We all know how important starting strong is, right? That first sentence needs to stick a finger in the reader’s mouth and say, “You’re coming with me, Jack.” Or Jill, whatever your name is. That first sentence drags the reader (kicking and screaming if need be) into the first paragraph, which leads to the second paragraph, so on, so forth…ad infinitum. All the way to the end.
Now, endings can be sticky furballs worth of frustration. You’ve partied hard for a couple hundred pages, getting your heroine into one snafu after another. They’ve been introduced to no less than fifty million new interesting characters and now there’re loose plot strands dangling from the rafter like toilet paper from a Freshman Frat party (I’ve never been to a frat house, but I assume everything is gilded in a thick veneer of TP. I don’t know why I have this mental image, but now you do too. So come along with me as we stretch this peculiar metaphor even further.)
Delivering a gratifying ending (whether it be happy, sad, or tragic) is one of the hardest things we writers are expected to do. If your ending sucks, you’re gonna leave your reader with literary blue balls and they’re gonna think twice about going out with you on a second date, ie: they won’t pick up your next book. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Stephen King is notorious for his weak endings, but here’s the problem: You’re not Stephen King.
Unless you are. In which case, “Hi Stevie!”
Anyways, for the rest of you yahoos, you aren’t King, so you need to work extra hard on sticking the landing. I don’t profess to be an expert on writing strong endings (except for when I do), but here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned the hard way to deliver consistently satisfying climaxes.
WHAT MAKES A STRONG ENDING?
Let’s begin by figuring out what even makes for a strong ending. Is it a Shamalyanana’esque twist ending ala The Sixth Sense? Is it a gut wrenching cathartic moment ala The Notebook? Does everybody get their comeuppance? Does nobody get their comeuppance? Does everything need to be wrapped up nice and neat, or can you leave some dangling ploticiples? (participles? Hm… lame grammar pun anyone?)
Here’s the answer, and it’s part of what makes writing a strong ending so frustrating. Ready? Here it is.
Yep, that’s right. The type of ending your reader will find gratifying is dependent on a hydroplaning semi-truck’s worth of factors. But let’s start simply with this:
What promises did you make in the beginning of your story?
To write a good ending, you have to go back to the beginning and figure out what promises you actually made to the reader. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you’ve promised to reveal the bad guy. If you’re writing a light-hearted romance, you’re promising the main characters will get together, or at least have a happy ever after ending. If you’re writing a Narnia’esque portal story, you’re promising to return the reader to the regular world when it’s all done (nobody wants to be left twisting in the Narnia-wind, right?)
So that’s first, figure out what your BIG STORY PROMISE is, and fulfill it. Now, as the story progress, you’ll no doubt make a mole-hill’s worth of other smaller (but no less important promises). You have a bit more freedom in breaking these, but on the whole, it’s still very important to keep them. Now the question becomes: How?
How do you deliver on these promises?
This is the part of the writing process that can drive you to putting down the pen and taking up something easier, like astrophysics or something casual like that. We’ve all been there, so take solace, dear reader. You are not alone.
But let’s talk about how we deliver on all those promises, because if you’ve written even a slightly complex story, you’re gonna have a bunch of plot strands needing to be tied into neat little bows. The general rule of thumb here is to resolve promises/plot strands in the reverse order they are made.
[Big story promise[[Slightly smaller story promise[[[Small story promise[[[[Smallest story promise/resolve smallest]]]]Resolve small story promise]]]Resolve bigger story promise]]Resolve biggest story promise]
Here’s how this might look with an actual story for example:
[Dillon falls through magical portal[[Dillon meets friendly magical mermaid[[[Dillon recruited to assassinate evil Mermaid King[[[[Dillon loses magic trident needed to kill Mermaid King/Dillon regains magic trident]]]] Dillon kills Mermaid King (or doesn’t, that’s up to you. It’s your story after all)]]]Dillon and magical mermaid friend must say goodbye]]Dillon jumps back through portal. Comes home]
Okay, I’m fully aware that this will go down in the annals of writing advice history as one of the worse examples ever provided. For that I am sorry. I wish I had an excuse, but it’s 2 pm on a Sunday and I haven’t even started drinking yet. My apologies.
