Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 38: Irrelevant Book Endings

Is there anything more fun, more bittersweet, and more challenging than book endings? Arguably, nothing matters more for ensuring reader satisfaction than the ending of a book. As such, few parts of your story are going to be more important to get right. But naturally, the room for error rises in direct proportion to the importance of any aspect of your novel. One of the easiest writing mistakes to fall into in your book endings is actually one that has as much to do with book beginnings–and, indeed, the entirety of your book.

Art and Craft of Christian Fiction Jeff GerkeI’m talking about irrelevant book endings. As editor Jeff Gerke says in The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction,

I can’t tell you how many unpublished novels I’ve read in which the ending has absolutely nothing to do with the beginning.

How to Write Distractingly Irrelevant Book Endings

This one’s super-easy! Just write a plot that hooks a 90-degree turn somewhere in its second half. For example:

  • Jane spends the first half of the book on a quest to find sentient life in the stars–but then switches focus in the second half to the custody battle over her kids.
  • Edward spends the first half of the book trying to get the love of his life to forgive him–but then switches focus in the second half to bringing down the Mafia.
  • Laurie spends the first half of the book reconciling herself to her cancer diagnosis–but then switches focus in the second half to writing a scandalous exposé on an aging movie star.
  • Jake spends the first half of the book learning to skydive–but then switches focus in the second half to adopting a son.
  • Elinor spends the first half of the book learning to use her new superpower–but then switches focus in the second half to reconciling with her estranged father.

How to Write Relevant Book Endings That Resonate

You may be quick to realize any of the above combos could work in the same book to create some really interesting layers and juxtapositions. But they only work if both halves are properly set up in the First Act. A story is a sum total of its parts, but all its parts must work together to create a pleasingly cohesive and resonant sum. Anything that happens in the second half needs to be set up in the first (for more on how to do that, read this post on foreshadowing).

We might remedy the disasters in the previous section by reworking them just slightly:

  • Jane’s overall goal is to find sentient life in the stars, but a subplot focuses on her personal life and the custody battle over her kids–which might tie into the main plot via a motif of the family as a symbol of the universe.
  • Edward’s overall goal is to get the love of his life to forgive him, but to do that he has to cut his ties with the Mafia by bringing it down from the inside out.
  • Laurie’s main personal issue is her cancer diagnosis, but the plot might be about her (last) chance to write the biggest article of her career–a scandalous exposé on an aging movie star. It turns out the movie star has a few things to teach her about living, dying, and coming to grips with her illness.
  • Jake the adventurer starts out the book learning to skydive, but when he meets orphaned Hank early on, he quickly forms the relationship that will cause him to rethink his self-absorbed lifestyle and lead him to adopt Hank.
  • Elinor’s early goal is learning to use her new superpower, but in order to truly claim personal empowerment, she will also have to resolve the subplot (featuring the Ghost from her past) with her estranged father.

Of course, you could also rewrite all of these more dramatically to maintain a more obvious cohesion between beginning and ending:

  • Jane spends the first half of the book on a quest to find sentient life in the stars–and in the second half she goes to Mars.
  • Edward spends the first half of the book trying to get the love of his life to forgive him–and in the second half he kidnaps her to try to get some alone time to talk to her.
  • Laurie spends the first half of the book reconciling herself to her cancer diagnosis–and in the second half she goes on a bucket-list cross-country trip where she collects important pieces of wisdom from the people she encounters.
  • Jake spends the first half of the book learning to skydive–and in the second half he falls, is paralyzed, and has to learn to jump out of planes without the use of his legs.
  • Elinor spends the first half of the book learning to use her new superpower–and in the second half she heroically unites Disney and Warner Brothers.

The possibilities are as endless as your imagination. The only rule is that the ending must be the direct result of the beginning.

5 Reasons Irrelevant Book Endings Happen

The problem of irrelevant book endings can result from a number of issues, including:

1. The author didn’t know the ending when she started writing, and her beginning failed to properly set up the ending.

2. The author didn’t know the ending when he started, and he had to write his way through half a book of “fluff” to figure out the true plot.

3. The plot in the first half of the book ran out of steam around the Midpoint, and the author had to come up with an additional plotline to finish out his word count.

4. The author planned a slambang ending, but found herself needing to kill time in the first half the book since the setup didn’t provide enough story events to fill out the plot before she arrived at the true conflict.

5. The author lacked a foundational understanding of story structure and failed to realize that the lack of continuity from beginning to end of the book is problematic.

