Ask Correia 7: The Ending

I’ve gotten a couple more writing based questions recently. I’m glad you guys enjoy these, because I enjoy writing them.  I’m going to try to get through a couple this week.

How do you approach writing a “knockout” ending for your novels? -Scott

Oh, that’s a good question. The really awesome beginning is what will help sell your novel, but the really awesome ending is what people are going to remember.

One important thing, and I don’t know what the actual “literary” term is for this, but if you make a promise to your readers anywhere in the book, you need to fulfill that promise before the end. If you don’t, then you’re going to leave them feeling cheated.

You’ve probably all heard of Chekhov’s Gun. (old rule, in theater, if there’s a gun on the wall in the 1st act, then somebody has to use it by the 3rd) Okay, I don’t buy that. Though a lot of author’s seem to think it applies to writing, it is a theater rule, and theater has props, and props cost money, so that’s why they had to use that gun.  In writing, you can have all sorts of things that show up that don’t have to actually be used in the overall plot.  You can have things that just show up because they’re interesting, entertaining, or fun, and then they can go away and never get mentioned again.  For example, I had random factoids and interesting things pop up in MHI, just to set mood or atmosphere or to give a glimpse into the world, but it wasn’t necessary for the plot itself.  (Humboldt Folk in Natchy Bottom. Why were they there? Because they’re friggin’ creepy).

More important though, is that if you’ve got something that you’ve set up, and you’ve promised the readers some sort of resolution about that point, then you need to make sure it is in there. Otherwise they’re going to come away feeling ripped off. That doesn’t mean you have to answer every single question raised in the book, just those that you gave some indication that you would. (for example, in MHI, I explain Earl, but I don’t explain Franks).  If you’ve got an epic quest for a magic super weapon to defeat the mystical big bad, and characters sacrifice and die to get to it, you probably can’t just forget that it exists for the final act. I’m not saying you have to use it, as long as you’ve got an enjoyable story reason not to, but don’t just drop things that you get bored at as a writer.

Now for the actual end scene, of the books that I’ve finished (Monster Hunter International, Monster Hunter Vendetta, Hard Magic, and Dead Six) and the two that I’ve got mostly done (Monster Hunter Alpha, Swords of Exodus), every single one has a big climatic event at the end. I suppose that you can have books end with something other than a fight scene, but those aren’t the kind of books that I read or write.  I like to end with a struggle. I enjoy taking all the drama, tension, and stress that has built up through the book, and throw it all out there at the end. I want the reader to grin stupidly after the end battle and say “****ing A! They sure kicked some (monster, terrorist, magic samurai) ass! Boo Yah!”

You’ve got to have build up for the end. Your reader needs to be nervous that not everybody is going to make it. There needs to be a threat. But you can overdo it a bit though, and then you’ve got Ewoks defeating the Empire, (which I have been accused of, but oh well).     

There is a fantasy series that will remain unnamed, because I actually really respect the author, and I love his other series. But throughout this massive, epic novel, there is this one man that goes from a minor village schlub to the most powerful wizard in the world. He goes on this huge journey, and then when he finally faces the hugenormous Big Bad at the end… he hits it with a stick and the monster dies.  Hookay… (well, it was a magic stick) Then in the next book, the now even more powerful sorcerer fights an even more awesome big bad, with hundreds of pages of build up, and then he twirls a couple times, hits it once, and kills it too.  I didn’t read the third book in the series.

When I look back at why I didn’t bother to finish that series, it was because I felt let down. I felt like the author had made some promises, but he’d not fulfilled them. So I drifted away. That’s the opposite of what you want to accomplish as a writer. You want to drag them back. You want them to end on a emotional strong point. (it may not even be a happy emotion, but try to avoid anger toward you at least).

The end fight doesn’t have to be an massive Michael Bay style orgy of explosions and slow-mo crashes. It depends on the type of book you’re writing. I just finished Mr. Monster by Dan Wells. (review coming soon) and this isn’t a big action kind of book. It is a character study of a sociopathic teenager who doesn’t want to turn into a serial killer, who battles demons. (and it is AWESOME).  But the ending had tension, because you cared about the fate of the character, and then he uses his brain rather than brawn.  It is an emotional ending, and it is a great ending.  

