I’d love to hear more about endings. About how we wrap things up in a novel in general. I’ve heard terms bandied about like ‘the obligatory scene’ and a ‘circular ending’. I’ve been told the ending is written in ‘falling conflict’ not ‘rising conflict’. What are romance writers expected to do structurally, compared to other novelists when ending a book? Also, do we have to give the reader a Happy-Ever-After? I’ve noticed in my critique group how everyone ties everything up neatly at the end of their book but I prefer it if some things are left unanswered – is that a bad idea? I always think there’s nothing left for the reader to think about after they finish the book, if every question in the book is answered. Are we supposed to answer every question? How does the story question relate to endings? Are we supposed to resolve the hero’s wound? What about the emotional arc and the ending? How is a sub-plot wrap-up different to the main plot wrap-up? Really, what I need is a Hoover and access to your brain…
JenniferNennifer: I vote with S for more about endings, not because I am going to write anything, but because so often I have read a book that was good for the first 3/4 and then ……… either an additional conflict is introduced, which just feels like it was put in to keep the book going a requisite number of pages, or the relationship quits growing while we wrap up the plot and it is less satisfying.
Bob and I used to argue about the most important part of the book. He said it was the beginning because if the beginning didn’t grab readers, they didn’t keep going. I said it was the ending because if they loved a book and then arrived at an unsatisfactory ending, they’d hate the author and the book. We were both right because the beginning and the ending are two halves of a whole, the promise the author makes to the reader which is what makes the reader commit to the book, and the fulfillment of that promise which makes the experience of reading a success. That’s one thing that often gets overlooked when talking about writing choices: the relationship between the writer and the reader. Writing for publication is a collaborative act that isn’t finished until the reader has finished. A book that satisfies the writer but not the reader . . . well, you can make your own analogies. The most important thing about endings is that they satisfy both the writer and the reader.
Of course how to do that is the question. In fact, it was several questions, so I’m going to break them down.
I’ve heard terms bandied about like ‘the obligatory scene’ and a ‘circular ending’. I’ve been told the ending is written in ‘falling conflict’ not ‘rising conflict’. What are romance writers expected to do structurally, compared to other novelists when ending a book?
Romance novelists are supposed to do what all storytellers do: fulfill the promise they made in the beginning and deliver a satisfactory ending. Of course one reader’s satisfactory ending is another reader’s wallbanger, so we’ll go with logical, believable, and emotionally just (see the next answer for more on endings). “The Obligatory Scene” just means “keep your promise;” if you said the protagonist’s battle in the story is with the antagonist, then the climax had better be about the protagonist versus the antagonist or your reader won’t get her pay-off. The “circular ending” is the same thing: finish what you started. If there’s no relationship between your first scene and your climax/resolution, you’re undercutting the sense of completion that a story can deliver subconsciously.
The rising conflict and falling conflict bit is leftover from Freitag’s Pyramid, I think, although it can be reworked to make sense in modern storytelling. Basically, Freitag said that the beginning of the story is a stable situation that sets up the world, then an event happens that causes the story tension to rise to a crisis point, and at that point the story falls to its climax, which is followed by another stable world in the resolution. That worked in this 19th century, but those people used to listen to four-hour sermons. Now we start the story at the event that causes the rising action and our resolutions/stable world scene at the end is about two pages. Get in and get out: Modern plots are usually shown kicking off the tension on the first page, rising in tension up to the climax (not the crisis), and then falling in that last couple of pages of resolution.
However, there’s another way to look at it. Modern plots can rise to that crisis or point of no return at the halfway point, which is when the protagonist has gone so far, done so much, changed so much that she can’t go back to where she was before, all she can do is go forward. Think of it as a crisis of identity, if you will. If you visualize her after that point as hurtling herself into her problem, all hesitation gone, and then falling into the Dark Moment/Going to Hell turning point before plummeting even farther into her climax, you get a nice sense of things picking up speed and then going out of control. If that works for your story, great. If it doesn’t, your story just rises to the obligatory scene/climax, and from there falls quickly into the new stable world.
But none of that is particular to romance; that’s just storytelling.
Also, do we have to give the reader a Happy-Ever-After? I’ve noticed in my critique group how everyone ties everything up neatly at the end of their book but I prefer it if some things are left unanswered – is that a bad idea? I always think there’s nothing left for the reader to think about after they finish the book, if every question in the book is answered. Are we supposed to answer every question?
Romance writers are supposed to do what all good writers do, deliver a satisfactory ending. Genre often dictates what “satisfactory” means. In a mystery, for example, it usually means that the detective solves the crime and the criminal is punished. That’s because mystery readers, like most readers, are trying to make sense of a chaotic world, and the mystery story assures them that the criminal justice system works. Romance readers want the same thing, they just want emotional justice. So the ending of a romance novel doesn’t have to be sweetness and light with a wedding and (god forbid) an epilogue with a baby, it just has to have an emotionally just ending. That usually (but not always) means the lovers are rewarded for risking themselves emotionally to create a committed relationship. That is, at the end of the book, the reader has to feel not only that these two people deserve each other, but that they deserve the relationship because they’ve shown that they’re willing to sacrifice to make it work, that they can work together when trouble arises, that they’re in it for the long haul. (That’s why the Big Misunderstanding trope only works at the beginning of a romance when the two people don’t know each other yet; if you get to the end of the story and they’re still making stupid assumptions about each other, they’re toast in the long haul.)