Time to ask yourself some important questions: Do you know where you’re headed with your story? If so, is the ending a logical reflection of the beginning? If not, how can you use the events featured in your story’s beginning to set up a logical and resonant finale? These are tough questions, but their answers are what define every book. Find the right answers, and you’ll never have to worry about the common writing mistake of irrelevant book endings.

Tell me your opinion: How do you book endings reflect your beginnings?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 38: Irrelevant Endings

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. As a natural ‘pantser’, I like to let the characters find their path through the story. However, KT Weiland showed me a few books ago that structure is important to the effective flow and logic of any novel. I’d never thought about it before then.
    So although I’m still a pantser, because it’s so natural for me, I analyse much more than I used to do. I always know the ending of the story when I begin. It gives me a target. And as I write, the target is in my mind. The characters may take a side road from time to time, but the target always brings them back to the highway.
    The one important characteristic of my endings … I try for some form of dramatic irony. What started the story in motion is either achieved in an ironic way by the end, or the very opposite ironically befalls the protagonist. It’s a double whammy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Tonality is a big part of cohesion between beginnings and endings, and your books are very good at opening with the right tone to foreshadow the endings.

    • Alberto Monroy says:

      This is exactly how I feel; Pantsing my way through the story is my natural way of writing, as I start convulsing with images and plots and character descriptions and the smaller details that bring the characters to life; Also, doing things in this way, grants me a vantage point from where I can envision massive events such as fully fledged battles; magic spells and such ocurrences. However, the tips on this website have only made me better at figuring out the end to my story and to also ask myself questions I hadn’t dared due to the whimsical pantser I am. Things like these make me happy; when by way of another’s artistical approach you are able to unravel a piece of your soul which shines, reveling in its own discovery.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        That really makes me happy! I think it is *so* valuable to study the processes of other writers. Even if we disagree with them or decide their way isn’t for us, it’s still super useful in refining our own unique processes. So glad the post was useful to you!

  2. This has come at an opportune moment for me, thank you. The story I’m working on now will be the first half filled with short stories of people let down by the justice system. In the second half, those let down come together and form a vigilante network. Is this on the right track?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This kind of format is always tricky, since its sense of continuity and cohesion is different from standard stories. Not that it can’t work, by any means, but it takes extra care and awareness.

  3. I try to see my final image for the hero and make their opening image and ordinary world the opposite of that. Overcome the bad guy and gets the girl at the end, means incapable and single at the beginning. I always tend to get a flash of the end first.

  4. Attuning the beginning to the ending has been a big part of the rewrite for my novel. The structure never changed, but the characters’ reasons became clearer while I rewrote them, became deeper and more in relation. So the end also didn’t change from the synopsis, but the reasons behind it and the way I presented it did.

    It’s a very strenge feeling when you know excactly where you want to go, but you piece the reasons together little by little.

    After many rewrites, I think I’ve finally pinned down the ending of my novel. Let’s see what my beta readers think 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No matter how thoroughly you outline, you never truly *know* your story or your characters until you start writing them. There are always going to be adjustments necessary in the beginning once you’ve actually written the ending.

  5. Curtis Manges says:

    Ms. Weiland,

    I think you may have just given me an “uh-oh” moment … I’ve always felt a nagging uncertainty about my ending. Luckily (I think), I’m early in a major rewrite, so this might all iron itself out in time. Still, I’ve got a lot of beautiful stuff already written for the later portion of the book–almost clear to the end–and I’d hate to leave it behind. On the other hand, I’m getting used to leaving beautiful stuff behind. I guess major rewrites tend to do that to an author.

    Thanks very much; this is a VERY important message. Your site is one of those gifts that keeps on giving.

    C

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Those are never fun realizations. Sometimes it’s a good idea just to give the thought a little time. Killing darlings is easier if you don’t force yourself to do it right away.

      • Curtis Manges says:

        Oh, I know, and I’ll have plenty of time to think about it all.

        Thanks again.

        C

        • Curtis Manges says:

          Just to add–I never kill my darlings; I just stick them in an archive. Sometimes they turn out to have other uses.

          C

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Very smart. I do the same. I have a “Deleted Data” folder dedicated to every story.

  6. I never worry about killing my darlings. Over the years I’ve learned that there will always be new words and new arrangements of words. But whenever I tried to save a ‘darling’ for later use, it always stood out, like the cut-and-paste orphan it was.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s a lot of truth to that. Still, it always makes me feel better to save them – just in case. 😉

  7. This is a very timely post for me as I begin another round of editing. Thanks for the insight!

  8. Thank You

  9. Brilliant post – and just what I needed as I flesh out my final chapters. It turns out that although I had planned the final tension in my YA historical novel (and am grateful that the plot direction of the first draft is pretty consistent as a result), I had not figured out a way to close the book on a satisfying note.