I really wish that you guys could hurry up and read Hard Magic (coming Spring 2011 from Baen Books) because I think it’s got the strongest ending of anything I’ve ever written. I tie up like five different plot lines in one action sequence. There’s emotion. There’s death. There’s loss, revenge, betrayal, conspiracies explained, and Tesla super weapons.  It’s three straight chapters of ask-kicking interspaced with conflict resolution of the uber-violent kind. And a teleporting magic ninja fight on top of a flaming pirate dirigible. It is EPIC.  

So make sure you wrap up all the important stuff, and do it with emotion so that the readers care, and your story will have an awesome ending. And when in doubt, add explosions.

One more thing. After the big end scene, you’re going to want to do a wrap up. Don’t go nuts on the wrap up. This is a good spot to fill in any of those blanks the reader’s may need to have to feel complete. You don’t need to tell the rest of the character’s life story. Don’t drag the wrap up out longer than you have to. My original wrap up on MHI was way way way too long, because I felt the need to tell everyone’s life story. (the edited version is much cooler, and people seem to really enjoy the parental letter) Don’t go too long and carry on after the story is over! If what they do next is that interesting, that’s why you get to write sequels!

Show the reader what you need to show them (look, a brief scene of everyone living happily ever after, or uh oh, here comes the setup for the sequel) but don’t drag it out too long. Peter Jackson got to do thirty minutes of hugging at the end of Lord of the Rings, because he’s Peter Jackson, and we’re not.

Question #2

There’s an issue in my writing that I’m having trouble with and would be interested in getting your take on. The latest story idea I have takes place in Mexico, and therefore almost entirely in Spanish. Obviously, I’m not going to write the whole story in Spanish, so do you have any advice on how to write a story that takes place in another language . . . without using that language too much? – Cameron

What I’ve done so far is that I give some clue to the reader that they’re not speaking English, and then I just write all the dialog in English. If the POV character is speaking the same language as those around him, then you can easily get away with that. (actually in MHI, just assume that most of the characters are speaking Southern).

I try to tweak it when the POV character doesn’t speak the language. If you’re writing without an all-knowing narrator (which I always do) then the reader is only going to get what the POV gets. So if he doesn’t speak Spanish, then he’s not going to understand what is being said. If you’re writing in the third person, and you have a scene between two Spanish speakers, it will be a given to your audience that they’re speaking Spanish.

In Dead Six, many of Lorenzo’s scenes would be entirely in foreign languages, but because of the set up, the readers are aware of this, and there isn’t any question. I’ve not had that confuse anyone… yet. (knock on wood).  When he’s speaking in Arabic to another Arabic speaker, I may make some little reference at the beginning of the scene about that, but then I just get to the important stuff. At the beginning of MHV, Owen is in Mexico. Because it isn’t a very long bit, when words are said in Spanish, they’re written in Spanish, but it isn’t anything that is really important or that will confuse the readers, so I just leave them in Spanish.  In the next scene with Owen in jail, the Spanish bits are written as if they’re in English, because it is from Owen’s POV as he’s eavesdropping, and though he can get by in Spanish, he thinks in English as he translates.

In MHI, Lord Machado’s parts take place five hundred years ago in Brazil. Once again, I’ll start the sequence with a little info for the reader to fill them in, but then I’ll try to move as quickly as possible into the story. The story is the really important stuff.

Well, that’s one that I don’t actually have a really good answer, since it hasn’t come up too much for me, but I’m hoping by throwing it out here that the really smart folks that make up the Monster Hunter Nation will throw out their ideas in the comments.

20 Responses

  1. Your comment about the fantasy series rings very true. I haven’t forgotten getting to the fourth book of Julian May’s “Pleistocene Exile” quadrology, wherein she has built up to not less than three apocalyptic events coming down all at the same time, and then disposed of them in (you ready for this) less than a page each.

    Bummer.

  2. agree about author you will not name. i will not say name too. i also no finish his stuff. good but let down. plus hard to make one character so powerful then reader have to wonder why powerful character cannot just make everything better with snap of fingers. why make very powerful wizard then have to come up with excuse for why he can not do things? kind of like saying this guy is really cool but not when it is important.

  3. You mean MR. MONSTER. And I agree, a great ending (wait till you get to book 3. Tragically awesome.)

    And yeah, HARD MAGIC had a fantastic ending. I just kept thinking “WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” Larry, you should read RETRIBUTION FALLS by Chris Wooding. You’d dig it.

