Writing Advice #34: Q&A Pt. 5 – Endings

This week, I’m going to answer two questions from the original MySpace version of this series. (For those of you new to the Writing Advice BLog: I originally ran a similar series on MySpace a couple of years ago.)

I just really like these two questions and I think they’re good things to think about as we look ahead to a New Year, fresh with possibility.

Here we go:

What in your opinion is the best part of being an author?

That’s such a tough question! There are so many wonderful things about this job. If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to pick one, I would probably say the best thing about it is hearing from people who’ve read and enjoyed my work. There’s just nothing else in the world like it. You write your book in solitude, you publish it at a distance, it goes to stores all over the world… And you never know if anyone bought or read or liked it until you get an e-mail or a letter from a reader. And that’s when you feel great.

Next question:

If you’re writing a story or something, in terms of endings, is it usually better to go with the ending that you think your readers will want, or is it better to go with an ending that you’ve been thinking about since you started the story?

Oh, boy! This one sort of hits right at the core of Being a Writer.

I’m going to tell you what I think and my advice may someday cost those who follow my advice millions of dollars and the cheering of crowds, but you know what? You’ll feel better about yourself. (Eat your vegetables, too.)

When you go with the ending “that you think your readers will want,” more often than not, you’re chasing dollars. You’re thinking, “Well, I know how I WANT the book to end, but it will be more appealing if I do it THIS way instead. And if it’s more appealing, I’ll get the Big Bucks and the swooning, hot dancing girls (or boys) and the phat ride (you can tell I’m old — I said ‘phat’) and all that stuff.”

And that’s all well and good because God knows we’d all like the Big Bucks and all the rest, but if you’re anything like me, that book will forever be tainted for you. Every time you look at it — every time you THINK about it — you’ll think, “Man. It SHOULD have ended THIS way, not THAT way…”

That would drive me NUTS, no matter how much money it brought in for me, or how happy it made readers. I would know, deep in my heart, that that book was WRONG.

My first book had an ending that — to put it lightly — displeased a lot of people. The single most common comment I get from readers about that book is, “Why did it end this way?”

That happens because people are — for all intents and purposes — programmed by our popular culture to expect a certain kind of ending. When they don’t get it, they’re unhappy. In the case of my book, everyone wanted Fanboy and Kyra to make up and kiss and go off into the sunset together at the end. And they didn’t. And, boy, did I hear about it!

When I wrote the book, I knew that people would be upset about the ending. But I didn’t change it. Because it was the ending I knew the book HAD to have. It was the ending I had in my brain from the very first sentence. Every single word I wrote led up to that ending — to change it just to make someone ELSE happy would be a betrayal of the entire story.

And, yeah, there was pressure on me to change it. Early readers asked me to change it. My editor asked me if it “had” to end that way. I stuck to my guns.

Here’s the thing: The fact that people were so devastated and upset by that ending PROVED to me that it worked! It kept people thinking about the book and the characters, long after they turned the last page. That’s an ending that works. Sometimes, when you wrap things up in a nice package at the end, you just make it easier for the readers to toss the book aside and forget about it.

Look, we write for an audience. But our FIRST audience is US. If YOU don’t love your book, no one else will, either.

Maybe that’s all a bit too philosophical for you. Maybe you’re not convinced. That’s fine. Listen to this, then:

There’s no point “chasing” the ending the readers want…because you’ll never know for sure.

If you get to the end of your book and you have the choice of selecting Ending A or Ending B, how can you REALLY be sure that readers are going to like one more than the other? You can’t know. It’s impossible. Oh, sure, you can SUSPECT. You can be PRETTY CONFIDENT. But you can’t know to a 100% certainty.

This means that you’re left with two possibilities:

1) You end the book with an ending that doesn’t make you happy, on the CHANCE that it will make readers happy.
2) You end the book the way you’ve always wanted to, KNOWING that it’ll make at least one person (you) very happy.

I think it’s pretty obvious what side I come down on. Audiences are fickle things. Write YOUR story the way YOU see it.

Next week: Outlines — Threat or Menace???

Until then, be good to yourselves, have a happy New Year, and feel free to put questions in the comments below.

Comments

  1. I think your second answer seems to address two different things: write the ending you want to write and an ending that will devastate the readers accomplishes something extra.
    The first point I agree with completely. The second, taken independently, not such. That is to say, if a writer truly wishes for their story to end a certain way and that is what it has been leading up the entire time, and it happens to not be a tidy end and makes the readers think on it, okay. But if the goal is a bad ending for its own sake, because it’s considered deeper or non-conformist, because it makes the reader think long after they’ve finished, then no, no, no.
    I do dwell on the unhappy and bittersweet ends, just a think back to a sports team loss or an election defeat, and I would most certainly, as an author, cause a few moments of satisfied ecstasy than prolonged grief.

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