This week sees the release of The Crown of the Usurper, the concluding volume in The Crown of the Blood trilogy.
[PLUG – available now from all good bookstores and at a great discount via the Robot Trading Company]
This is the culmination of work that started four years ago (possibly longer). Of course, it hasn’t taken me four years just to write the one book – that’s a surefire way to leave the bills unpaid. However, the end of this book is actually one of the first things I envisaged for the series. Even though I didn’t know the specifics, and the details have changed a bit as the series has unfolded, the concluding part of the story – the whole point of the story – was set from the moment I started to think about Ullsaard and his journey.
Creating a Target
The ending of a story or novel is the climax, the pinnacle to which the narrative has been driving, whether it’s the twist one-liner at the conclusion of a 500-word piece of flash fiction or the finish of a ten-volume epic, the ending maketh the story. One way or another, the ending is the goal towards which the reader has been striving, and so it makes sense that it is given the highest priority by the writer.
In Screenwriting 101: The Essential Craft of Feature Film Writing, Neill D. Hicks describes the basic 3-act story structure as attraction-anticipation-satisfaction. Put simply, the opening hooks in the reader (in the case of prose), the middle carries them on an interesting journey that sets up the ending, and the conclusion delivers on the anticipation created. Occasionally this can be subverted or rearranged in terms of the structure of the narrative, but all-in-all an unsatisfying ending is more likely to create a negative opinion of a piece than a shonky beginning. Readers will forgive a clumsy or slow start if the story pays out later. They will rarely recommend a story that delivers well throughout but then fails to satisfy with the ending.
As the ending is one of the most critical aspects of a story it must be at the forefront of the planning and writing process. If you don’t know where the story is going, how are you going to work out how to get there. The ending encompasses the themes of the work, and while it may not tie up all the threads (or any at all, like Lost or the Sopranos) to must still somehow satisfy the reader narratively. It has to feel right. It has to end properly in the context of the rest of the story.
Stay on Target
By having a well-established ending, in principle if not in detail, the story can work towards that point. When you consider that there are more than 400,000 words between the opening of The Crown of the Blood and the final sentence of The Crown of the Usurper, you realise how important this is. All sorts of things have changed with the narrative inbetween – the character journeys, the setting and the plot have all been warped along the way – but fundamentally the story has been moving towards that fixed end.
In retrospect, hopefully the reader feels that the story could not have ended any other way. All they have learnt, all they have shared with the characters have drawn them along towards the inevitable conclusion, whether that leaves them elated or sad, smiling or crying.
The Winding Road
Another huge benefit of having a firmly-realised ending in place is that it actually gives you more freedom, not less. Contradictory? ‘Surely,’ says some hypothetical, slightly hippy would-be writer, ‘I want to just let my creativity flow, man. I want the characters to show the way, dude. That’s, like, so square, man.’
I bet that than a good proportion of people who want to be writers have begun loads of stories. The list of opening lines, first chapters, perhaps even half-completed manuscripts would be endless. To quote someone whom I cannot remember at the moment, ‘Writers write; authors finish.’ The reason so many projects stall? The writer hasn’t thought enough about how the story will end. It is so easy to get bogged down in sub-plots, characters development and setting that one loses one’s way and realises that 40,000 words have been expended going nowhere at all!
By knowing exactly how my trilogy was going to end, I was able to relax, enjoy the diversions created by my characters’ actions and deal with unseen ideas and events without ever feeling I was getting lost. Sometimes it gave me a heads-up that I was over-indulging certain secondary characters, or I would know that an interesting little sub-plot was just filler, or a scene was leaving me in a place that was too far off-course. Occasionally I had to stop and take a day or two to work out how I was going to wrestle things back on track; at least I knew that they needed to be brought into line.
Finish on the Theme
I’ve said before that all stories are about something. If you describe your story simply as a list of characters and actions, rather than a theme or themes being explored, it will lack a certain something. The ending rounds out the theme and should be informed by it. If your theme is ‘triumph over adversity’the ending better well be triumphant – even a simple ‘…and they all lived happily ever after’ will suffice. If your theme is the pointlessness of resisting the encroaching power of the corporations, the power of the corporations better damn well still be encroaching at the end, even if your protagonist has won a personal victory along the way.
If you cannot figure out the end of the story, it is because you haven’t yet figured out what the story is about. If, on the other hand, you do have an ending, be sure it fits with the rest of the narrative. It can be the bleakest, wrist-slitting conclusion ever or the shiniest kind of Hollywood ending, but it needs to make sense to the reader and be consistent with everything that has gone before.
Start at the end and work backwards and you’ll have a story that is much tighter throughout.
Of course, the trick with a trilogy or ongoing series is to make sure that each individual title has a satisfying ending, even if it also serves as the ‘attraction’ part of the next volume. So often trilogies suffer from ‘middle book’ syndrome, and I find longer series to be even worse. I’m not going to sit through 500+ pages of prose that turns out to be nothing more than set-up for the next volume and be happy at the end.