Craft a satisfying ending

Writing books seem to give less attention to endings than they do to other elements of fiction. Yet a satisfying ending is a necessity. An unsatisfying ending will produce negative reviews, eliminate word-of-mouth referrals, and ruin your chances of getting repeat readers.

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.—Mickey Spillane

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Don’t leave readers hanging off a cliff

Writers of series books have gotten into an ugly habit lately. They leave readers hanging, either by giving them a cliffhanger or just arbitrarily picking a stopping point for one book. You can tell by some of the one- and two-star reviews on Amazon that readers are sick of this game of “you have to buy the next book to see what happens! Bwa ha ha!” A novel is not an old-timey cinema serial, even if it is part of a series. A novel should have a satisfying ending. Not simply a stopping place.

Loose threads are tied up before the climax.

Once you’ve written your dramatic climax, you don’t want to then spend another three chapters wrapping up all your loose ends. Continue reading

Answer story questions before you get to the end

When we first started talking about plot, I mentioned the “story problem” or “major dramatic question.” A good story will raise multiple questions. They don’t all need to be—in fact, shouldn’t be—answered at once, but they do need to be answered for the ending to be satisfying.

We’ll talk more about satisfying endings later, but for now, let’s consider this point:

Questions that arise are left tantalizingly open as long as feasible

You do need to answer your story questions, but the longer you can reasonably delay the character’s discovery of the answer, the more tension you’ll create. That keeps the reader turning pages, because she wants to know the answer, too. And ideally, each answer leads to a new question, until you reach the end. Continue reading

Use a light hand with your novel’s theme

There’s a fine line between giving your novel a theme, delivering a message, and just being didactic. I’ll never tell you these things have no place in your book, because many great books have them. But when you do them, you must first of all embed them in an engaging story filled with characters readers care about. And you must handle these elements deftly.

Premise or theme is expressed subtly but consistently.

Here’s another Pixar rule: “Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it.” Which is another way of saying finish your first draft without worrying about theme. Focus on bringing out your theme in the editing. Continue reading

For every plant, there must be a payoff

This maxim is best remembered in the words of Anton Chekhov, who gave the advice several times and in different ways, one of which is this:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.—Anton Chekhov

No plant w/out payoff or vice versa.

Whatever the object is, if it seems important to the reader, it had better, at some point, be important to the story. Continue reading

Make subplots integral to the story

We’re still working on the Plot section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist.

Subplots arise organically and make sense as they unfold, not only in light of the ending.

Done right, subplots add richness and depth to a novel. They give us a chance to see characters in different lights and see the results of the plot from different angles. But a subplot that arises out of nowhere for no apparent reason will distract the reader. Having a “now it all makes sense” moment at the very end isn’t a great help, because by that point you may already have lost the reader. Continue reading

Avoid using coincidences to move plot

When you’re escalating the stakes and getting your protagonists into deeper and deeper trouble, a great principle to keep in mind is this one from the “Pixar Rules:”

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Authors of yore used to employ coincidence all the time. Since many writers are well versed in Dickens and other classics, we sometimes try to use those same ploys. But the coincidence trick is much harder to get away with now. This advice from filmmaker Emma Coats, a former Pixar staffer, puts it in perspective. Continue reading