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On Endings

Posted on 2006.08.12 at 12:25
At Chapter 23, I am smack dab in the heart of the ending to CHARLOTTE MILLER, and I am remembering again why this part of the book is so satisfying to me.  I might be a writer who is better at endings.  Some people start books well.  Some (although I don't know any of them and have actually never heard anyone admit to it) are probably good at middles.  But me?  Oh, the ending is where I seem to finally find my feet.  I am using as evidence the fact that there are comparatively few structural changes requested for my last 7 chapters (and for the very final one, none at all), and that these chapters are largely as I wrote them in my first draft.

What makes a good ending?  And I don't mean just the climax, or the denouement.  I mean those last few chapters that build toward the climax--where you know what it is, and you can see it coming.  The author is preparing you well for what is going to happen--strapping you into your seat, warning you to keep your hands inside the ride, maybe handing you a crash helmet (or taking yours away).  I've long envisioned the ms of CM as a roller coaster--some small hills at the beginning, a curve that is sharp-but-not-too-sharp... followed by some larger curves and bigger slopes... then a long, smooth straightaway for you to catch your breath, before the big hill at the end.

But today I'm going to continue an analogy that crcook and I used in our talk on Plot & Character two weeks ago:  A good book is like a box of dominoes.  The beginning is where you open the box, and you can only see a couple of tiles--a glimpse of what this story might contain.  Then you dump them onto the table--all the pieces are laid out for you, but you don't yet know how they're all going to come together.  The middle is where the author starts to pick up those tiles and put them in place--stacking them up in neat or twisting rows, where you can start to see what might happen if one domino should fall.  The author must be careful, here, to line them all up, just right--one false placement, and when she goes tap, nothing of interest might happen--a few tiles may fall, but if they fail to hit the next ones in the row... nothing.

The ending begins at the moment the author flicks her finger to knock down that first tile.  A ripple effect, a chain reaction--whatever you wish to call it--spreads out from that one tap, and everything begins to happen.  Events, like dominoes, tumble one into the next, inevitably, non-stop.  There are no more gaps, no more straightaways to pause and catch your breath.  Good endings rush.  They speed toward the climax without stopping.

But they shouldn't rush overmuch.  Endings need speed, but they also need length.  Nobody wants a six-domino ending--we must use them all, so that the finale is dramatic and satisfying, not over so quickly the reader will miss it if she blinks.  Or if she is reading too quickly, because she is ready to rush along with us.

After the dominoes fall, when the great pattern is all laid out for the reader, comes the denouement--the wrapping up of loose ends.  The tidying up after the hurricane.  The recovery from the shaky feeling of the roller coaster.  Putting all the dominoes neatly back in the box.  How long your denouement needs to be is a matter of personal taste, it seems; but I kind of like a longer one.  But not too long.  Exit gracefully.  Take your dominoes, bow to the audience, and depart.  Leave when the reader has caught her breath, but is still ever-so-slightly stunned and in awe.

I'll need my dominoes back now, thank you.


robinellen at 2006-08-12 19:15 (UTC) (Link)
Nice analogy! Especially as I'm preparing for my ending now...will give me something to picture as I try to line all those dominoes up -- hoping to give it a satisfactory length!
kidlit_kim at 2006-08-12 20:04 (UTC) (Link)

Great Post!

Great post. We went to see ZOOM today (the superhero movie), and were just talking about this ending thing. ZOOM was a very good movie, but the ending was a six domino ending. We were like, "You built us up for that? Where's the tension? Where's the double cross where the bad guy tricks us again?" Aside from the nearly tension-free ending, it was a cute kid movie though.
Mirth & Matter: The Journal of Elizabeth Bunce
elizabethcbunce at 2006-08-14 23:18 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Great Post!

I love this... "Aside from the nearly tension-free ending...."
Laurie Beth Schneider
idaho_laurie at 2006-08-12 22:58 (UTC) (Link)
Cool. I, too, am an "endings" person. Just want you to know I'm stealing this in case I ever need to talk about plot (the bane of my writing existence).
Mirth & Matter: The Journal of Elizabeth Bunce
elizabethcbunce at 2006-08-14 23:16 (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I think we'd all be brilliant if we didn't have to worry about plot (hey--it worked for Tracy Chevalier in FALLING ANGELS!)! I'm still not sure how I ended up as part of a plot talk, but I'm thinking I heard the word "default" in there somewhere. ;)
ette_writer at 2006-08-13 12:38 (UTC) (Link)
Ooh, this is good.

Something for me to think about, and to apply.
Mirth & Matter: The Journal of Elizabeth Bunce
elizabethcbunce at 2006-08-14 23:16 (UTC) (Link)
--Well, there's the rub. The thinking part is easy. :)
chavelaque at 2006-08-13 16:36 (UTC) (Link)

Great analogy!

What the subject line says. :-)
Mirth & Matter: The Journal of Elizabeth Bunce
elizabethcbunce at 2006-08-14 23:17 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Great analogy!

I'm full of it--I mean 'em--this week.
kellyrfineman at 2006-08-14 17:39 (UTC) (Link)
Great analogy. I hope your ending is domino-smacking satisfying.
Jody Feldman
jodyfeldman at 2006-08-18 18:59 (UTC) (Link)
Late to this post. The link was sent to a few of us by a critique mate who found it. (We were talking about endings.) What really hits home for me is the fact that all the dominos need to be there before you make that tap. I don't think I'll be able to write or critique an ending without that image.
Waving thanks from the other side of Missouri.
Mirth & Matter: The Journal of Elizabeth Bunce
elizabethcbunce at 2006-08-19 00:31 (UTC) (Link)
Wow! Glad I sparked something for you. Thanks for letting me know. :)

And dying to know who sent you the link...
Jody Feldman
jodyfeldman at 2006-08-19 01:00 (UTC) (Link)
My friend Kate -- she doesn't blog but does have the LJ account ArcticKate -- pointed us in your direction. Now that I found you, hope you don't mind if I friend you. Thanks again.
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