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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Roger Ebert, Werner Herzog, Antarctica … and a manifesto for maverick creatives

Author life isn’t necessarily easy. Although our stresses are hardly big league – we’re not performing brain surgery or living in a war zone – we sometimes feel embattled and alone. If you’re having one of those moments, let this restore your courage.

First, watch this film by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World (enjoy the colossal glaciers, the eerie beauty of the sea under the ice and adorable nihilistic penguins). Then – the important bit – read this fan letter to Herzog by critic Roger Ebert (if you have the film DVD, there’s a panel discussion of it in the extras).

Ebert’s fan letter is actually about all of us – the creators with a powerful inner compass. It’s a fan letter for our values. Most of us could take ‘easier’ options, whether artistically, commercially or in life as a whole, but we must do otherwise. Yes, says Ebert, there are people who appreciate this spirit. Who applaud it.

Here’s why, in 7ish highlights.

1

‘This is … a letter to a man whose … vision … challenges us to ask … questions not only about films but about lives … their lives…’

Our personal vision. We notice, we feel, we create.

2

‘I believe you have never made a film depending on … formulas…’

Formulas? No.

3

‘…and you want every film to be absolutely original.’

We might not even follow our own, er, formulas.

4

‘Without ever … having a dependable source of financing, without the attention of the … oligarchies that decide what may be filmed and shown, you have directed at least 55 films or television productions …  because you have depended on your imagination instead of budgets, stars or publicity campaigns.’

Although we’re not financially naïve, we’ll do what we do regardless of whether it is commercial.

5

‘You have had the visions and made the films and trusted people to find them, and they have. It is safe to say you are as admired and venerated as any filmmaker alive…’

Independence leads to artistic identity, a distinctive style, and respect for our integrity.

5.5

…‘among those who have heard of you, of course…’ 

I admit that Herzog’s obscurity problem is not on the scale of, say, the obscurity problems that most of us have. But if we’re talking about scale, it seems Ebert regards Herzog as a tad obscure.

5.75

‘Those who do not know your work, and the work of your comrades in the independent film world, are missing experiences that might shake and inspire them.’

Making us feel a bit better about that obscurity thing.

6

‘You often say … the media pound the same paltry ideas into our heads … and that we need to see around the edges or over the top. When you open Encounters at the End of the World by following a marine biologist under the ice floes of the South Pole, and listening to the alien sounds of the creatures who thrive there, you show me a place on my planet I did not know about, and I am richer. You are the most curious of men. You are like the storytellers of old, returning from far lands with spellbinding tales… the world as we dream it… the deeper truth.’

That’s why we make what we make, and we take such care.

 

Interlude 

Let’s recap.

1 Be curious.

2 Invent.

3 Don’t be afraid to develop.

4 Be independent in the most important way, with your questing, communicative spirit.

5 Find your audience gradually and genuinely, with the distinctive character of what you do.

 

And back to Ebert… finale

‘You and your work are unique and invaluable…. You have the audacity to believe that if you make a film about anything that interests you, it will interest us as well. You have proven it.’

Go forth and be audacious.

PS Watch the film and look for the little penguin.

PPS If you’re curious to know what this little penguin is doing with all her creative time, here’s my latest newsletter

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Writing multiple projects and keeping in touch with a book when you take a break – interview at Joined Up Writing podcast

In common with most freelances, I’m always working on multiple things at once! Books, courses, editing assignments…

One of those books is my third novel, Ever Rest, an undertaking that seems as gigantic as the mountain itself, and has to be fitted around other deadlines.

Hopping between projects is a way of life for most writers and is one of the subjects I discuss with Wayne Kelly on this new episode of his podcast. We also talk about ghostwriting (my course on that is here if you’re seriously curious), how we learn as writers, finding our niche, growing up in a landscape full of stories and the new Nail Your Novel Workbook. Do come over.

