It might seem like an oversimplification, but it is very viable to divide a story into just three parts: beginning, middle, and end. Yes, you can dig into each part and break it down in things like rising action, climax, conclusion, exposition, denouement, and so forth, but sometimes all you need to analyze and understand is beginning, middle, and end. This is especially true when it comes to writing a story, for each of these three components will have different flavors, and will be written differently. As an author, maybe you think a little about rising and falling action and those other, more literary pacing and structure terms when you get to revisions, but when you’re writing your first draft, you’re mostly concerned with beginning, middle, and end.
Beginnings are broadly considered the easiest to write, and I agree. Not from a technical perspective – it can take considerable finessing after the piece is finished to get the beginning into a desirable and engaging form, and at least a few things in the beginning will almost inevitably change as a result of decisions you make later one – but from a sitting down to write perspective. The beginning is when you’re probably most excited about a story: you have all of these ideas, all of these concepts and images and characters and mysteries, and you’re eager to get them out onto the page. For me, there’s just something exciting about a fresh start on a blank page, with all of the potential story’s possibilities open and unfettered before me; I’ve never been the sort of person to find the blank page intimidating. The beginning’s rough draft, therefore, tends to come together quickly, even if it changes drastically in later revisions.
Most authors will tell you that the middle is the hardest part of the story to write on that rough draft, get the story onto the paper stage. If the beginning is where we set the stage and start events in motion, the middle is where events sort of…roll along. A lot of writers apparently find this part to be kind of a drag, and it’s where many will tell you that they lose momentum and end up not finishing the story. This is probably why so many people have so many starts of writing projects that never get much beyond chapter three. I can understand that, and yet for me it’s usually not the middle that drags me down in the writing process. I enjoy middles, and I’d like to think I’ve become rather decent at them. For me, if I managed a good beginning, and I have a sufficiently interesting concept for the story, then the middle is my opportunity to explore all of the possible directions it could go.
Endings, though…I struggle with my endings. If you’ve been reading Blood Magic (and you really should be), you probably have noticed this: my stories will be barreling along, doing well, and then they’ll just sort of end. No falling action, no denouement, no significant conclusion, just done. I mean, the plot is technically wrapped up, but it’s a little like going in to stick the landing, and finding that the runway is a lot closer than you thought, and a whole lot shorter. When my wife and I talk about my stories, her main complaint (other than my unfortunate tendency for stranding characters on islands in desperate situations at the end of to-be-continued stories) is that my endings are dissatisfying. I understand this, and I agree, but my efforts to improve have been less than successful thus far.
At first, I was wont to blame this tendency upon the way I was drafting the Blood Magic episodes, finishing the very first draft often days or mere hours before it was time to set them live on the site. The explanation was an easy way out, and it fit the data: I was clipping my endings because I felt rushed for time and just needed the story to be done, like my tendency in early writings for school to involve all of the characters dying at the end because it was late and I really needed to be done with the assignment. As I finished longer works that had no such deadlines, however, I found that I was still clipping my endings. This point was driven home when I looked back on the ending (and discussed it with my wife) of Destiny of Kings. Here was a story in which I had deliberately slowed down, taken my time, and done thorough revisions, and still the final version of the ending was like putting a 777 down on a five hundred yard dirt strip.
This realization has led me to admit that I am, in fact, terrible at writing endings, to the point that my various story starts that are lingering unfinished in the middle or early stages are stuck there not so much for lack of momentum in the middle, but for a lack of vision on my part for how to end it, should it ever get to that point. Which is a terrible attitude with which to approach writing, by the way, but there you go. More positively, it has led me to evaluate more carefully what is making my endings unsatisfactory, how to craft a better ending, and techniques to improve this part of my writing. It is my good fortune that Blood Magic’s third season gives me twelve stories in which to work on my endings. And it is to my audience’s good fortune that eleven of those will be practice before I need to figure out how to properly end the entire thirty six episode series.
Since so many more authors struggle with middles than struggle with endings, I have so far had a harder time than I expected finding resources to help, but I have come to a few conclusions. First, while length and word counts aren’t something to be militant about, they are worth looking at when it comes to endings. If a story is twenty thousand words, and the ending is two paragraphs, that’s probably on the short side (although I have an excuse for the end of Blood Magic season two, since the first episode of the third season is primarily a protracted sort of denouement for the two-part Pifecha). I’ve not generated a percentage or ratio or anything rigorous, but this seems like a clear principle: make the ending proportional to the rest of the piece.
Second, part of my problem with endings is how my writing changes (or doesn’t change) over the course of a story. When I start writing a story, I fill out what can be slow parts of the plot with exposition, character moments, and more imagery. Those parts of my writing, especially the exposition and imagery, become far less frequent and verbose as the plot accelerates. When I reach the ending, I’ve been writing in this relatively spare prose of my “middle mode” for most of the story, and I don’t make a switch back into the more descriptive style I use for the beginning of the piece. Since less plot is happening at the ending (that’s the whole point), the ending ends up feeling rushed and clipped in a way that perhaps the beginning would also if I were to use that same “middle mode” for it.
Finally, there just needs to be more substance. Changing my writing style to be more descriptive for the endings might help flesh things out and make the story feel more balanced, but by itself I doubt if that is enough to fully explain the problem. When I write my beginnings, I have events that happen, conversations that occur, and interactions that characters experience which don’t pertain directly to the plot, but help to set the stage and provide exposition. I should apply the same sort of plotting to the endings of my stories, for largely the same reasons, especially the setting of the stage. Just as it is important to set the stage at the beginning of the story, so that the reader knows the necessary context and is ready for the meat of the story to happen, so too does the ending stage need to be set, so that the reader will know that the story is ending, and their imaginations will be primed to envision what happens next, off-story.
I don’t know if my trio of potential fixes will completely mend my challenged endings, but I do think that more words, more description, and more substance will help them. Each of these I’ve tried individually before, but Destiny of Kings demonstrates that just being a little more deliberate about the matter isn’t sufficient. It will take work and practice along all three of these ideas, in combination. Now, if only I had been able to think of a better ending for this post.
11 thoughts on “Endings”
For me, the middle bit is the hardest part, because EVERYTHING is the middle. And that dread usually manifests itself as a saggy story. It’s interesting to see how other writers struggle with different parts of the story. Anyway, thanks for this post!
Middles certainly have their own challenges. The podcast “Writing Excuses” often references the “yes, but” and “no, and” structures, which tools I have found to be very helpful for fleshing out the middle and keeping it from getting, as you term it, “saggy,” especially since I don’t do very much outlining.