with that need to be added and started outlining them.
  • And, joy of joys, I actually even wrote actual words in actual scenes.

Revising isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s worth it. Want to know more? Check out this fantastic post by Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog for a great overview of how and why to revise.

As she says, “One small change can create the need for cascading changes throughout a manuscript.” Don’t I know it!