We spend hours, days and months crafting the perfect first line. The hook. The first five pages. But how much time do we spend getting the perfect END to the story? Join James Scott Bell as he tells us how.
The famous hardboiled writer Mickey Spillane, who was at one time the bestselling author in the world, once said, “Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”
We’ve all had this experience, in movies and with books––an ending that let us down. As writers, our task is to never, ever let that happen.
Not as easy as the opening. I love openings. I can write openings all day long.
But endings? That’s the hard part. Here are a few thoughts that have helped me along the way.
1. Think of the ending as a final battle
Every ending should be a final battle inside and outside of the main character, often both. By outside, I mean that there are physical or circumstantial against the Lead. This might mean the forces of the Empire in Star Wars or the physical stammer of Prince Albert in The King’s Speech.
By inside, I mean a psychological battle that has to be resolved.
In Casablanca, for example, the real fight is inside Rick (Humphrey Bogart). He has spent the whole movie as the anti-hero, not taking a stand against the Nazis. Then the love of his life, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) comes to his saloon, with her husband, the war hero Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid). At the end, Rick can have Ilsa back. She has consented to leave with him.
And it’s freaking INGRID BERGMAN! Talk about having your ideal within reach!
But if he does take her, he’ll be violating a central moral tenet of society. The writers set it up, too, that it will devastate Lazlo, thus hurting the war effort itself.
Rick has to make an inner battle decision, and ultimately sacrifices what he wants most in the world for a greater good. It becomes the most famous ending in Hollywood history when he gets an unexpected reward – the French police captain, Louis (Claude Rains) does not arrest Rick for murdering the Nazi major. Instead, they go off together to rejoin the war effort. It’s “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
So aim for that in your ending. If it’s an outside forces type of ending, as in a thriller, the Lead must find the courage to fight against strong odds. If it’s inside, the Lead must find the moral courage to do the right thing. If he doesn’t, the story becomes a tragedy.
2. The Q Factor
True character is only revealed in crisis. That’s why novels put characters through the crucible of conflict. Ideally, that conflict reaches a climax where the end is in doubt, the odds are stacked against the Lead, the final battle looks bleak.
The character will need some emotional push to get over the doubts and fears. I call this push The Q Factor. It comes from the character in the James Bond movies, the one who is always giving Bond his gadgets and telling him not to play with them. There is a very important reason this character exists.
Let’s cut ahead to the inevitable James Bond ending. Bond has been hung by his ankles over a school of piranha . The bad guy grins and says something like, “Enjoy your swim, Mr. Bond.” Then he sets the timer to lower James Bond into the pool of piranha and walks out.
As Bond is lowered toward his doom, he manages to get his thumb on one of his cufflinks. The cufflink turns into a small, rotating saw. He uses that saw to cut through the restraints on his hands.
He is able to reach into his jacket pocket and pull out a fountain pen. The fountain pen is, in reality, a device that holds a compressed nitrogen charge and shoots a small grappling hook and line across the piranha pond, enabling Bond to cut his leg restraints and swing to safety on the other side of the pool.
But of course, it was all set up by the Q scene. Because we saw these items before, we are perfectly accepting of them when they come out at the right time.
In fiction, the Lead character should reach a point near the end when everything looks lost. This can be something outside or inside the character, or both. But he is, in figurative terms, dangling over a pool of piranha.
What he needs is courage for the final battle, the ultimate test. This is where the Q Factor can help. It is something that is set up early in the story which will provide the necessary inspiration or instruction for the character when he needs it most.
Luke Skywalker hearing his beloved Obi-Wan’s voice, reminding him to “Use the Force,” is one example of a Q Factor. Simba seeing and hearing his father in the clouds in The Lion King. The voices of these loved ones come back to provide an emotional lift, a jolt of courage, at a crucial moment.
Or the Q Factor can be subtle and implicit. In Casablanca, Rick finally decides to take a stand against the Nazis by getting Victor Lazlo and Ilsa out of Casablanca.
Why does he do the right thing? What triggered it? In an early scene, the Nazi major, Strasser, is trying to figure Rick out by questioning him. Rick doesn’t want to make waves, but Strasser prods him, hinting that the Nazis might someday be in New York.
Rick says, ” Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”
We see here that Rick has good old American attitude somewhere down deep. Near the end of Act 2, Rick allows his orchestra to play the French national anthem at Lazlo’s request. Lazlo is doing this to counter the Nazis who have started singing their own tune in Rick’s saloon.
This is a Q moment. Rick is moved by Lazlo’s bravery. We sense a connection between Rick’s lost idealism and his admiration for Lazlo. When Rick makes his sacrificial decision at the end, we accept that it has built to this point.
In a romance, the Q Factor may be that moment that changes one of the characters so they can truly love. Scarlett sees Ashley as he is, after Melanie’s death, and realizes that she has made an ideal of him. He never really existed at all, except in my imagination, she thinks.
And then she realizes the meaning of a dream she’s been having—it is her running home to Rhett. She now knows Rhett is the one she truly loves. Of course, by then it’s too late. Not all stories have happy endings. (I sometimes wonder if, in the first draft, Margaret Mitchell’s final line was, “Tomorrow will probably pretty much suck, too.”)
So a Q Factor can be a helpful way of thinking through a character’s inner journey. It’s highly flexible. It’s helped me tighten up my endings and might do the same for you.
3. My Own, Personal Method
When it comes to the actual writing of my endings, I have a method I call “Stew, Brew and Do.” It’s a little eccentric, but it works for me.
I spend a lot of time at the end of a manuscript just stewing about the ending. Brooding over it. I’ve got my final scenes in mind, of course, and have written toward them. I may even have written a temporary ending. But I know I won’t be satisfied until I give the whole thing time to simmer. I put the manuscript aside for awhile, work on other projects, let the “boys in the basement” (Stephen King’s great metaphor for the subconscious mind) take over.
I tell myself to dream about the ending before going to bed. I write down notes in the morning.
Then one morning I’ll spend a couple of hours poring over my notes and pages, thinking hard about the ending. Then I forget about it.
I take a long walk.
There is a Starbucks half an hour from my office. (In fact, there is a Starbucks half an hour from anyplace in the world). I put a small notebook in my back pocket and walk there, listening to music, not thinking about my story.
I get to Starbucks and order a brew—a solo espresso. I down it, wait a few minutes for it to kick in, and then start writing notes in the notebook about my ending. I write whatever comes to mind, without editing. The most original ideas for the ending happen here. My goal is to have lots of ideas and then choose the best ones.
I go back to my office and write until finished.
Finally, when I’m in the editing phase, I pay special attention to the very last lines. I want a certain sound, a “resonance.” It’s not something you can formalize. Each book is different. But I often tweak my endings twenty or thirty times. I want to get something like Salinger gets at the end of The Catcher in the Rye:
It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
That is a line that sums up the entire book in a few words and jerks your emotions at the same time. And it’s possible to get this in any genre. You just have to work hard for it.
But the work is worth it because readers will not only be happy with your ending, they’ll be clamoring for your next book, too.
What book ending has stayed with you for years?
Join us on Friday for a Debut Author’s Interview with our very own Adrienne Giordano!
Bio: JAMES SCOTT BELL is the bestselling author of Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back and several other thrillers. He served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written three bestselling craft books for Writers Digest, including the #1 writing book of the decade, Plot & Structure.
Jim attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver. He graduated with honors from the University of Southern California law school, and has written over 300 articles and numerous books for the legal profession.
A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. He lives in Los Angeles. His website is www.JamesScottBell.com.
You can follow him at Twitter.com/jamesscottbell and on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/pages/James-Scott-Bell/108765742543789
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