PS If you’re curious about why Ever Rest is taking so long, and how many other mountains I’m trying to tackle at the same time, there’s more in my newsletter

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‘Something elusively wistful’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Gwendolyn Womack

If you’ve followed my series The Undercover Soundtrack for a while, you’ll recognise my latest guest. Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers imbued with a sense of metaphysics, time and memory. Her stories come to her through music and her Undercover Soundtracks have always been haunting and unusual, with a strong sense of place and emotion. I urge you to check out her first time on the series, when she introduced us to an album recorded inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. For her new novel, she conjures a psychometrist who can feel the history in any object he touches – so her mental and musical soundscape includes 1700s Vienna, 1400s Prague and the red plains of empty Australia. Come and see her on the Red Blog.

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On interrupting the story for your brilliant philosophical ideas

I’ve had this interesting question:

My novel has plenty of story and character development but certain parts depend on the brilliance of the ideas the characters discuss. Some readers have said they could do without those parts, but others have told me they love the ideas. 

Are you an editor who worships storytelling above all else and can’t stand portions of a book that slow things down? Or one who likes thought-provoking portions of a book even if they detract from the action?

Simon

Hello Simon

What a provocative, chewy – and useful – question.

Every editor has a different idea of storytelling, pace, tolerance for philosophical materials that aren’t plot etc. So does every writer; so does every reader. This is my personal take.

Having said that, I’ve edited a lot of novels that do this, where the action seems to stop so that the reader can be given a lecture, where the characters appear to be mouthpieces for a philosophical or moral argument. I don’t think it works. I find it pushes me out of the characters’ world and makes me disengage.

Storytelling

You ask an interesting question about storytelling. Storytelling is much more than plot actions. It’s also your voice, the things you direct the reader to be interested in. Usually this is by sleight of hand, and by involving the reader in the hearts of the characters.

Pace

You speak of slowing a novel down, as if slow is bad. But not all parts of a novel have to move fast. Sometimes a slow passage is very welcome. Sometimes an entire book should be mostly slow, because that suits the material – especially for very interior books where we savour the detail.

Pace is not necessarily about being fast, although a well-paced book will hold your attention so well that hours will pass without you realising.

Pace is about balancing faster and slower, about judging what will keep your reader’s attention. It’s about judging what’s right for the tone and mood of the book. it’s also about balancing light and shade – humour and optimism versus darkness and peril or tragedy.

Passages that ‘detract’…

You mention passages that ‘detract’… I don’t like anything that ‘detracts’. Who does?

Personally, I see it as a failure of artistry. If a passage looks like it shouldn’t be in the book, it shouldn’t be in the book. I feel it’s your job as spellweaver to make everything belong. But we all have different tolerances. You might enjoy books that stop the action for long passages of philosophising in which the characters seem to have abandoned their own agendas. I find it looks preachy.

How not to preach

My preference is to knead this material into the story, to dramatise it – so that it doesn’t hit the reader as a lecture. I prefer to make it part of the texture of the characters’ worlds. The philosophical ideas become the rules of the story world – creating their moral dilemmas, their difficult choices, their obligations, their personality clashes, their lasting enmities, the things they aim for or fight for or want to break away from.

Certainly a great story can provoke thoughts, but the most skilful stories achieve this by provoking emotion too – a sense of right, wrong, difficulty, impossibility. The reader learns the ideas effortlessly, plays with them in their mind afterwards, and greatly admires the writer who planted these thoughts.

But you may not like that. We’re all different.

PS There’s a lot more about this in my plot book

Thanks for the pic Smackfu on Flickr

Guys, what’s your take on this? My way or Simon’s way? And if you have a question you’d like to put to me, I’d love to tackle it.

Meanwhile, If you’re curious about my most recent writerly toils, here’s my latest newsletter

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Write a brilliant novel by asking the right questions – guest post at The Creative Penn

Questions…. they’re the reason a reader gets intrigued by a story. And, at the author’s end, the writing process is an entire cycle of questions, big and small, some arising out of other questions. Some of the process is figuring out the right answers. Some of it is figuring out what to ask in the first place.