    • Whoops. I fixed it. Great book. I finished it on the plane ride home from LibertyCon.

      Steve, you’re just rubbing it in to everybody here that you’ve read Hard Magic. But that’s because you are an Elitist Book Reviewer, so you totally get all the perks. :)

      • Well yeah. Perks Central. I haven’t read Dead Six yet though, so I can’t claim too much glory.

        And I heard Dan might be putting you in his new book. I told him if he did that you had to argue about weaponry with your clone-selves. The prospect made us giggle.

  4. “Swords of Exodus”

    ??? Am I the one wondering what this is

    • SoE is the 2nd book in the Dead Six universe. It is a straight up military thriller, and it is really good.

      • “Straight up military thriller”? Swords of Exodus is nothing of the sort.

        It is thrilling, though. And possibly up, but probably not straight up. Other than that, it’s kind of hard to define in terms of genre.

        But that’s okay, Larry. I don’t like being put in a box anyway. :)

      • Oh I think I knew that! I was startingnto wonder I you slipped a fantasy book past my radar.

  5. That’s the opposite of what you want to accomplish as a writer. You want to drag them back.

    Well, just in case you hadn’t noticed all the people clinging to your ankles and dragging you to a halt, begging you for more, you managed this with MHI. :)

    Also, personally, if I can make a request of sorts, I’d really like to know more about the Humboldt Folk. Because creepy is awesome. And it’s really the series for creepy.

  6. As for the question about writing dialogue that takes place in a language other than the one it’s being written in, I believe John Ringo did that very well in the Paladin of Shadows series. In the latter books, much of the dialogue takes place in Russian or Georgian, but Ringo will mention which language it is at the start of the conversation. I imagine it’s very similar to (if not the same thing as) the process you said you used. It’s very effective, and it’s just obvious enough to be noticeable but not obtrusive. I think that’s the best way to approach that problem.

  7. “There’s emotion. There’s death. There’s loss, revenge, betrayal, conspiracies explained, and Tesla super weapons. It’s three straight chapters of ask-kicking interspaced with conflict resolution of the uber-violent kind. And a teleporting magic ninja fight on top of a flaming pirate dirigible. It is EPIC.”

    Aww, C’MON! Now I have to go change my pants, AND wait until Spring. :-(

  8. Your writing tidbits have been incredibly helpful. I saw how you used them in MHI:V, especially the “wham, bam, hot damn” ending and the epilogue.

  9. “And a teleporting magic ninja fight on top of a flaming pirate dirigible. It is EPIC”

    Those are two of the most awesome sentences. Ever.

    I’m also grateful to you Larry for writing up some well thought through answers to some questions that I’ve been struggling with. I’m trying to write stuff but most of my stories end in huge orgies. I think I’m doing something wrong somewhere. Or possibly I’m doing something very, very right.

    One question though, is it a good idea to finish a story with the bad guys winning? Got this idea to do a story like SM Stirlings Draka series,great series by the way, where the bad guys win in the end but in my case it would be sci fi heavy metal warriors beating the crap out of a bunch of sci fi musical genre good guys.

    That sounded a lot better in my head.

    • Done properly, bad guys winning is almost guaranteed to lead to demands for a sequel.

      • Empire Strikes Back. I’d say the bad guys won that one.

        One series I really enjoyed that was a subversion of the bad guys win, was Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. The series begins 1,000 years after the Chosen One Hero Type guy totally blows it in his battle against the Big Bad.

      • Actually finishing one of my ideas would be the best I could hope for at the moment.

        Mistborn actually sounds pretty good. Better hit up the lirary and see if they have a copy.

  10. “big climatic event” — eh?

    Your RFA proofreader groans in agony at the thought.

    Other than that distraction, this post gave some interesting insight into what makes you tick, and why your stories are so awesome and popular.

    Now hurry up and finish Monster Hunter Alpha so I can vicariously experience yet another “big climatic event.”

    Well…. there indeed WAS a helluva lot of snow in the AO.
    : )

  11. You forgot pacing. One of the biggest things that throws me is a book that has a great setup for the finale, but the finale is all “smooth.” In other words, the action happens in one burst, without any ups or downs. It makes the last bit of the book feel like a roller coaster drop– up, up, up, DOWN, done.

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