A while back I posted a blog entry on the old blog (reposted below for your convenience) about endings. There is also a new article on my website (Endings) on the same topic.
So, taking into consideration all of the things discussed there, how can you be certain your ending is carrying your story’s weight? I’m not sure there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but here are some exercises that may help. These are all things I conceived of myself, when working on a big story that encompasses several books, but still needs to be coherent & complete when it’s all said and done.
Exercise #1–Beginning, Ending, Change Worksheets
In this first exercise, we’ll take a straightforward look at your ending. You can do this whether your book is complete or not–if it is not yet complete, just use the ending as you currently imagine it. Any problems with that ending will probably be shaken out as you work through this.
We’re going to sit down with three sheets of paper. On the first sheet, write “Beginning” at the top. Now, list out the elements of your story as they stand at the beginning of the story. You’ll want to include your main character’s situation, any important supporting characters’ situations, the main problem in the story and any secondary problems, the setting where we find your characters–etc. Essentially you are summarizing the state of your fictional world in this list.
On the second sheet, write “Ending” at the top. On this sheet you will list out all of those same elements–only this time, you’re going to list out how they stand at the end of your story. Everything you had on your first sheet should make an appearance here, plus any significant developments over the course of the story that must be handled in the ending.
The third sheet should be labeled “Change”. Up till now we’ve been making lists that are pretty automatic–all the material for them is already laid out in your manuscript or in your head, and you are just putting it down on paper. This is the sheet that will require you to really think. I’m about to ask you a question that you may find tricky.
Look at the first item on your first sheet. Probably your main character’s situation, right? Now look at the first item on your first sheet. It’s your main character’s situation at the end of the story. What change is necessary to make this happen?
When you have an answer for that, start your list on the third sheet. Put a #1 on the top line, and list out any and all changes that are necessary to accomplish this ending. (If this is confusing, don’t worry, there will be an example later.) A single item on your beginning and ending lists may require several changes–that’s okay, just list them all out. Then move on to the next item. It will take some time. Just keep going, I’ll wait. 🙂
All done? Good! What you have now are cheat-sheets to your entire book. Assuming the beginning is accurate as you have laid it on sheet 1, and your ending is accurate as you have laid it out on sheet 2, then sheet 3 contains the bare bones essential plot to get you from one to the other.
This is crucial. Sheet 3 is not the entire plot of your novel. Of course not. But Sheet 3 contains the essential things. The things that must happen, for story reasons, for your ending to work.
Now your work may be easy. If all of the things contained on Sheet 3 are already in your plot, you are done here. Your ending grows organically out of your story, and it makes sense. Good job!
If not, you have more to do. If elements on the sheet are missing, these are areas where your ending will be weak. It will not grow out of the story, because the things leading to it were not adequately explained. You’ll need to look for ways to work these missing elements into your story.
You may find, when you attempt to do that, that elements already in your story flatly contradict things that are on Sheet 3. This is a bigger problem. Basically, you are in a situation where, for your ending to make sense, a certain thing needs to happen. But for your plot to work, that thing can’t happen.
You have a choice here–something will have to change. You can change the ending so that the missing element is no longer necessary. You can change the beginning, so the missing element is already taken care of at the story outset. Or you can change the plot, so that the missing element can be added without breaking the story.
Whatever you choose, your end goal is a situation where Sheets 1 and 2 accurately represent your story’s beginning and end, and where everything on Sheet 3 happens in your story. At that point, you can be reasonably certain you have an ending that follows logically from your story, that makes sense.
Good work! A bit heavy for a blog post, though, eh? My website has a page of examples to illustrate this. To see the examples, check out: