Endings are Hard or How to Give Your Readers That Ah! Feeling
by Kathy Lynch Carmichael
I’m going to start by talking about something other than the ending. I’m going to talk about what our job is as a creator—of books, stories, confessions, movies, TV shows whatever. Our job is to evoke an emotional response in the reader or viewer. That’s our job. Everything we write, whether romance or not, is about simply that. Emotion. What romance novels do, however, is a deeper exploration of character emotion in order to show and allow the reader to experience the pain, doubt and joys of falling in love.
If you fail to do that, then readers will not be fully satisfied with your creation.
Now I’ll actually talk about endings.
The end must be bothe inevitable and unexpected.
We’ve all heard it said that the ending sells the next book. Today we’re going to discuss why and how to make sure your reader feels satisfied.
Have you ever read a book where you got to the last page and while all the loose ends had pretty much been tied up—you still looked for more because the ending was too abrupt?
Have you ever read a romance novel without the requisite happy ending?
Have you ever read a book where outside forces intervened to solve whatever problem for the hero and heroine? That’s not nearly as satisfying as a story in which the hero and heroine must figure it out themselves.
Have you ever read a book where you felt the hero and heroine had Divorce Court in their near future?
Here’s a List of Ending Do’s (time to get out your paper for notes):
- Resolvable Conflict. Remember to set up your h/h’s conflict so that it is something that can be resolved without seeming impossible. The firefighter/arsonist analogy sounds intriguing on the outside—but if the character truly is an arsonist with the full set of psychological problems that accompany this illness, then the romance simply ain’t gonna work. It could possibly work as a story that’s not a romance, however.
- The Romance is Always the Focus or Main Plot. An important point to keep in mind is that if you’re writing a romance, then everything in the book is tied to that Focus. This means that the external plotline (and in a romance this is more like a subplot) must be resolved before the romance is resolved. This puts the emphasis where it belongs, on the developing romance between your hero and heroine (which in a romance is the main plot). It’s best not to have your hero and heroine declare their love and then go on for another 30 pages tying up external plot demands. The last major peak in your book, the black moment, should relate to the romance rather than plot. It’s when the hero or heroine must choose between two opposing needs: their love or what they thought they wanted. By this point, their desire should have shifted from what they’ve been wanting (their goal) to each other. I’m going to say this another way because it’s so important: Your reader’s interest will lessen once the hero and heroine are together.
- Make Use of Theme, Symbolism, and Characterization. We’re not doing theme in this workshop (and I particularly love discussing theme!)—but it’s way cool if your ending line somehow relates to the book’s theme. You want it to sum up character and what they’ve been through and whatever theme you’ve got in the story. In one book of mine, I did a play on the happily ever after ending. My heroine was calamity prone and my ending line was: they lived happily and disasterously ever after. We’re also not doing symbolism today—but it’s way cool to use in a book, especially for the purpose of ending. Debby Mayne has a book coming out, A New Beginning from Avalon, in which the hero cuts down a tree that was very special to the heroine and at the ending, he gives it back to her in the form of a rocking chair. Even if the reader isn’t aware of the payoff consciously, this kind of symbolism pays and pays well in the form of reader satisfaction.
- Demonstrate the Character’s Changes. A suggestion Alicia Rasley makes is to look for a concrete event or action a character can take to show the set of changes he/she’s been through.
- Foreshadow Your Ending. What you want to strive for in your ending is a sense of the inevitable. That somehow, based on who your characters are at the beginning, this ending and only this ending is what had to occur.
- Reward the Reader. Once you’ve resolved the plot and romance complications, and your reader has followed you to the end of the trials and tribulations that kept your hero and heroine apart, the readers deserve a reward. Your readers deserve to know that whatever future problems the hero and heroine will encounter, their relationship will survive them. They want a chance to loll in the happiness of true love found. In Classical Greek Structure, they refer to this as the ‘after’ world. You want to allow your readers at least a page or two to explore how their world is after they’ve found each other. I’ve seen this accomplished by some writers with an epilogue, including the requisite bouncing baby.
Here’s a list of Don’ts or Common Mistakes made by new authors:
- The Artificial Plot Contrivance. An artificial plot contrivance near the end, so that the hero must rescue the heroine thereby learning that he loves her (or that she’s ill, dying, etc). Remember, any plot complication should arise from earlier plot events. If they don’t directly relate, they don’t belong in the story.
- Recap of the Plot Kind of Endings. This is something I struggled with in an earlier book of mine. There were events occuring outside the hero/heroine’s viewpoint that had to be recapped so the reader would know what happened (before I tied up the romance). It came out reading like a bad mystery where the detective sits down and explains what all the clues meant. I’ve never been totally satisfied with how I overcame the problem, but what I did was go back and spread the information over several scenes rather than all in one boring clump.
- Develop the Romance. Forgetting to develop the romance as the book progresses. You can’t have them enemies on page 250 and in love on 251. You have to show the slow changes they make so the ending and their love seems real.
- Declaration of Love Coming Out of Nowhere. Try not to end with the proposal, acceptance—I love you, marry me—it seems unrealistic. Make it more character driven. Sure they love each other but did the heroine suspect the hero loved her? Is it a total surprise? Get into their heads and personalize it to them as individuals.
In one of my stories, the heroine detested cowboys but the hero was determined to become one. At the ending, she agreed to ride off into the sunset with the only kind of cowboy she could ever love: him. That personalized it and showed she was aware of the decision she made to love him despite his need to take part in dangerous activities. It wasn’t a nevermind, I changed my mind kind of ending. He had to work hard to prove to her he was worthy of her love. The theme of that story is some risks are worth taking and I think that sums it up pretty well.
Let’s talk now about the writer’s contract with her readers to explore why certain endings work and why other’s don’t—and what will put your book on a reader’s keeper shelf!
Most of you guys are familiar with GMC—goals, motivation, and conflict. If you’re unfamiliar with GMC, then Debra Dixon’s book, GMC: Goals, Motivation, & Conflict is a must-read. Click here to visit her website: www.debradixon.com. Once you have them all setup—internal and external, this is a chart you can check your ending against. The reader will expect that the story explored these issues and for the ending to work, she’ll expect that these issues have been resolved. She’ll expect the characters will have grown and changed during the course of the story—enough so that the hero and heroine will have a satisfactory pair bonding whether or not the story ends in marriage.
I’m passing out a copy of an old GMC chart that I did for one of my stories. We can use it to discuss what elements will need to be in this particular story in order to satisfy the reader. This is because whatever you set up and promise in the first third of the book, you have to deliver at the ending or the reader will not be satisfied. Your ending is contained in your beginning. Always.
Here’s the writers contract to the reader contained in this GMC chart:
During the course of the story, there will be:
- Opportunities to test and develop trust
- For her to take his orders or suggestions
- For him to experience success outside work
Midpoint will show:
- They will learn to work together
Black moment should include:
- Appearance of betrayal of trust
- For her to be bossy—accuse him of screwing-off and putting their co-venture at risk
- For him to feel like a failure
Ending should include:
- She has to trust him that he didn’t betray her despite appearances.
- He must trust her to follow his lead.
- He learns success must come from within and not based on outside or other people’s measurements
- It doesn’t matter which of them gets the partnership
- He’s already a success because he has found happiness with her.
- But probably they together will take some bold action leading to them each making partner. This makes the ending doubly satisfying since it reiterates how they’ve learned to become partners instead of rivals and will give an opportunity for reader enjoyment.