I’ve written a new eighty-thousand-word novel—except for the ending, that is. That’s where, I confess, I’m struggling right now.
“What? Why?” you may ask. When faced with seemingly too many good plot choices, my default is to become indecisive. I’ve been there, done that—written an ending I thought was the best one only to later discover it stank to high heaven. Wasted words. Wasted time. Wasted life.
If only I could get it right the first time. <See me banging my head against the wall?>
Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe with every life choice you know instantly what you want and which path is best. But that’s not me.
Picture me at an ice cream stand. Okay, which flavor do I want? Mackinac Island Fudge? Chocolate? Black Cherry? Rocky Road? Mint Chocolate Chip? Um, well, I like them all. So the question isn’t, which ice cream do I like but which one is best for me right now in my current situation?
That’s exactly how one could approach novel endings except the comparison breaks down at that point because plotting a novel is an altogether different animal than choosing an ice cream flavor. I can put away an ice cream cone in probably ten minutes—voila! In contrast, potentially thousands of consumers will read my novel in several hours and decide whether the story stank or soared. They may even tell their friends.
So there’s a lot riding on this important decision. I need to get the ending right. Write the wrong one, and my publisher may not sign me up for another book anytime soon.
My Problem Defined
Yes, I generally have a plot plan from beginning to end in my head. But what inevitably happens during the actual writing process is that I start second-guessing my original plan. Not only that, but I start seeing different options—even better ways the story could go. Maybe it’s more than a fork in the road. Maybe there are four or five attractive paths—and they’re all valid and could work quite nicely for my story.
Do you see my frustration? How do I choose?
One way to get started is to write all the choices down. In his article “Wicked Crazy Writing Life,” Christian novelist Creston Mapes says, “When I’m finishing up my fiction for the day, in the flow of thought I’m in, I jot down 3 to 7 things that might happen in the manuscript the next day. That way, when I come fresh to the screen the next morning, I immediately pick up where I left off and get right into the flow.”
Great advice. For me this evolution of choices can be a good thing. When I wrote my first novel, Fatal Illusions, I knew what would happen to the bad guy, Haydon Owens, at the end. But later I had en epiphany, changed the ending, and wrote the one my publisher liked and is now in print. The same thing happened with my second novel, The Tenth Plague.
So that leads me to where I am now. As I’m working on my third novel, tentatively called Drone, I’m experiencing deja vu. I find myself in the same deer-in-the-headlights quandary of having to choose from too many attractive endings
How do I slap down my indecisiveness and choose the right ending? Here are the questions that help me. Maybe they’ll help you too.
1. Which ending is most similar to novel endings I’ve read in my genre?
That’s the ending I don’t want to write. When it comes to novels, few things are worse than the same old, same old. True, there’s nothing new under the sun, but old things can be spun in new ways.
2. Which ending will surprise readers but still be believable and not make them feel cheated?
Want to lose fans? Make the reader feel like you pulled a fast one. Don’t write a serial killer story only to resolve it in a prank or dream.
3. Which ending will make the biggest emotional investment in the reader?
In other words, which will drag the main character through the direst situation possible so the reader is emotionally involved to the max? Yet the ending must offer closure. Which ending will strum the most heartstrings?
4. Which ending is worth making the reader stay up to 2:00 a.m.?
I love it when readers tell me they stay up late finishing my novels. That means I did something right. A lot rides on tension and pacing, of course, but the ending must deliver the goods. No cutting corners allowed.
5. Which ending will leave a loose end or two?
To be believable, the best endings shouldn’t be picture perfect—like the guy who beats the bad guy, gets the girl, and wins the lottery (all in twenty-four hours). The best endings should be more like real life—mostly happy but rarely neat and tidy. Maybe even bittersweet.
6. Which ending will make the reader’s investment of $9.95 or $14.95 worth every penny?
7. Which ending offers the strongest spiritual takeaway value?
I don’t apologize for it—I write meaningful suspense. The best takeaway value a Christian novel can deliver goes beyond a fleeting fun plot. It leaves the reader with something meaningful, like a probing question or insight about eternity or grace or God’s attributes. That has eternal value.
Mackinac Island Fudge or Mint Chocolate Chip? The answer is, choose the ending that works best for the kind of plot you plan to write. These seven important questions should help.
Will I make the right choice on novel number three? Hopefully I’ll finish it soon and have some exciting news to report.
Question: What about you? If you’re a reader, have you read novel endings that were a letdown? If you’re a novelist, have you struggled with choosing the right ending? What helped you decide?
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