I wrote my first book when I was fourteen–and I had no idea when to write The End. I printed the manuscript in December 1999 (just in case Y2K crashed the world and I lost my beautiful story). This was a great accomplishment, of course. I’d just finished writing a book. Except, it turned out, I wasn’t finished.
My imagination just wouldn’t stop churning. The story kept right on going after my proud “THE END.”
And going and going… I kept working on that thing for yet another year, and it ended up tripling in size before I was done.
I loved that story. I just couldn’t let it go. I lived and breathed it to the point that sometimes it felt there would never be an end.
When Your Story Doesn’t Want to End
As authors, it can sometimes be difficult to know when to end a beloved story. As long as our characters are entertaining us, we keep writing them. We have so much material to write about! That’s the good part.
The not-so-good part is realizing your word-count ticker in Word is starting to look like the National Debt Clock.
Your book is getting mammoth, and there’s no end in sight. You start panicking just a little. After all, you know you have to end this thing sooner or later. But where? How do you know when to end your story?
This is a question I receive quite a bit. Not too long ago, when I asked all you Wordplayers, “What Would You Like to Learn From Me?” (in my poll about my upcoming online writing class–which, by popular vote, is going to be all about Crafting Amazing Character Arcs), Lance Haley chimed in with his version of this quandary:
I am tackling a rather difficult topic in my first novel…. Of course, that means covering a lot of turf, which makes it even more problematic…. It’s not a question of “where do I start?” It’s a question of “where do I stop?” No one wants to read the equivalent of War and Peace again in the 21st Century, even if the topic warrants such depth and breadth. Nor am I some aspiring Tolstoy!!!
This Is Why It’s Sometimes Hard to Know When to Write the End
Lance’s question is a sound one. Sometimes, like John Irving (who writes his last sentence first), you start out with a clear understanding of the ending you’re working toward. But other times, you’re just following the characters around to see what happens, and you don’t know what you’re working toward.
This is true both of pantsers, who start their first drafts without knowing the ending, and of outliners, who must necessarily navigate their outlines in the same way. Another question I receive frequently is, “How do I know when to stop outlining?” The simplest answer is: “When you reach the end.”
But, as we can already see, sometimes that’s just a bit too simplistic.
5 Ways to Find the Right Place to End Your Story
Fortunately, there are several concrete questions you can ask yourself to find exactly when to write the end to your story.
1. When Does the Conflict End?
This is the single most important factor in finding your story’s ending. As we discussed a few weeks ago, conflict is at the heart of plot. No matter how fascinating you find your character’s meanderings, the moment they cease to meander within a cohesive, forward-moving plot, that’s the moment you no longer have a story. (Remember, plot and character must work together to create story.)
However, it’s also important to remember that conflict is more than merely altercation. Disconnected arguments that exist only within the bubble of an individual scene aren’t enough to create plot. The conflict this question is speaking about is your main conflict–the conflict that powers your entire story. The moment that ends, so should your story.
2. What’s Your Dramatic Question?
Maybe you’re not sure how to identify your story’s main conflict.
Let’s narrow this down. To identify the conflict at the heart of your story, you must first identify your story’s dramatic question. This question is the driving force of your story. It’s what piques reader interest in the very beginning and what keeps them reading to the end in search of the answer. The moment this question is answered, readers no longer have a reason to be engaged by the plot–and the story ends.
Think of the dramatic question as the backbone of your story. Strip away all the subplots and nonessentials, and what remains should be the dramatic question.
- Will Andy escape prison? (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption)
- Will Indiana Jones keep the Ark of the Covenant out of Nazi hands? (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
- Will Maxim’s second wife escape the shadow of his mysteriously dead first wife? (Rebecca)
- Will the man and his son survive the apocalypse? (The Road)
The shorthand form of this question is simply: What’s going to happen? Once that question is answered, the conflict is effectively finished.
3. What Is Your Character’s Goal?
Still not sure what your story’s dramatic question is? Take a look at your protagonist’s goal. This is the engine that powers your story’s conflict and plot. What does your character want? This goal is the finish line at the end of your story. The conflict will raise obstacles between the character and that finish line–which will create the plot.
The moment there are no more obstacles between your character and that finish line–the moment he reaches his goal–that’s the moment your story’s dramatic question is answered and your conflict ends.
4. What’s Your Climactic Moment?
That point I mentioned above–where your character reaches the finish line and the conflict ends–that is your Climactic Moment. The Climactic Moment is the final major structural plank in your story. It will be followed only by the Resolution, in which the loose ends are tied off.
If you’re unsure whether or not your story is ready to reach its end, look around for the Climactic Moment. This will come at the end of your story’s Climax (the last eighth of your book) and will cap the final head-on confrontation between your protagonist and whatever antagonistic force has been placing obstacles between the protagonist and his goal.
Very often, this antagonistic force will be another person, but it can also simply be a false mindset or circumstance the protagonist finally has to face. The protagonist will either overcome it or be overcome by it. Either way, the conflict ends–and the story has no business carrying on much longer after that.
5. Have You Fulfilled Your Story Structure?
With the advantage of hindsight, I can look back on my never-ending first novel and see the reason it turned into the Energizer Bunny was I had no concept of story structure at that time. That novel was just a random, rambling collection of events. The reason I didn’t know when to write the end of the story’s main conflict was because it didn’t have a main conflict. It didn’t have an overarching dramatic question, spurred by an overarching character goal and pointing to a definitive Climactic Moment.
In short, it had no structure.
One of the great things about structure is that it provides a solid map for your journey through your story. If you’re aware of its structure, then you always know exactly where you are within the story itself, regardless its length.
Did you just pass the Moment of the Truth, where your protagonist experiences a revelation that shifts him from reaction to action within the conflict? Then you know you just passed the Midpoint and you still have fully half your story to go.
But if you just rounded the corner of the Third Plot Point–your character’s dark night of the soul–then you know you’re headed into the final quarter of the book and the end is now in sight.
By the same token, if you can look at your story’s structure and realize you passed the Climactic Moment fifty pages ago, then you know the story should probably have ended quite a ways back.
Bonus Question: How Long Should Your Book Be?
Sometimes when authors ask the question, “How do I know when it’s time to end my book?”, what they’re really asking is: “How long should my book be?”
These are two distinct questions. Finding the proper ending for your book actually has nothing to do with its length. I just finished W. Somerset Maugham’s classic Of Human Bondage–which took nearly 800 pages to reach its proper end–while many short stories find the answers to their dramatic questions in just a page or two.
Now, as we discussed over the last couple of weeks in my two-part series about how to trim your book’s word count: just because your story got windy on you doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be that long. If you find yourself competing with Maugham, you might want to at least consider trimming some fat.
But–and this is super-duper important–the advisability of trimming your word count does not mean you should end your story before its proper ending. The structural cohesion of your book is what’s most important. Please don’t take a completely structured 900-word novel and divide it into thirds to create a “trilogy.” What you’ll end up with is not three complete books, but rather a mish-mosh of improper structure that fails to create a single whole story in any one book.
If you find the question you’re really asking is whether or not your book is turning out too long, you can start by examining common word-count recommendations for your genre. But don’t mess with your structure.
Sometimes it can be incredibly hard to realize you have to stop writing these character you’ve grown to love so much. But remember: readers need both character and plot. Once you identify the moment your plot ends, you can be certain you’ve found exactly the right spot to end your story in order to gain its maximum emotional and intellectual resonance.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever struggled with knowing when to write the end to your book? What did you do? Tell me in the comments!
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