If that sounds like a conundrum, some of the most important questions are conundrums in themselves. Confused?

Today I’m at Joanna Penn’s Creative Penn blog, attempting to make sense of all this. Do come over.

PS If you’re curious about the latest doings of my own creative pen, here’s my latest newsletter

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I adore the internet but I’m not a phone person – essay in Live Encounters Poetry & Writing

A few weeks ago, Mark Ulyseas asked me to contribute to his poetry and writing magazine, Live Encounters (Mark has an adventurous history as a ghostwriter, advertising copywriter, newspaper columnist, photographer, traveller, author and he wears a great hat).

To begin with, I didn’t have a clue what I’d write about, but a contribution in the March issue caught my eye: My Phone, My Life by photographer Jill Gocher.

Aha, I thought. I do have something to say. With full respect to Jill, whose photos are enchanting, here it is. Although I adore the internet, I am Not A Phone Person.

In the piece, I mention a conversation with a friend, Caroline. When she read the article she said: ‘You missed out the part where I was banging my fist on the table and shrilly screaming “When I win the lottery I will buy you a smartphone and MAKE you use it!” ‘

Maybe you’re a phone person, maybe you’re not. Anyway, if you want to join the conversation, the piece is here and you can comment (like Caroline or not) here!

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Not going to AWP19 – try 7 authors free on audio for your commute

Right now, the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs is taking place in Portland, Oregon, a mecca for writers, teachers, writers-in-training (actually that’s all of us anyway, we never seem to stop training).

Meanwhile in the ether, another event is afoot. Literary editor, critic and tireless author John Madera (tweet him as @aredamnhoj) has convened an alternative AWP for his podcast Jamming Their Transmission, on his site The Big Other (he has a lot of web territories!).

He’s handpicked a set of literary folk to give short readings (less than 5 minutes each) to let the world hear their work, in their own voices, and he’s publishing them as half-hour podcasts during real AWP. I’m thrilled to be one of the authors on part 3 and you can hear me read a piece from Not Quite Lost.

I’m even more thrilled to be sharing the stage with six exciting poets, memoirists and novelists, who are Tony Trigilio, Valerie Nieman, Kallie Falandays, Seth Berg, Cris Mazza and Michael A Ferro. Find our episode and the rest of John’s programme here.

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Are creative writing degrees relevant in 2019’s publishing climate? The honest truth

The publishing world is moving faster than ever. Have creative writing courses kept pace? That’s the angle I’m considering this time in my series of interviews with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell.

If you want a career in mainstream publishing, will a course equip you for that?

If you want a traditional deal, will a creative writing qualification make that more likely?

What about the indie world – does a creative writing degree confer any benefit, advantage or prestige?

If you decide to be master of your own work, will a degree help you do it more wisely and effectively?

Now that authors have to do so much platform-building for themselves – whether indie or traditional – have the academic departments kept up with these new demands?

As usual, Garry is patient and thoroughly candid and the discussion can be found at Late Last Night Books. It’s part of a longer conversation:

Part 1 Should you take a creative writing degree?

Part 2 How to choose a creative writing degree

Grab coffee and come over. As always, the comments system at Late Last Night Books is tricky to negotiate, but if you’d like to add to the discussion or ask a question, type it here!

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7 ways to write with confidence – guest post at Ingram Spark

Some books never get out of the writer’s mind and onto the page … and when IngramSpark heard about my new workbook, they thought I might have some advice. Voila, 7 essential points for writing with confidence, which you can see over at their blog. Actually, I didn’t expect to be in your inbox again so quickly after the previous post, but launch times always get a bit frenetic.

Actually #2…

Special offer!

This extra post also lets me share a sudden, mad offer. This weekend, in honour of the Bookbrunch Selfie Awards, I’m having a flash sale for my novel Lifeform Three – which a few years ago had a nibble at a very prestigious award (I’ve never been able to tell the story before, but you can find it here).  For this weekend, the Kindle edition of Lifeform Three is  just 99c. Grab it now!

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