Authors put a lot of thought, writing and rewriting into the beginning of their stories. The first few paragraphs of a story have to do so much: set time and place, introduce the protagonist and give some hint as to what the story is about. If it’s a mystery, “get the body on the first page” a reviewer once suggested.
Agents and editors insist on a strong hook from the very start.
As hard as the beginning is to write, the ending is just as great a challenge. It has to bring a satisfactory conclusion to the story’s action. Questions asked throughout the story must be answered. In addition, the ending has to resonate with readers so they will want to read the author’s other works.
Most stories begin because the protagonist has a want or need. There are five basic ways to bring closure. The protagonist can:
- get what he desires and be happy about that
- fail to get what he desires and be happy about that
- get what he desires but he’s not happy about that
- fail to get what he desires and he’s not happy about that
- discover he’s no longer interested what he originally wanted and now wants something else
There are limitless variations on those basic outcomes.
Even more challenging is the ending for stories in a series. Individual installments have to have a conclusion and the series itself needs a climax.
Each tale in a series has two threads.
One thread drives the individual story and it’s what enables each story to stand on its own. Authors can’t assume that readers will read every installment in a series or will read them sequentially. Therefore each one should give the reader a suitable orientation at the beginning and have an ending that resolves the issue driving that particular story.
The other thread is an overarching element that unifies the entire series. It could be a characteristic of the main character like a wandering hero such as Odysseus in Homer’s epic serial poems or a token like the One Ring in the J. R. R. Tolkien stories. When the unifying element is brought to rest, the series ends. Odysseus finally learns what he must and wins the right to return home to stay. The One Ring is destroyed bringing the battle for it to an end.
As I homed in on wrapping-up my first novel, The Lost King, I discovered that I didn’t know how to end it. I realized that the protagonist got what he wanted but discovered that was only one part of a greater desire. That’s a variation of Ending #5. I hadn’t originally intended for The Lost King to be a series but by the time I got to the end it became apparent that while the protagonist had answered the important question asked at the beginning of the story he still had a lot to learn and experience.
When I started Book Two, The King’s Ransom, I was certain that this would bring the tale to a close but I wound up with a variation of Ending #1. The protagonist thinks that he’s gotten what he wanted at the book’s beginning but he’s wrong. He finds out how wrong in Book Three.
I started The King’s Redress certain that this would be the last book in a trilogy. As it turns out, Book Three has a #5 ending which leads me to believe that I’ll be writing, in the tradition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy with more than three books.
At the rate I’m going I may never get to write THE END.