The end of the story
An amount of time in our writer’s group, and I suspect in a few others, is allocated to discussing how a story should begin, in a way it would attract a reader to turn to page two. This is generally something I for one find reasonably simple, as long as a situation and at least one or more characters arrive with interest.
To me, it is the end of a story that I find far more of a challenge, assuming we have written a story gripping enough to keep a reader through the entire book. So many books and, even more so, TV dramas end in a disappointing manner. In a previous group meeting we discussed this subject, and at the time I raised several questions as to what is or perhaps not acceptable. Does a reader demand closure? Yes, of course so. Does the ending need to be a massive crescendo? Well, not necessarily.
Not to disappoint
One of our members suggested it needs to be a cliff-hanger, so a sequel can be tagged on later. This is a great idea but, of course, would only apply if a sequel was forthcoming, otherwise it becomes a cop out.
One assumes that the story has a conflict within it and this should always be resolved at the end, even if a sequel is on the cards.
Matters of opinion
Some writer’s clinics suggest that the author should know the ending before you even start writing. I disagree with this. In my last book even I didn’t know who did it until I wrote the final few chapters, and in that way lay surprise for myself as well as the reader. How could they possibly suspect, if I didn’t even know?
There is also the what/if ending where what actually happens is open to interpretation by the reader but this tends to be more for books that are trying to put over a message rather than purely to entertain. Assuming they are reading their preferred genre, the reader will be left thinking about the book for a few days to come, running a variety of scenarios through their mind until they are comfortable with one of them.
One of the more common endings is to return back to where the book started. I have used this a number of times by creating a prologue of a couple of pages at the beginning before starting the actual story, so I have somewhere to go back to. Again this is often used in films and TV.
A surprise ending is usually more palatable than a predictable one, but this comes with its warnings, that somewhere in the story, perhaps in a few places, the reader has been passed a subtle hint. In my case I had to backtrack and add these in the edit.
I think most importantly, as well as getting closure, the protagonist should have somehow benefited from the final act, whether growing from its experience or at least learning from it.
Finally, I believe the ending should make sense and this is where the difficulty lies, not just with myself but with many authors. In a scenario where sub-plots collide at the end, as they often do, there must be a decent element of logic so the reader can understand why what happened, happened. Otherwise they will feel short changed and I for one would certainly like to sell them another of my books.
© Andy Frazier – May 2022
Yes, 22 rules, at least from Emma Coats, a former Pixar Storyboard artist. There are lots of rules for every waspaect of writing. The particualr focus of her list is what she learned from being a storyboard illustrator.
Still, a story is a story. Does one size fit all? Experience suggests that, in the end, we discover our own rules, every time we crumple up our trash and throw stuff away with a snarl … OR every time we give ourselves a big warm hug, for a piece well written.
Here is Emma’s list:
What I do is take a single simple idea and built a framework around it. In scriptwriting, this is called a storyboard and is the basis for a variety of writing styles, particularly fact-based fiction, my preferred genre, where the story needs to follow a set path.
E.G. – developing a movie idea
In this case, my task was to take a song lyric, deconstruct it into its characters and then imaginatively shape a life around each one of them.
My chosen song, ‘The Piano Man’, by Billy Joel, is about people visiting a late night bar to drown their sorrows and contains the formidable line, ‘they are sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone!’
Basically a storyboard is just a scratch pad or, to use Scrivener’s process, a cork-board where you pin up post-it notes and can shuffle them into some sort of order. So on each ‘post-it’ I head it with each character’s name and pin them all in one section.
I am fortunate in my recent writing life to have researched a massive history book which involved me interviewing nearly 100 interesting people, some of whom were in the final years of life. In almost every case the questions were tailored around what little information I had about them.
questions of characters
Likewise, in this situation, we apply a little intelligence to the questions we ask each player. Of course, there are the obvious ones: how old are you, colour, sex, creed etc? But then we go deeper. Why are you lonely in a bar? What has life done to you to get you here?
In one line we are fed: ‘Paul is a real-estate novelist, who never had time for a wife.’ What on earth is a real-estate novelist? So Paul, tell me about your life as an estate agent, wasn’t much fun, eh? Sold a few houses, market crashed, and you wrote what? Maybe you saw how the sub-prime market worked and discovered the smokescreen and corruption that lay behind the banking system that eventually brought the global economy to its knees? That would put me in a late night bar, for sure!
Then there’s the waitress, who is ‘practising politics’? We’ve all met her. Doing a night job to pay her way through college? Where better than in a downtown bar? Bound to be a few washed up senators lurking around here?
… and the rest
Each one gets given a history based around what little info we have on them and then, for me, in this exercise, the fun really starts, with the shifting of the pieces. Out of these eight or so sad people, who knows who? Which one has had their life touched by another? Where have all their paths crossed?
select a protagonist
As with all good stories, we need a protagonist, and I chose the old man who is asking the piano-man to play a tune he used to know ‘when he wore younger man’s clothes!’
This guy has been around, right? Bound to have bumped into some of the other players in his 3 score years and ten? So I stick him in the middle, and weave the others around him.
it’s a learning exercise …
As this is only an exercise, I want to keep it tight, maybe a script for a 15-minute movie, or a short story. So I make only three to four scenes involving each player, each on its own post-it. I am a great believer that scenes and characters are only borrowed and there is rarely anything original left to invent, in the same way that there are only so many notes in a music scale. So, in the majority our scenes we use everyday situations that readers can relate to.
pull it together
The timing works out that the old man could have been a veteran from the Vietnam war, so there is his first scene, in the jungle in 1969. But we don’t want a chronological history of each person; that’s no fun, far too conventional! So let’s mix them up. Paul sold houses – maybe he sold one to the old fella just before the market fell?
That waitress seems like a nice girl; perhaps she helped the old man across the road or woke him up when the train reached his stop? Venn diagram centre! So finally, when we walk into that bar at 9 o’clock on a Saturday, a quick look around and we have everyone pegged down.
neat line, neat idea
Eventually, after some enjoyable head-scratching, this exercise will end up with maybe 15-20 scenes, all in a neat line, so the author, and subsequent director, can colour them in as he or she perceives them. As with musical notes, it is the combinations and order in which they are played that make a tune.
That, to me, is what a storyboard is, a simple melody.
© Andy Frazier