This is a guest post by author John T. Biggs
In practically every writing blog and magazine, there are articles devoted to hooking readers. Sometimes, you can draw them into the story with a fabulous blockbuster sentence, or an opening paragraph. If you are a more deliberate writer, you might be able to stretch things out to the first five pages. Even over-read agents and editors will usually tolerate a few pages to lay the background for a first-rate novel. But once you’ve pulled your reader in, once they’ve become invested in your story and really care what happens to your characters, where do you go from there?
Presuming you’ve been able to keep the reader interested through the middle of your narrative—not a simple task by any means—your story will come to an ending. We all know that, whether we use a detailed outline or write by the seat of our literary pants, every story is going to have a final page, a final paragraph, a final sentence, and when readers reach that point, they are going to go away satisfied, or disappointed.
How often have we read stories that started off strong, didn’t lose us the middle, made us love the protagonist and hate the villain and then left us disappointed at the end? The problem comes up most often for writers who choose a literary or mainstream style.
Genre authors have established paths to follow.
Western fiction, and often science fiction pits good guys against bad guys. We hardly ever have a problem figuring out which is which. They have a conflict, usually involving violence. It’s touch and go for two hundred pages or so, but in the end, the good guys win. How they get there may be surprising, but the ending usually isn’t.
A romance protagonist, usually after a lot of false starts, finds true love by the last few pages. Or perhaps she learns a hard life lesson the readers saw coming well before she figured it out.
In the horror genre, the hero figures out how to overcome the monster, or perhaps the monster wins. Horror is funny that way.
Mysteries have worked out the perfect connection between openings that pull the reader in and closings that satisfy. A mystery story begins with a question, like, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Writers fill the middle with plenty of twists, turns, and ‘red herrings’, but they always end with an answer: “It was her butler. He put cyanide in her scones.”
Literary / mainstream writers don’t have unambiguous story lines that point to the ending right from the initiating incident. They deal with emotional and psychological conflicts that don’t have clear-cut answers. Even if most of the loose ends are resolved and the protagonist comes away with a new and improved outlook on life, the nature of literary fiction often leaves the reader feeling the story hasn’t really ended.
Non-endings are a fact of life for those of us who choose a literary style, but we can simplify our lives by modifying the mystery writers’ Q and A technique. Instead of beginning with a question, we can clearly state the theme of the novel early in the story. In literary fiction, the theme is usually a question of sorts.
Instead of ending with an answer, we can restate the theme in a slightly modified form reminding the reader what the story was about—like a pair of book ends that hold the narrative in place. Those bookends leave the reader with a feeling of understanding they might otherwise miss.
It’s simple. Here’s an example from my third novel, Cherokee Ice.
Nelva Riley unfastened her seatbelt and scooted close to Richard Daniels.
“Children are a blessing.” She gave him her best smile, kissed him on the cheek, tried to remind him how much he liked her before she told him what he didn’t want to know.
Richard kept his eyes on the road and his foot on the gas pedal.
“The Laguna people say family is the most important thing.” Nelva sounded so much like her mother. She cleared her throat and tried again. “The Laguna people say . . .” Exactly like her mother.
Tommy Bracken’s left eye stays dilated, but his right pupil constricts until it is the size of a period at the end of a death sentence. His spirit leaves his body, the way they always do, with his dying breath. It rides out on a pair of Spanish words: “Cielito Lindo”.
The constricted pupil dilates until it matches the other one. Two black pools covered by a film of tears, thickened by spider venom and evaporation, reflecting colors like oil on water. Red, blue, green, and yellow. The rainbow colors at the border of the spirit world.
Another text from Nelva: Family is the most important thing. That’s what the Laguna people say.