    Your post helped cement an idea of how to tie up my loose ends: by planting the seeds of resolution in the beginning. I know there’s a lot of work ahead, but I’ve been pointed in the right direction. Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Perfect! If we think of the beginning as a question and the ending as the answer, it really helps bring everything full circle.

  10. Hi Katie,

    Excellent article, indeed! I loved the way you gave examples of how to fix the irrelevant endings you described at the beginning of your post. I guess one key approach that can be used, is to have an idea of how we want the story to end during the early phases of the writing process; a bit like setting a goal. If we know the end point, then at least we know where we’re going. We just have to figure out how to get there. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always need to know how my stories will end before I can figure out how they’ll begin. But authors can definitely write to the end without knowing it, then go back and adjust the beginning afterwards. The process is really just about finding whatever works best for each of us.

  11. Oh, so true! Good endings are what keep readers comming back and sing the jacket method often helps!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Absolutely! A beginning will pull a first-time reader in, but it’s the ending that turns them into a perennial reader.

  12. Does this hold true for books in a series? Should the “answer” to the “question” be found at the end of book 1 with a new question being raised (to be solved in book 2)? Or can we solve other issues in the end of book 1 but wait to resolve (at least one of) the questions until, say, the end of book 3?

    I’m just curious how you would approach this … does it still hold outside of stand-alones?

  13. Found this particular blog relevant. I just finished one of my favorite authors new series and it left me flat at the end. Its as if we are taken to a cliff and just left there. Found that also to be true of some very famous romance writers. Yes the object is to get two people together but there’s something about the endings that does not necessarily leave me wanting for more ..they just leave me flat.
    Also most of the story builds the tension, then the resolution is like 2 pages????? I find that disappointing.
    working on my own novel so I will take your advice. thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Balance and pacing are key in creating resonant endings. As Robert McKee says so profoundly, if the first two acts are poor, but the third act is brilliant, the story will likely still work. But if the ending fails, the whole book will fail no matter how great its buildup.

  14. mimsy (what did I use before? - shrugs-) says:

    The difficult part is getting the subplots to turn back towards the main plot to get to the ending. Strangely enough, the ending is what I saw first when writing this book. I don’t think I have any of the problems listed here. My problems have to do more with dialogue, and scene setting.This posting was good to read though, I appreciate stuff like this.

  15. I hope I’m not committing a horrible boo-boo in responding to an older post… I am of course aware I’ll probably not get an answer, but here’s hoping 😉
    The fact of the matter is that the plot that takes up most space in the novel I’m writing is not the ‘main’ plot. It’s not even the main main plot, though it is an aspect of what’s going on in the background. Basically, while the characters are focussing on one thing (a ghost invasion at a school), something else is happening in the background (someone at the school is planning to summon a demon). It’s not until the last third of the story that this second aspect starts taking up a lot of screen time (though there are clues scattered throughout the previous part.) It is also this second plot that provides the big bang ending (characters under suspicion, demon summoned, big face-off). Both plots, though, are part of the metaplot that will continue in two further books (the veils between the worlds are weakening… but why?).
    Do you think this can work?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You do have the distinct advantage of working with two separate plots that are thematically related (ghost and demons), so that will help a bunch. The big thing to contemplate is whether or not the ghost subplot actually leads into (and, in a sense, *causes*) the demon plot. If you could pull the ghost subplot without affecting the demon plot, that’s when you know you may have a problem.

      • Thank you! As it is, they both tie into the metaplot, but not so much into each other. I think I can do that though – make the ghost plot cause the demon plot – I just hope it’s strong enough. Thanks again for the help!

  16. Huthayfah says:

    What exactly are the characteristics of a good ending? How do you know when you’ve written one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Two major ingredients:

      1. It’s satisfying (to you and to your readers). It gives readers what they *want* out of the story.

      2. It brings the story full circle by answering the questions that were raised in the beginning. The beginning is a question; the end is the answer. So, obviously, they must match up.

Trackbacks

  1. […] plot sucks readers in. Jami Gray explores writing outside the plot box, while K.M. Weiland warns of irrelevant book endings that leave your readers […]

  2. […] Most common writing mistakes, number 38: Irrelevant endings. K.M. Weiland. Helping Writers Become Authors. […]

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