Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Do you find yourself rushing towards the end?

How many times have you been absorbed by a book to such an extent that you just don't want it to end and could happily live within its confines for the foreseeable future… only for it to finish so abruptly, so quickly it feels like you've been soaring through the air only to be shot down unceremoniously?

I've just finished reading a pulp science fiction novel by the legend that is Edgar Rice Burroughs, called the Swords of Mars, a book that eschews all sense of the word "calculated pacing" for what is a mad rush through the final fifteen pages; an ending that could have quite easily been written over a further 100 pages but for reasons of creativity or economical editing it has been shoe-horned via some dodgy exposition into about two thousand words. It's a bad ending to a good book, yet I suppose it could be forgiven - as all books of that age can be "forgiven" - for adopting a story-telling style where the destination isn't so much crept upon but charged at, a crime plenty of late 19th century and early 20th century pulp fiction is guilty of due to the medium of being serialised in pulp fiction magazines with a finite page-space to contend with.

But this is by no means something confined to early 20th century writing. I've read rushed endings more recently from writers who should know better.
Neil Gaiman - whose writing I adore - is guilty of it in American Gods, a book which ends not particularly well compared to the rest of the book, being slipped a hospital pass where the ending had to be something world-breaking to match what had gone before. Unfortunately, in my view, it didn't and was poorer for it. Don't get me wrong, it's a good book, but I don't think it's the great book it could have been. Stephen King is another guilty party, but more guilty for his ending for the Dark Tower series, falling into the same trap of impressive build-up, but a damp squeak at the end. When this happens, I always ask "why?", not only out of indignation and frustration as a reader, but as a writer who wants to avoid the traps other writers fall into. I reckon it’s an important lesson to learn and not just one that can be learnt from the page…

…A few years back when I was travelling around New Zealand, Sarah and I climbed the Franz Josef glacier, and our guide, a wiry Kiwi with a great ice-cutting arm, warned us the last few yards of the descent were the most dangerous - no matter where we were, be it a steep slope or level ground. You see, it's that last dash home, the final few steps of complacency or perhaps the impatience of reaching the end that can undo many a climber. The carelessness of those end steps have lost fingers or toes, broken legs and arms and one climber almost fell down a fifty foot crevice. In our case, the ice-steps at the last melted too quickly and half of our party slid down the slope, crashing into each other like a motorway pile-up. There were no injuries, thankfully, but it got our hearts racing for all the wrong reasons...

…With writing, if there are any injuries due to rushing the end or being complacent, the writer won't see them until they put the book to a publisher or the publisher misses it and it goes out to the reading public. And I guess it is an injury when a reader has invested £8 and many hours of their time to sit through a 400 or 500 page paperback only to be disappointed by the sloppy ending.
We are always told by writing guides or tutors that beginnings are important, but how much care do we really take over our endings, even if the book isn't always about the destination but the journey there? Is it more of a crime to be instantly forgettable or memorably sloppy?

As I head towards the end of the first draft for my new Secret War novel, The Traitor of Light, I realise the book is growing beyond expectancy. I've underestimated its length by around 30,000 words and 3 weeks, and damn me if it's not tempting to hurry it up or even skirt over the closing chapters to reach the end.
But I'm not going to. I'm going to write what needs to be written and keep the pace constant and not skimp on the ending. My final steps in this draft will be measured and careful or I just know I will slip and break something...


Anonymous said...

I'm awful at endings. I can't end chapters or books. I always want to stick on an extra bit to explain it, because it never quite seems to tie up for me.

Beginnings, I have no problem with. You can practice writing beginning hooks, and I have, in the past, just written loads and loads of them, to get it right. But you can't practice endings that much, can you? You have to have written the beginning and the middle first.

Aliya Web Admin said...

That's a good point, Aliya.  All of us have unfinished books in the closet, and many of these are bereft of endings or polished endings.  And how many of us actually change our endings as often as our beginnings?  The latest draft of the Black Hours sports a completely different ending again - the third different ending for that book.  Similarly, The Hoard of Mhorrer's ending was changed after the third draft - though that was after the sub-plot was discarded. 

I also think endings could be problematic for authors who are more comfortable writing short stories and then make the jump to writing novels.  You can get away with much more when writing short stories - their endings can be abrupt; unexplained events can remain vague and plots can flap loose in the wind - but hey that's okay because short stories can be just snapshots from a greater drama and still retain story-telling goodness.  Readers of novels tend to demand a more finished, rounded product - unless they are part of a series where cliff-hangers are allowed, but even then there are certain 'rules' that should not be broken, lest they incur the wrath of the reading public...

...For example, MNW dropped a bit of a clanger with regard to not advertising that the Secret War was part of a series and the book was criticised by a few people for a cliff-hanger that wasn't expected - though in MNW's defence they had not committed to more than one book and saw it prudent to only market it as a stand-alone novel. 

