The ‘under-arrest’ test – how to see the holes in your story’s ending

It’s hard to see the flaws in our own work, and the ending is especially a problem.  We know ourselves how it’s supposed to pack its punch, or we hope we do, but will the reader?

Here’s a handy test.

You’ve seen arrests in movies. And you know, don’t you, that a person may harm their defence if they don’t mention any evidence they later rely on in court.

This is like story endings.

A good ending

First of all, what’s a good ending? It has a feeling of ‘rightness’, even if it has surprises, leaves questions or unresolved issues. It must be fair (to the reader, not necessarily to the characters). It mustn’t look arbitrary.

When an ending fails, it’s usually because it wasn’t sufficiently set up.

It fails the arrest test.

Which is this:

It may harm your story’s effectiveness if you fail to mention any evidence (about events and character issues) that you later rely on ….  at the end.

Epic fail  

How do you spot this epic fail?

You may already be good at it.

We are in an era of long-running TV shows, which get cancelled or renewed at the last minute. Some writing teams can weather this with aplomb. Others collapse in a pickle of chaos. We’ve all seen a smart, richly written show that falls apart in a late episode and becomes unsatisfying, or ridiculous, or changes direction jarringly.

Behind this story implosion, there’s usually a script crisis. The showrunners might have planned a one-off series with an arc that finished nicely. Then late on, they’re told they’re being renewed and mustn’t wrap up after all. They can’t rewrite. The first episodes might even have been shown. So hasty rearrangements are needed at the end.

It happens the other way round too. The show is cancelled unexpectedly, so the writers must tidy up in a tearing hurry.

What the viewer sees is this.

  • Heaps of new stuff is tipped in at the last minute.
  • Things happen that haven’t been properly set up.
  • Characters behave in ways that are hard to understand and don’t fit with what we know about them.
  • There may be a lot more expositional scenes than before, which usually look contrived.

Golden rule

Don’t put anything in your ending that you haven’t seeded much earlier.

Back to evidence

Let’s stay with the arrest scenario and think about evidence.

Evidence is audience knowledge. And it must be revealed at the proper time.

Because a good, satisfying ending is built from knowledge and emotions the reader has gained throughout the entire book.

A health check for your ending

So here, in more detail, is the ‘under arrest’ test. Look for the following in your manuscript.

No new plotlines or characters

Any new characters or plotline that appear suddenly. After a certain point in the story, you shouldn’t introduce anything new. However, you can if you’ve paved the way for them (which means they’re not, actually, new). And you must be specific. If you add a long-lost cousin who becomes pivotal, we must know they might exist in the specific world of this story and that they might be drawn out of hiding. If you don’t make these preparations, it won’t look fair – even though most humans on the planet might have a long-lost cousin. (Though they might not all have had a long-lost Dalek.)

A new relationship or set of character feelings is revealed. He was adopted! She was always jealous of them! If you want to introduce a relationship surprise, make sure you’ve laid oblique and indirect clues. If a character does a thing that is surprising because they have a change of heart, does it make deep sense without lots of explanation? Or should you prepare more earlier?

Expositional scenes – how much are you having to explain? If you are giving long explanations, have you already got the reader insanely curious about these facts? Are they the subject of an ongoing mystery? If you’ve already primed the reader to want the answer, they’ll pay close attention to your explanation. If you haven’t, they’ll see it as an info-dump and you need to set it up much earlier so that they care about it all.

And if you need a long sequence of exposition, how do you handle it? Are you delivering it in the most interesting way? The most straightforward way is long speeches, which can look uneven – one person talks a lot, the other sits quietly, maybe drinking tea. Or you might convey it through thoughts and sudden realisations – which might also look dull and static. Instead, could you make these discoveries more dynamic? If a person is hearing the explanation, could it matter directly to them? Could some of the information be acquired by action rather than a long explanation?

Watch out for off-screen action you’ve introduced to fill logic holes. ‘I found this out because I phoned that guy you used to work with who I’ve never met before, I must admit, so a phone call is out of character for me…’ Yes, you should have written a scene shouldn’t you? Evidence, innit.

So… list everything the reader must understand to really ‘get’ your ending. A thread to be resolved, a thread to hang in a tantalising way, a note to sound your theme, a comedy twinkle or a note of sinister continuation. You could even write the ending you most want, then interrogate it with these questions to find out what to expand. Then you’ll have an ending that does your book justice.

Thanks for the justice pic Jessica45 on Pixabay

There’s more about endings in my book on plot and also in my workbook.

Endings are on my mind as I’m currently being fussy about the denouement of my current novel, Ever Rest. If you’d like to know more about that, here’s my newsletter.

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  1. #1 by tracikenworth on June 21, 2019 - 1:36 am

  2. #3 by robertawrites235681907 on June 21, 2019 - 4:14 am

    Thank you, this is good advice. I am going to keep this in mind with my WIP.

  3. #5 by colleenlynn99 on June 21, 2019 - 10:15 am

    Reblogged this on Cornelia Fick.

  4. #7 by vanderso on June 22, 2019 - 3:29 pm

    Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    I like this discussion from Roz Morris at Nail Your Novel. I’m struggling with revisions to endings and this post gives me some useful questions to ask. Exposition! In my case, not so much a sign that I didn’t “explain” earlier as that I worry that I didn’t explain clearly or explicitly enough. I’m converting an expository section to a scene between two of the characters left standing. Not sure yet if it’s working, but it’s better than what I had.

    So make use of Roz’s advice if it pertains to you!

  5. #9 by jennifermzeiger on June 23, 2019 - 4:07 am

    This is perfect advice for me right now! =)

  6. #11 by DRMarvello on June 23, 2019 - 1:44 pm

    Timely advice for me. I got stuck on my most recent story because I reached a point where too much was going on “behind the scenes.” Initially, I was trying to reveal most of the backstory and the activities of the antagonist as they affected the protagonist, but at some point that tactic resulted in “insufficient evidence” for why certain things were happening. After a lot of introspection and analysis, I concluded that the main problem was POV-related. I had been writing the story in first person, which restricted the reader’s perspective too much. The solution has been to go back and add a few third-person scenes from the antagonist’s perspective so readers would understand more about what was going on (and why). As a bonus, it seems to have increased the tension in the story because the reader knows about things the protagonist does not. The reader can anticipate when the protagonist is considering a poor course of action and cheer when he accurately reads the situation.

  7. #13 by teachezwell on June 25, 2019 - 3:10 pm

    Now I know why some books are so disappointing at the end! Or why some tv series have these erratic last episodes. Thanks for the insights.

  1. The ‘under-arrest’ test – how to see the holes in your story’s ending – Written By Roz Morris – Writer's Treasure Chest
  2. Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 06-27-2019 | The Author Chronicles

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