Anyways, you get the general idea, right? Oh, whew, thank god. I thought I was gonna have to provide another example. Let’s move on and forget this ever happened.
Why wrapping up all your loose plot strands isn’t always necessary (or advised).
This is one of those damned if do, damned if you don’t type situations. On the one hand, if you wrap up all your plot strands nice and neat, then you’ll get called out because it’ll feel manufactured. Then again, leave some strands flapping in the wind, and you get called out for finishing on a cliffhanger which leads to general feelings of resentment amongst your readers.
In general, it’s a bad thing when your readership resents you, so let’s try and avoid that, yeah?
Here’s my stance: Life isn’t neat and tidy, so neither should your fiction. The caveat here is that you must address the big story promises you made at the beginning. If you neglect those, or leave them unresolved until the next book, you’re gonna piss your readers off. So answer the big mysteries your story raises, but play a little loosey goosey with some of the smaller ones.
For example, maybe you have a really mysterious wizard fellow who swoops in every now and then and does something mysterious and cool. As long as this character is sufficiently ancillary to the story as a whole, you don’t need to dive in deep to his history and background. In fact, doing so might steal some of his mysterious thunder.
As a rule, don’t steal wizard’s mystery thunder. Leave it out there as a tantalizing bit of information that the reader wants, but can’t have.
Why do this?
Well, when executed properly it adds a layer of complexity and inherit breadth to your story world. It tells us as the reader that there’s more to this world than what we’re being told, more history, more adventure, more more more.
One of the interesting things about George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is how huge the story feels in the first few books. All sorts of things are only loosely hinted. This drags the reader in and makes them ask: Well, what about that thing? I want to know more about that thing.
Martin, like the master he is, drags out this want over the course of multiple books. Now that he’s knee-deep in the story world, however, it’s all starting to feel a bit smaller, yeah? Things that were once mysterious have now been explained and are almost commonplace. We forfeit mystery in favor of intimacy.
When crafting your endings, be considerate of which mysteries you are leaving open and which ones you are closing down. If we learned everything there is to know about the white walkers right off the bat in Game of Thrones we would have lost the mystery and intrigue (two powerful motivators for luring the reader deeper into your story).
What makes a good cliffhanger?
Bad cliffhanger: Not delivering on the promise you made early in the book.
Good cliffhanger: After resolving the the book’s big problem, you reveal a NEW BIG PROMISE!
Dexter Season Four has one of the best season finales of any show I’ve ever seen. If you’ve never seen the show, well, you should. Do yourself a favor, stop reading this, go watch the first four seasons, and then come back.
There were two big promises made at the beginning of this season
1) Can Dexter learn how to live a normal life from befriending the Trinity Killer?
2) Will Dexter kill, or be killed, by the Trinity Killer?
The show writers are very intentional about making these promises in this order, and then resolving them in reverse order.
Dexter succeeds in killing the Trinity Killer. He wins and in the process learns some valuable things about himself and he’s confident he can live a normal life. That is, until he goes home to find his wife murdered in the bathtub. Now we get our answer to the BIG BIG SEASON QUESTION. Can Dexter live a normal life? No. His life will never be that thing.
The symmetry of this season is a beautiful thing. That final episode is a masterclass in giving a strong ending. I highly recommend it, even if I have now ruined it for you.
What about twist endings?
Good Twist Ending: Properly foreshadowed with a sense of inevitability.
Bad Twist Ending: Seemingly random event sideswipes everything.
I’m a fan of the twist ending, but they are hard to pull off. The trick to getting it right is in the foreshadowing. What I often see are writers terrified that somebody will guess their twist beforehand, and therefore remove all the foreshadowing and allusions. Problem is the twist then comes out of left-field and leaves everybody scratching their head.
