WRITERS AT WORK: Wrestling with Endings (Part 1)

Hi everyone,

March has five Tuesdays so WRITERS AT WORK has a bonus week. We invited Jane Yolen to kick off a new conversation and she chose endings. She divided her article into three parts and here they are in their entirety. The source of this material came from a speech Jane gave. So get ready for some straight advice. Today, we’re her audience.

Topic 6: Wrestling with Endings
Response 1: Jane Yolen
March 1, 2011

What I know About Endings part 1

“Endings,’ the conference director directed. ‘Talk about endings.’ She was assuming that after almost 300 published books I had some idea of how to make an ending. Assuming that elves don’t sneak in at midnight to finish each and every book for me. Assuming that the editor doesn’t write all my final pages. Assuming that I have more to say than just: ‘A good ending is one that is both inevitable and surprising,’ which is really all that you have to know.

Besides, how can I talk about endings without first saying a word about beginnings? They are the poles of a book, story, even an essay. They balance one another out. If the beginning holds the DNA of the
story, the ending has to be able to prove that.

The traditional ending solves the problem, dilemma or conflict of the main character. The loose b all bits all tied up. Usually (especially in children’s books) the ending is happy or at least satisfying. Once Max is home his supper is still hot; once Charlie gets to live in the Chocolate Factory his life is good; once the Little Princess finds her father, the book is done. Finished. Over.

But think of this: The ending without the beginning is simply a block, a stoppage, a single bookend, one side of an equation, omega without an alpha.

I am better at beginnings. Can write them all day – and I do. I can show you a file cabinet full of beginnings. Nowhere do I have even a small folder of endings. Most authors don’t write endings to
start a book. But, it is the endings that people leave the books so in some ways the endings are the most important part.

As I thought about endings and – being a lover of fairy tales – I knew immediately that the deeply rooted last line in folk stories, ‘And they lived happily ever after’, is the core of what we think we know about endings. We hear it always in our hindbrain because it’s the last line most of us in the West have grown up with. That line stops the story at the point of greatest happiness. The wedding, the homecoming, the mystery unraveled, the villain disposed of, families reunited, babies born. If we went on in the story Cinderella, she might be whispered about in court: after all, her manners are not impeccable, she always has smudges of ash on her nose, and no one can trace her bloodline back enough generations. Perhaps she has grown fat eating all that rich food in the castle, and the prince’s eye has strayed.

If we went on in The Three Little Pigs, the brother who builds with bricks will have kicked the other two lay-abouts out of his house, or hired them to run his successful company and they – angry at their lower status – plot to kill him. But, having little imagination, do it the only way they know how, by trying to boil him in the pot that still holds the memory of the wolf’s demise, so of course the brick building pig finds them out.

But modern books pose a different problem. They present harder choices. It’s no longer fairy tale endings we are talking about, but the other stuff, more realistic, stronger, difficult, and maybe not happy-ever-after stuff.

What I Know About Endings Part 2

The biggest three problems for me about endings are:

1. I don’t now how to plot, and how do you have an ending without a plot?
2. You have to get over the great wall of Middle to get there and I hate Middles.
3. What happens if the character insists on a different road than the one you thought you had planned?

Whether I think I know the ending before I start, or think I really know it halfway through the book, the right ending always surprises me as much as any reader. And what surprises me the most is how inevitable the ending really is. Even if I hadn’t known how things were supposed to go, the story had known it all the time.

