Monday, July 22, 2013

On Endings

By the time you read this, I'll be kicking back in sunny Arizona, drinking pina coladas out of monkey-shaped coconut mugs while beautiful women in leis serenade me with haunting melodies on their shamisens.  Or something like that.  In any case, I'll be mostly or entirely AWOL from the internet, so play nice in the comments until I get back in a few weeks.

In the meantime, don't fret that you'll have nothing to do for a few minutes, three times a week.  I've got an all-star lineup of everyone who was willing to perform some unpaid internet labor some authors and commenters which you definitely won't want to miss.  There's writing advice, reviewing, general commentary, and more!  But to begin with, I'm turning to the versatile author/reviewer/character analizer/etc. InsertAuthorHere, who's offering up some thoughts on how to conclude one's fanfic--a much-underrated skill, among many budding authors.  I thought it would be nicely ironic to begin the guest series with a post about endings.  Geddit?  Eh?

When you're finished being disappointed in me, click down below the break for his thoughts.


Everything that has a beginning must have an end, including fanfiction. At one point, your five thousand-page epic about Pinkie Pie's amorous and thrilling adventures on the South Seas must be closed off. And surprisingly, that often is not as easy as it sounds.

Many talk about the process of beginning a story. Libraries of self-help books have been penned on coming up with inspiration for your stories, how to conceptualize the direction you wish the tale to take, or even just how to start off your first paragraph. And that's fine, since beginnings are especially important in fiction. First impressions are one of the most powerful forces in a person's memory, so if the first thing they see is a barely-sensible wad of grammatical errors and analogies about Pinkie Pie and the South Seas, they're likely to walk away and find something more rewarding to do with their time.

But what many forget is that the last impression you make is just as important. By the time people walk away from a story, the first chapter or paragraph is going to be little more than a rapidly fading memory, while the ending will remain fresh in their minds. If an ending is satisfying, then the work as a whole is a success, but if the conclusion is horrid, then it stains everything that came before it. A bad ending can undermine the story's message, render its events meaningless, or even just feel incomplete.

Does this mean you need to plan out every event in the story beforehand? No. The best way I've found to plot out a story is to not adhere to a rigid outline at all times, but instead to plot key events and the message you want to deliver in a way that leaves plenty of room for expansion or the addition of other events. For example, you might want Fluttershy to go to the Everfree Forest to confront Dark Lord Snugglebear, and you want that confrontation to end with her defeating him and recovering the next piece of the maguffin. But you don't have to script out every minute of the journey or battle before you start writing. You could have Fluttershy wander into a supposed monster who's suffering under the Dark Lord's rule, or have the battle tie into some pep talk Rainbow Dash gave her over hot cocoa the day before. You have an outline, but plenty of room to expand the synopsis and experiment as you see fit.

So what does this nonsense have to do with endings? As I pointed out, you want to plan out what the story's message ultimately is well before you even start. All stories, whether intentionally or not, are a treatise from the author to their readers; they are communicating their own thoughts and opinions to us through the way the characters behave, the story progresses, and how it all ends. That doesn't mean it has to have a moral. A moral tends to be rather overt and straightforward, presented at the end in an extremely clear way so that everyone can learn...and if handled poorly, can be insulting and off-putting to anyone who disagrees. The message is ultimately just the point of the story, the culmination of why these events are happening and why we should care.

As such, an ending should be the culmination of everything that has happened in the story. The conflicts and battles are over, our heroes have triumphed or fallen, and it's time to reflect on how this journey has changed things. That doesn't mean that every little thing has to wait until the conclusion to be wrapped up, nor that everything in the story needs to directly feed into the contents of the last page. If you're writing a longer work, then small mini-arcs with their own conclusions, or separate character pieces focusing on building your cast, are perfectly acceptable as long as they don't detract from the primary focus of the story. But the finale needs to be an appropriate coda for the theme and message of the work, and that means incorporating what has come before in order to create a greater whole.

To that end, here are a few pointers:

A) Read Every Chapter: This might seem odd, seeing as you're the one writing the story and all, but you should always re-read everything you have written in the story so far before you wrap up your latest entry. This helps to keep things consistent and moving in the direct you want. And when you're penning that last chapter, make sure you look back and catch anything that might have been missed, or needs a better explanation.

B) Keep Things Thematically Consistent: A proper ending feeds naturally off the tone of the piece. That doesn't mean a depressing story has to end sadly, or that a happy one end with everything just peachy. You can still alter the mood to make things more bittersweet, or take the Don Bluth approach and have a tragic tale end on a happy note. The important thing is that you don't suddenly downshift the tone so fast that it strips the story's gears.

Tying things into actual pony fics, The Immortal Game is a depressing and violent story, but ends on a bittersweet note with hope for the future. Conversely, Princess Celestia Hates Tea is an unabashedly silly story, but ends things on a downer and hopeless note. And both stories managed to pull off these endings without breaking the tone, theme and actions that had occurred up to that point.