As a rule of thumb, just assume that some people will guess the twist, you can’t fool everybody. Best you can hope for is about 70% I’d say. Hell, I’m sure a bunch of people had The Sixth Sense twist figured in the first 30 minutes. That’s just how it goes, don’t stress too hard on it.
If you’re reader gets to the twist and says, “Wait, what?” and not “Ah, of course! How didn’t I see that?” then you’ve done something wrong. Don’t worry, you’re not alone on that. We’re all guilty of this one at some time or another.
Beta readers go a long ways here in helping you figure out if your twist is actually any good.
Alright, it’s time to wrap this up. If I were a better man, I’d rehash all the points I made, closing them down in reverse order, (ya know, to practice what I preach). But guess what, I’m not a better man. Muahaha! Plot twist! Bet you didn’t see that coming. No, see, you did see that coming ’cause I’ve gone to great lengths ensuring your expectations of me always remain low.
Anyhoo, I want to hear from you folks. What are some of your favorite endings? Doesn’t matter if it’s a television show, book, or movie. Or, if you’re feeling like a Negative Nancy, tell us about some of your least favorite endings. Get down to the comments and let your voice be heard!
Looking for an excellent collection of short stories centered around the theme of Time Travel? Of course you are. What with all the hype around Back to the Future recently, I know you’re all dying to sate that time warping hunger burning in your gut. And here’s your opportunity: The Time Travel Chronicles from mega-curating superstar, Samuel Peralta, are officially on pre-order!
Why should you boogie on over to grab a copy now instead of waiting for the release on October 30th? Well, because for a limited time, you can grab The Time Travel Chronicles for the low, low price of $0.99. Seriously, for less than a buck you can get 400 pages worth of short stories from some remarkably talented authors.
I’m absolutely thrilled to have my own short story, EXTANT, included in the collection.
Alrighty, enough self-promotion. Get over to Amazon and grab your copy today!
Ken Liu is one of those grandmaster level short story writers that simply boggles the mind with his deft characterization and hallmark tone. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited his debut novel, Grace of Kings. Right off the bat you’ve got to give Liu kudos for the fact that a guy best known for his short stories decided not to just dip a toe into the kiddie pool of novel writing, but instead, to climb the high dive of expectation and cannonball in by writing a full on epic fantasy monsterpiece.
Ken Liu is best known for his science fiction and magic realism. (If you’ve never read one of his short stories you’re really doing
yourself a disservice. Might I recommend you begin with The Paper Menagerie, which, if you didn’t know is the only story to ever win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award in the same year. If that doesn’t give you some frame of reference for this guys Super-Saiyan level skills, nothing will.) Despite making his home more within the sci-fi genre, he decided to try something a bit different for his debut novel which is straight up, delicious epic fantasy in the vein of Historic Chinese Romance stories.
Grace of Kings is most interesting from a narrative perspective. In modern epic fantasy, the trend tends be toward stories that follow through the eyes of singular characters. There may be a large cast, but the action tends to be grounded at a very micro-level. We see this with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. There’s a lot of macro world stuff happening that the reader doesn’t get to see unless one of the point-of-view characters happens to be there.
This is one of the stand-out features of Grace of Kings which frequently zooms out to macro-perspective to check in on wily gods doing wily god things. Then, in the next scene, the perspective zooms all the way in on a point-of-view character who we might only get to follow for a single short chapter. (This type of short-lived character arc can be trouble within the context of an epic fantasy where readers expect to develop excrutiatingly intimate relationships with the characters, but Ken Liu puts his short story chops to good use here by creating compelling, sympathetic characters with only a couple lead in paragraphs to set the tone. This is actually an astonishing achievement on Liu’s part.) This macro to micro perspective shift makes for two competing forms of tension as we are constantly worrying about both large, world-scale events and small, interpersonal relationships.