(I can't wait ‘til they get to the cliff-hanger for book 2 and then realise that Pan Mac are no longer publishing the Secret War books!!)

Deborah Swift said...

I have had a fair bit of trouble with the ending of my WIP, and I don't want the "falling off the mountain" scenario you described. I think it is vital that the novel finishes on the right tone. It is not just the right plot, but also the right way to tell it. Small nuances matter a lot at the end as it's like the taste that people are left with at the end of a good meal. It has to resonate back to the rest of the book somehow. Web Admin said...

Hi Dee
That's very true.  Even a good ending on paper becomes a bad one if it jars with the rest of the book.  Tim highlights this point about the resonation of closing chapters with the rest of the story, over on his blog while he looks at Ian Pear’s Stones Fall. In this case the writer has contrived an ending or "unexpected twist" to tie up the plot with a coincidence that is most out of place.  That's also true of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books I might add - everything happens by chance and it does feel like a cheat (George Lucas take note). 
There is a danger that we contrive endings because we endeavour to give a final surprise when one is not needed.  When you ride that rollercoaster, at the end the car grinds to a halt slowly in front of the barriers and you get out, it doesn't end vertically or upside-down or with a sudden unexpected dive into no-where without it being painful and without the customer trying to 'sue' you.  So I reckon it's all about knowing when to end the ride at an appropriate point.

Tim Stretton said...

Am I alone in finding the ending the easiest bit? (I use "easiest" advisedly here). Beginnings are much harder for me (and only ever work if I write them last): they have to do so much work and there's no margin for error. The end, if you get it right, is not so much going off a cliff as freewheeling downhill. When it works, it can seem like the only possible conclusion for what's happened before. The Herring Seller's Apprentice is a great example.

Of the four novels I've finished, I completely ballsed the end of one, but of the other three, I knew the end (and almost nothing else) in two of them before I started writing. I like to know where I'm going!

Brian McGilloway said...

I'm with Tim on this - although I find the start fairly easy - the middle a nightmare and the final 15,000 words very starightforward. By that stage in a crime novel, I guess, all the strands should be linking and events should be picking up in pace. Or maybe it's the last sprint as the finish line approaches. I write the first third in a month or two, the middle third over two or three months (with breaks) and the final third in a week or two.

Len Tyler said...

This is an interesting topic - many thanks to Matt for raising it and to Tim for his kind remarks about Herring Seller's Apprentice.

Endings are really important. Ann will often ask me whether a book I'm reading is any good and I will invariably reply that I can't tell until I get to the end. It's easy to wreck an otherwise excellent story with a badly thought out conclusion - rushed or otherwise. Conversely, I suppose, an indifferent story could in theory be rescued by a great ending, though I'd struggle to come up with an example.

I think the key to a good ending is a feeling of inevitablity - that it is the only proper conclusion to the story. (Though, as in the case of the French Lieutenant's Woman, ambiguity can work too.) One of the best endings of any books I have read is the almost perfectly plotted The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, in which there is a spine-tingling moment, 14 pages in from the end, when you realise exactly what has been going on for the past 23 chapter. The ending of the Time Traveller's Wife - not an easy plot to resolve - is absolutely right and almost unbearably moving.

Personally, for what it is worth, like Tim I find that writing the ending is the most interesting bit. I will usually have the ending planned well before I start writing, and will actually write the final chapter quite early on in the process and well before I have worked out what the middle of the book will consist of. I agree with Brian that it's the middle of the book that is the real problem ... Web Admin said...

Hi Tim

My endings tend to be tweaked versions of the truth which I envisaged from the book's conception, though with the Black Hours Dave Budd made an observation on an early draft which caused me to turn the ending on its head.  If I do have any problems with the ending it’s largely down to tone.  I know what is going to happen at the end but it has to feel right after the rest of it.  A book with a fine thread of flippancy running through the middle might feel undermined if the ending was overly serious or blatantly mean, but a darkly tragic finale could work.  Or the ending to a dark, serious thriller would just feel crass if it was overly light-hearted no matter whether the resolution was the same as planned. The most obvious example is the Black Adder series which always ended with at least one of the main characters being “offed”, yet Black Adder Goes Forth avoids the surreal or laugh out loud endings of the previous series by going for a terribly sad one that was quite brave yet is one of those defining endings of any television comedy (or drama come to think of it).

I consider myself a careful planner; I have chapter plans that I pretty much adhere to though sometimes I’ll drift from the plot, not too far, but it means I’ve never written myself into a dead-end. In that I would say I'm not a ‘free’ writer; that is I have a genuine fear of writing without a destination in mind which fortunately lends itself very much to the fiction I write. 

Which leads nicely to Brian’s reply… Web Admin said...