That means that you can leave some things unanswered (like whether they’ll have kids, for heaven’s sake), but you can’t leave unanswered the assurance that they’re going to make it. I think one of the hallmarks of a successful romance is that readers are sure the relationship will make it, but they still want to know what happens next because they like these characters. But readers are the best ones to decide what comes after the end of the book. By the time they reach the end of the story, they’ve already recast it to fit their needs, so they’re the best ones to write the epilogues. (Epilogues in books are a symptom of Helicopter Authors, writers who can’t let go of their stories and hover over them long after the stories left the nest.) I’ve had people ask for sequels to my books, and it’s not going to happen because I could never write the sequels they want. (Actually, the funniest experience I’ve had with that is Bet Me, which had to end “they all lived happily ever after” because it was a fairy tale, so the last chapter tells what happened afterward to everybody, and I still get requests for sequels.) (I’m doing a lot of parentheses tonight. Is that annoying?)
Are we supposed to resolve the hero’s wound? What about the emotional arc and the ending?
I’m not a fan of the hero’s wound (cowboy up or get back in the truck, guy), but the emotional arc is important in any story. The idea is that this story is about the most important time in the protagonist’s life, a battle so heated that it changed him or her. If the protagonist can get through the entire story without changing, it just wasn’t that damn traumatic. We want to see the character come through the fire and triumph, not wander down the street and get a latte. That doesn’t mean the characters become perfectly healthy mentally and all questions are answered, just that they’ve changed because of the events of the story (that’s what gives the events their meaning) and they’ve reached a new stability, a New Normal if you will.
How is a sub-plot wrap-up different to the main plot wrap-up?
Subplots are supporting plots, so their wrap-ups, while important, should not step on the climax of the main plot, which is where the big pay-off for the reader comes. Basically, you should start your subplots after the main plot starts (in the first scene), and end your subplots before the main plot ends (in the climax). Otherwise, they’re structured the same. It helps if your subplot climax echoes or mirrors or in some way enhances your main plot climax, but it’s not requirement. Unless you want story unity. I’m just saying . . .
I vote with S for more about endings, not because I am going to write anything, but because so often I have read a book that was good for the first 3/4 and then ……… either an additional conflict is introduced, which just feels like it was put in to keep the book going a requisite number of pages, or the relationship quits growing while we wrap up the plot and it is less satisfying.
You’ve pinpointed two basic storytelling flaws.
First, you need everything in the story–characters, conflicts, plots and subplots, even locations–introduced or foreshadowed in the first act/first quarter to a third of the story. You put all the playing pieces on the board, and then you play the game. Actually, you’re playing the game from the first page, so at the end of the first act, you escalate the game. Bringing new characters and conflict that haven’t been foreshadowed in later is like slipping an extra ace into card game: it may not get you shot, but it’ll annoy the hell out of the other player, your reader. That’s in part because a large part of reading enjoyment is in expectation, and readers can’t expect something they don’t know about.
Second, if you’re writing a romance, the story is over when the romance reaches commitment. If you’re writing suspense with a romantic subplot, you can get the lovers to commitment before the suspense climax (because subplots end soonest, see above), but if you’re writing romance with a suspense subplot, getting the lovers to commitment and then going on to resolve the suspense plot seems like you’re dragging out the resolution. How do you know which one you’re writing? Which story takes up the most real estate, has the most emotional tension, is the most entertaining? Or easier, which one starts in the first scene and ends in the climax? The two plots can be almost equal in importance, but you have to pick a lane. Agnes and the Hitman is a suspense story with a romantic subplot; a lot of people call it a romance, but it starts with Agnes smacking a guy trying to kidnap her dog and ends with Agnes smacking a woman trying to kill her; the guy at the beginning was sent by the woman at the end. It’s about Agnes fighting for her life. Almost of equal importance is the hit man who shows up in the third scene to save her and stays to commit to her, but the story is about Agnes and her fight for survival, not Agnes and Shane’s love story. What the Lady Wants (hate that title), on the other hand, is a love story with a suspense subplot because nobody really cares who killed the uncle; the action is all about Maybelle and the fake detective she hires and then falls in love with. The one I screwed up was Maybe This Time. Why? Because it was a ghost story with a romance subplot and I started with the romance. I had a good reason: I was doing my version of The Turn of the Screw and that’s where Henry James started, but it was a dumb reason because it promised the reader a story she didn’t get. (Actually, James starts with a house-party frame he never finishes, so he starts with the ghost story. I really screwed up.) Pick a lane, Jenny.