On the whole, this technique makes Grace of Kings what it is. It allows Liu to tell a really huge story that spans decades within only 600 pages. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of developing some of the really pivotal relationships that the entire story hinges. For though Grace of Kings follows through the eyes of nearly 30 POV characters, it ultimately boils down to the relationship between two men, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. Two brothers in arms, trying to shape the world to fit their particular image, who are eventually turned against one another. The big problem I had with Grace of Kings is that Liu did a better job developing certain ancillary relationships than he did in setting the foundation for these two. The result of this underdevelopment is a climactic scene at the end of the book which is robbed of its full weight and gravitas by the lack of what I call the “who cares” factor.
The “who cares” factor is hard to measure. It’s like Shrodinger’s Cat, the results depend entirely on the observer. So what lacks the “who cares” factor for me, might not be the same for you. With that said, I think this is the greatest shortcoming of a story that is, in nearly every other respect, phenomenal.
Is it enough of a problem that it should deter you from reading Grace of Kings? No. Not at all. This is a great book affectionately dubbed Silkpunk, which plays off the idea of silk and Eastern Asian inspired organic technologies. There are flying ships, submarine fish, and battle kites. If you don’t think that’s awesome, then you need to get your awesome-gauge checked out
Every epic fantasy is judged to a large extent by the quality of its world-building. The type of reader who likes to lounge in the Epic Fantasy pool is looking for immersion. They want to feel as though this other world is real, tangible. This is part of the experience, and one that Ken Liu delivers in spades. He has created a robust world filled with a unique pantheon of capricious, unknowable gods; technologies similar to, and yet entirely unlike, anything we are currently familiar with; and complex political histories and interactions between neighboring cultures. The level of detail to which Liu flushes out all these categories is truly astonishing. By the end of the book, I was left with this sad, forlorn feeling upon realizing that this world wasn’t actually real. Which is pretty much the highest praise I can give to an Epic Fantasy.
In the end, if you’re looking for amazing world-building, a huge cast of intricate and compelling characters, war, and political intrigue set within a Silkpunk inspired universe, you should definitely grab a copy of Grace of Kings.
Also, Ken Liu translated the amazing The Three Body Problem which won this years Hugo for Best Novel, so you should probably check that out too. Just saying.
Have you read anything from Liu? What did you think? Get down to the comments and share your thoughts.
This week has been one big, sticky ball of busy. As a result, I haven’t been as mindful of your needs as I should be. So, to reaffirm my undying love and devotion to you, Dear Readers, here is a lightning round catch-up session on all the juicy things happening in my life.
I’ve been keeping this under my hat for awhile, but I think it’s time to share with the world. Purgatory is a novelette I’ll be releasing this November. Take a gander below.
I haven’t written out the description for Purgatory yet, but the quick and dirty is it’s a interplanetary murder mystery mixed with political intrigue and a couple star-crossed lovers. If that sounds like your type of story, and want to get your hand on a free advanced review copy, make sure you’re signed up for my NEWSLETTER and you’ll get a magic free story in your inbox sometime in the coming weeks.
The amazingly talented Adam Verner has put the finishing touches on his performance of Time Heist. Now we just sit and wait for ACX/Audible to do their final quality check and then BING BANG BOOM, no more having to read the book like a mere peasant. Overall I’m really excited how the audio turned out. Can’t wait to share it with you all.
By the by, if you’re interested in getting your ears on a review copy of the Time Heist audiobook, let me know in the comments. I’ll only be giving out a set number of free copies, so the sooner you get your hat in the ring, the better.
TIME HEIST GETS 2 BRITISH REVIEWS
These popped up earlier in the week and both gave me a big old smile, so hey, I’m going to share them with you because sometimes I don’t do a good job stopping being appreciative that there are actually people out there in the world enjoying my stories. Thanks to all of you who’ve ever taken the time to read one of my stories. Double thanks if you’ve ever left a review!
