Today I was going to write about ending a story, but then a few other ideas came to me. So, first, if you don’t mind, I’ll just talk a little about the writing life.
For now, I was at a delightful evening last week, and a good friend who has recently changed his job told me that he had to move because the previous one was not suitable for him. It wasn’t to his taste; he found he was not enjoying life. In short, it was an office job with all the normal office politics, and he found that it was hard to ‘switch off’ – he was waking in the middle of the night thinking about work, and he felt his family life suffered. He found he was carrying a notepad with him all the time. He could not stop thinking about work.
I can easily understand how difficult that must be for anyone. All too easily, really, because it is the standard form of existence for more authors.
I do not – ever – switch off from work. If I’m away for a few days, I always carry a notebook and pen. I am never, even in bed, more than an arm’s reach from paper and pen or pencil. I always scribble, and if I’m not writing, I am thinking: musing over a character’s behaviour, over his or her motives in certain scenes, rethinking scenes and wondering how I could improve them.
I take periods off between books.
I hate doing that, because I feel as though I am skiving, avoiding the only means of earning an income I have. However, it’s essential for me to have time off, because if I don’t, I will soon dry up. It’s just too absorbing to be writing. And I know that it drives my family potty when I am writing, because I am so utterly consumed by the story.
Yes, consumed. When I am writing, I am living six or seven lives as well as my own. I am seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, reacting to the environment they live in, sometimes reacting to hideous stimuli that would, in my life, give me nightmares for weeks or months. To live those lives is not easy. It’s not something I can switch on and off for a seven hour working day.
And that, I think, is one reason why writing can put a strain on people. It’s not easy to write in a schizophrenic haze! It does devour all a writer’s creativity and concentration, even after 32 or more novels.

Enough of that.

To return to my first concept: it is hard, always, to end a novel or novella. The story has to be complete, and that, to me, means rounding off the ending so that it’s not harsh and sudden.
There are some books (especially thrillers) which appear to mount in tension and excitement all the way through to the denoument, and then, suddenly, just stop. It’s like running flat out into a brick wall for the reader. All the involvement in time and effort that has gone into associating with the characters in the novel feels wasted.
The worst examples I have seen have been by writers of legal thrillers. Perhaps (and I suspect there may be some truth in this) the authors are or were lawyers, and are so used to sticking to their contracts that, as soon as they reach the 120,000 word limit stated in their contracts, they immediately throw in the ending. They allow two pages for resolution and send their manuscript to the editor. They’ve done their job as stated in the contract. Who would do more work when they’ve already earned their money?
Hmm. Well, a good salesman always leaves the buyer wanting a little more. For a small additional effort, you can leave the reader more satisfied. It’s the little wafer-thin mint after the meal. It’s not needed, but it rounds things off beautifully. The diner goes away satisfied for an additional cost that is negligible. Take away the little complementary choccies, and you may save a few pennies per punter, but they may not come back. Last impressions last.
My own view is, for a book to read well, you should put as much effort into winding things down – both for your readers and your protagonists – as you do in the early stages setting up your story.
All authors spend an inordinate amount of time getting the characterisation right, they spend time setting the scenes, explaining motives and making sure that their people behave rationally and sensibly – basically keeping them all in character. It’s as important, usually, for the reader to see how they react after the big scenes of conflict and hardship.
And that is why I have now spent almost a (flaming) week on the last thousand words of this story. The story isn’t complex. It’s not convoluted. It’s not difficult. BUT, if I just closed the story off when I could have last week, it would be deeply dissatisfying, to me if not to anyone else.
After all, I’ve been living with these characters for some time now. I can’t just ditch them. They’re friends. I have to make sure I send them on their way with a clear path ahead.
Hopefully readers of my books will appreciate the fact that they can see how things are developing as they reach the final page – (and then want to buy the next book, of course)!
Happy reading!

4 Responses to “Endings”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    I could not agree more Michael. Bringing a story to a satisfactory conclusion is paramount, most of the time. There are exceptions such as in a series where only the last book should arrive at its logical end, having cleared up the cliff hanger endings of its predecessors. :)


  2. SJAT says:

    Nice post Michael. I have to say re: endings, that I have to finish the story in my planned manner, but I always find that I have so much more winding down to do and almost always end up adding an epilogue to help ease things down. And re: the intro part, I have a dictaphone I carry with me at all times to record ideas and thoughts. Very handy. And I don’t take time off between but, being self published and able to go at my own pace, I take time off DURING! (Whenever I feel there’s a touch of the ‘burn-out’ threat on the horizon.) And on that note, I am taking tomorrow off to sit in a pub and read an old fave book for a change. :-)


    • Used to take a pocket recorder with me too, but used to always find the damn thing had run out of battery when I needed it. Now I always have my Midori Traveller’s Notebook instead. One pad in it for story ideas, dialogue etc, the second for day-to-day stuff. It’s working for me!


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