Hi Brian

Another interesting point.  I think genre has very much to do with how endings are approached.  I’m not sure I know of a crime writer who does not have an ending in mind when they write their books (generally, a crime writer must have some idea who is the victim and who is the villain, mustn’t they?).  Fantasy/Science Fiction writers can get away with the cliff-hanger endings as most fantasy books these days tend to be a run-on series, the exception are those like Tim’s Mondia books which a more self-contained.  But then a series must end eventually, so maybe it’s a rod for the writer’s back if they are not used to ending a book!  Historical fiction can be looser, but if it’s defined by an actual event which frames the narrative, then the focus is that event which would usually have a resolution the Hist-Fic writer cannot deviate from, kinda like swimming against the tide – you’ll always float back to shore (unless a rip gets yer!)

I’d say the looser the narrative, the harder it becomes.  Genre helps to focus the story, tethering it so the number of possible endings are finite without pushing conventions too far.  Is it possible that generally more “literary” books that don’t have that tethering are more of a challenge with tone and perhaps resolution if the writing is more free?  Or are difficult endings really down to the specific writer and their skills rather than genre or the lack of it? Web Admin said...

Thanks Len

Did you find that it was easier writing the finales to the Herring books rather than A Very Persistent Illusion?  Is genre something that is restricting or supportive in this respect?

I agree, I've never read a book which was saved by the ending; it doesn't matter how amazing the last chapter is if the previous 20 are rubbish - are you going to keep going until the end?  I've read mediocre books that have been elevated a little by good endings, but like you I can't think of any right now (so they are far from memorable!).

Tim Stretton said...

Len, the question of ambiguous but satisfying endings is worth a whole post in itself. The reader has stuck with you all the way through the book, and expects resolution: it takes a brave writer to withhold or undercut it.

One of my favourites is Great Expectations;

"I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her."

There are at least two ways of reading that.

Or you can have an ending like Villette's, where on the surface it seems to give one ending, but on close reading it reveals a contrary one.

Len, as you say, the ending to The Time Traveler's Wife is perfect.

Matt, I'm sure I've an interview with Minette Walters where she says she doesn't know when writing the first draft whodunnit.

Anonymous said...

I can't cope with all you heavy plotters. I much prefer to just go free! and have no clue how to resolve it all.


Tim Stretton said...

I wouldn't say I'm a heavy plotter - it's like a slalom course with a few poles in the ground to negotiate...

Len Tyler said...

Just to tie up a few loose ends (resolution etc), I think the answer to Matt's question about whether crime fiction is different is as follows. In my admittedly limited experience, ending general fiction and ending crime novels is pretty similar. I like to know where I am going from the beginning, regardless of genre, and I work towards the eventual outcome in much the same way. The difference though is that with crime you have to stick to the rules of Fair Play (as set out by Knox), which meas that you do need clear-cut resolution at least as far as the crime is concerned. Peripheral issues can then be left as up in the air as you wish.

But (Aliya's point) I definitely don't know every detail of the plot from day one. I agree that would take all the fun out of it. Knowing where you start and where you're going to end up doesn't rule out a bit of free-wheeling in the middle section. Colin Dexter recently compared plots to a journey between Bristol and (I think) Glasgow, in which the permutation of routes is almost limitless, even though the destination is always clear. I agree - it's a bit like that for me too.

Frances Garrood said...

I'm with Aliya - little plotting or planning, and lots of surprises as I write. This is risky, I know, but much more fun than knowing exactly where I'm going. And for me, it's the journey, not the arrival, that's the most satisfying, so it has to be an exciting one.

David Isaak said...

"...Conversely, I suppose, an indifferent story could in theory be rescued by a great ending, though I'd struggle to come up with an example..."

No examples come to mind here, either, Len.

In movies, the powers that be say the audience will forgive you anything if you have a great ending. But if that's all a novel has going for it, there is little chance the reader will ever read as far as the ending.

I think that some endings are rushed simply because the author is exhausted. Then, after letting it sit for a while, the writer begins to think of ways the ending could be improved...and realizes that this would mean going back and realigning a whole series of events in previous chapters... which point the writer faints at the prospect.

A good editor, of course, will badger the writer until the job gets done properly. But it's going to be a rare editor who will badger a Stephen King or a Neil Gaiman.

(And, although I admire Gaiman, I think his shorter works are generally better in any case. American Gods was a bit clunky.)

Eliza Graham said...

I would add to this fascinating thread (thanks, everyone, for your points) but I am stuck in the middle of my WIP.

My least favourite bits are about pages 180-280 of a roughly 350-page novel.

Tim Stretton said...

Matt, David -

Having only yesterday finished American Gods, I have to agree on the ending.

The novel is built on a brilliant conceit but tricked out far beyond its proper span (and the version I read is the author's approved text, which adds 12,000 words to the initial publication).