When I wrote the historical novel The Gift of Sarah Barker – ‘Romeo and Juliet in a Shaker community’ is what I called it to myself – I expected the boy Abel and the girl Sarah to fall in love, which they did. Have adventures, which (in a way) they did. And leave the Shaker community, which they certainly did, because the Shakers did not believe in any boy/girl or man/woman (and certainly no homosexual) pairings at all. Shakers were meant to be as asexual, as innocent, as angels. But I also expected that the two would get married, have a child, and Abel would go off to fight and die in the Civil War, leaving Sarah to return to the Shaker community with her baby, there to become her baby’s “sister”, me her child’s “sister”. As her own mother had done with her. It was a perfect arc for the novel. In the beginning is the ending. But it was not the arc my novel wanted to take. When I reached the end, I so loved my characters and what they had gone through to earn their love, I knew the book couldn’t turn into tragedy. Not even a Cold Mountain kind of transcendent love tragedy. Sometimes a book earns a powerful tragic ending. But not this one, it needed a positive ending. Actually, it insisted on such an ending. So Abel lived a long, good life with Sarah, helped raise their child, not only because I couldn’t bear to kill him young, and not only because I knew that Sarah would never go back to the Shakers dragging a child with her, but because the story wouldn’t allow it. So I discovered the ending as I began to write it, as it turned away from tragedy into the proper love story it was meant to be all along.

So perhaps one way to look at endings is a process of discovering what the book itself wants and needs, and in that way also finding the ending that you – the author – wants. Maybe the moral of this is that sometimes you have to write the wrong ending many times till finally, by a process of elimination or sheer fatigue, the right one gets written.

What I Know About Endings Part 3

I want my novels to end with what I call ‘the getting of wisdom’. Authors have major themes in their lives that they tend to hit over and over again, even when they don’t realize that’s the story they’re telling. So Hannah/Chaya comes home to the future with an understanding of the past in The Devil’s Arithmetic. Young Merlin at the end of The Young Merlin Trilogy knows that he has a destiny, and a child to care for, though he is barely out of childhood himself. Marina and Jed in Armageddon Summer find out that they have to and can make choices for themselves, not just carried willy-nilly into their parents’ crazinesses ever again. The getting of wisdom – for the characters and – I must admit, for this author as well.
Because make no mistake about endings. Though in real life they are final, and we have no do-overs, in fictional life this may not truly be The End. Especially not when the publisher waves a rather large check in your direction, and promises much marketing and . . .

Here are three things that you should NOT do when you get to that END:

1. No deus ex machina ending. No glorious messenger arriving with the king’s pardon out of the blue. Your characters, and what they have done throughout the book, must be the ones to have set in motion what happens at the end.

2. No changing horses or plot or conflict in midstream in order to make things more exciting at the end. You have to have everything grow organically to earn the ending.

3. Don’t give us 300+ pages of a book in which we are totally invested in the story, only to give us the climax offstage. Because after that, no ending will seem worth the hard ride.

Here are three things you SHOULD do when you get to that END:

1. Deliver what you promised. This means you must be true and logical to what has gone on before. The last page, the last line is not where you give us a Glasgow kiss. (That’s a head butt, for those of you who don’t do Things Scottish.)

2. If the book is meant to be really and truly over (not just a set-up for books 2-7) tie up the loose ends, offer the explanations, and then leave.

3. Brevity in an ending is to be desired. Not forty more damned pages while you let us know what EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER will be doing for the rest of their lives, not to mention their children and grandchildren.

Oh and that last line: the kicker, the killer. Make it sing. Make it memorable. Let it rise to the numinous. Have it break out into the ether.

From Where the Wild Things Are: Max gets home, finds his dinner waiting, ‘And it was still hot.’

From George Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’

From Orwell’s 1984: ‘He loved Big Brother.’

From Charlotte’s Web: ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.’ (Okay, I cheated on the last as it’s two lines.) But that’s what you aim
for. THAT kind of last line.

6 comments on “WRITERS AT WORK: Wrestling with Endings (Part 1)

  1. You have a unique way of explaining the beginning, middle, and ending. Do you mind if I print a copy?

    I appreciate the way you share your knowledge.

  2. Boy, Jane gave us a lot to digest. As writers we start swinging at the beginning to rise to the middle and going down hill we struggle to create a meaningful ending. It is very much like creating an artist master piece.

  3. Thank you so much, Jane, for getting our March Writers at Work conversation off to a great start. You’re a hard act to follow, but I love the inspiration and look forward to the challenge.


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