“Time Heist is a clever book…”
“Countdown clocks have become something of cliche, but Vicino has risked using the idea and it pays off not only for the pace of the book, but for the reminder that it’s possible to take a cliche and make it work again with a certain amount of reinvention…”
“In a world where sci-fi authors are competing for readers, it would be easy to draw the comparison that Vicino himself has put himself in a fighting ring determined to show off his chops…”
“Vicino’s use of comparative language is often razor sharp. Going through my Kindle notes, I feel like I’ve taken a class in pain description and how to write effective fight scenes…”
Tommie Muncie (Author of Shadow’s Talent)
“A great fun read, which for such a dark, almost post-apocalyptic book is quite a feat.”
“The writing style was really enjoyable, with the most original extended metaphors ever, period.”
“A good twisty turny single plot line with no jumping about–this book is all business and action moving from one chapter to the next without dropping its pace, and great fight scenes.”
“I can’t believe the author kept up the style right to the end!”
MIND BREACH 3rd Draft is…DONE!
Mind Breach (Book 2 in The Firstborn Saga) is the sequel to Time Heist. My goal is to have this out and ready for public consumption by Christmas, but as you can see from the picture, this is a real behemoth of a story and I still have a bit more work to do before it’s ready for the editor. Again, as with Purgatory, if you want to get an advanced review copy of Mind Breach, sign up for my NEWSLETTER to be the first notified when I start sending out FREE copies.
I hate writing story descriptions/summaries (which is why I always put them off until the last minute) but here’s the loose description for Mind Breach as it stands:
A Mind Divided Cannot Stand
Humanity doesn’t know they’ve been supplanted atop the evolutionary ladder. They don’t know of the rival factions of Intuits battling for control of Unity. Don’t know their very survival hangs in the balance. Humanity doesn’t know how close the end truly is… but they will.
Tom Mandel is either a villain or a saint, depending on who you ask. He’s already died once in the fight for Unity. He’ll do it again if needed, but he’d rather it didn’t come to that. In the battle to come, however, he might not have much of a choice.
A mysterious imprint, grafted onto the mind of Division Agent Mika Frost could hold the key to stopping Tom Mandel and his terrorist cell, Castle. Survival means uncovering the secret hidden inside her own mind, before it’s too late. If she fails, Unity will fall. She won’t let that happen.
Unity sold a piece of its soul to survive the Dissolution. Now, to survive the coming war, they must sell the rest.
TO BE READ PILE FROM HEAVEN!
On a non-writing note, here’s my current list of books to read/review for here and SFSignal. I can’t even express with words how excited I am to dive into each and every one of these books.
Going Dark – Linda Nagata, City of Blades – Robert Jackson Bennett, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie, Chapelwood by Cherie Priest, Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone.
And on that note, let’s wrap things up. Now you, Dear Reader, should head directly to the comments section and tell me all about your current reading list. What’s hot? What’s not? Spill your literary beans!
CLICK HERE FOR SFSIGNAL REVIEW!
Looking for some fantastic military sci-fi? Whiz-bang-boom action merged with hair raising intrigue and aheartwrenching love story. Well, The Red: First Light and The Trials by award winning author Linda Nagata should be at the top of your to-be-read pile.
Don’t believe me? Oh, doubting Thomas… what ever shall we do with you? SHUN THE NONBELIEVE!
No, just kidding. Instead, head over to SFSIGNAL and read the totally balanced and absolutely unbiased review I wrote for The Red: First Light and The Trials.
Oh, don’t think I don’t see you sitting over there thinking: “Ah, what’s the rush. I’ll get it later.”
No! Bad, Dear Reader. Pick it up now. Why? Well, because the final book in the series Going Dark will be out in only a couple weeks and I just know you don’t want to be the lame kid on the playground who can’t join the Cool Kid’s Book Club ’causes he/she decided it could wait.
Seriously, you’re street-cred depends on you going out and picking up these books. (Jeepers, I’m pushing these books harder than I push my own. They must be good.)