C) Last-Second Twists: Don't use them unless you know what you're in for. Ending a story on a twist is a classic storytelling technique, but actually making a twist that works require planning, skill, and a great deal of poise. A good twist is something that should come as a surprise, but was still set up throughout the story without you even noticing. When you look back through a second time, you'll be able to pick up on all the little clues you previously overlooked or considered insignificant. But if the twist comes out of absolutely nowhere, then it runs the danger of undermining the rest of the story by leaving the reader confused and upset. Likewise, making the setup too obvious will lead readers to guess the twist beforehand, and that punch you planned for the ending will be effectively sidestepped and countered with the rock-hard fist of Called-It.

D) Definitely Closed or Left Hanging: Both options are valid, depending on the story you want to tell. The events of the actual tale should be finished as much as possible, but it's perfectly within your right to end things with the future uncertain or with direct ties into your sequel. That said, you never know if your sequel is ever going to come out (or for that matter, ever going to be updated), so ending things with a big advertisement for the next story is very rarely a good idea. Plus, it kind of leaves readers upset that they never got a conclusion and have to spend more time reading the next story to know how things end.

And oh yes, make sure the ending is properly edited and proofread. It's true for the rest of the story, but remember that thing I said about last impressions. If the beginning of a story looks bad, people will just not bother reading it, but if the ending looks bad, it gives the impression that you just didn't care, and leaves the reader feeling robbed of all the time they spent reading your tale.

So good luck, brave writers of the pony fandom! Feel free to tell me how shortsighted and wrong I am. It's kind of my thing.


Thanks for kicking us off, IAH! For my part, I never start a story without knowing the ending--to me, that'd be like trying to run a race without knowing where the finish line was. Yes, you can still run, but how do you know what pace to set? How do you know when to sprint for the line, and when to conserve your energy? As IAH says, it's not necessary to know every little detail, but one's writing can only improve if one knows where one's going.


  1. Jesus, that was the scariest title ever!

    Pretty solid advice, IAH. I used to read a lot about screenwriting and one of the common tips was to come up with the ending before anything else. There was also this really cool idea to tie the first and last shots together in some way. I can't get enough of that kind of thing, so there's something else for fanfic writers to consider

    Writers, take special note of what he said about twists!

  2. I'll be kicking back in sunny Arizona, drinking pina coladas out of monkey-shaped coconut mugs while beautiful women in leis serenade me with haunting melodies on their shamisens.

    >In Arizona
    >Describes nothing that's actually from Arizona.

    Well, just don't roast yourself, Chris.

    In any case, I'll be mostly or entirely AWOL from the internet, so play nice in the comments until I get back in a few weeks.



    Anyway, great advice IAH. What's funny is that for me, the ending is often the first thing I think about, or at least the second or third. I can't venture into writing a story without knowing how it will end. Definitely love your advice on twist endings; very well put.

  3. Heh. I've been procrastinating over writing a blog-post on story construction for a while, but this manages to cover most of it.

    I swear, some 80% of fanfiction just stops--no call-backs, no twist, no resolution, no thought-provoking reveal, nothing. Fortunately, I'm not remotely reticent about letting the author know, and it seems to be the norm for a hundred comments to go by before I stick my oar in and point out that something fundamental is missing. What really worries me is that I repeatedly pick out the same issues in the 'Vault or EqD as I do in relatively unknown works by unknown authors. What this really tells me is just how many readers are largely oblivious to it.

    After a long think (to make sure I wasn't just being unnecessarily curmudgeony), I decided that much of it comes down to the 'cuz poniez' effect. Vast swathes of reader and writer alike don't seem to care too much as long as their pastel-coloured favourites are doing stuff. Not good enough for me; I want a properly constructed story, dammit!


    1. Maybe they do notice it, but just don't think/feel they can bring themselves to point it out? If people like a piece of entertainment for whatever reason, then maybe they're loathe to acknowledge or make much of any flaws in it?

    2. It's a fair point. I suppose in a sense that's part and parcel of why I've become one of the harshest critics that I know.

  4. I too plan out to the end before I start writing, and I have a weak spot for stories that began where they end in tone, situation, or language. I love a "coming full circle" tale done well, and it's not unusual in my own stories to see thematic words, phrases, or even entire paragraphs from early on repeated near the end.

    I once tried the opposite: I wrote a deliberately open-ended story that I'd only thought up the beginning for, with the idea that it'd find its own way and run on as one of those 30-plus-chapter epics. About a year and a half ago, I got stuck after chapter 4, haven't touched it since, and only recently decided on a direction to go and wrap it up in another 3 or 4 chapters. To be sure, some people can write in that largely directionless way, but I quickly found that I can't.

    While the ending isn't necessarily the first thing that pops into my head (I'm pretty evenly split between the seed being the ending, beginning, or overall concept), I do plan all the way through before drafting any of it.

  5. Also, figure out how much detail you need to go into in the planning phase in order to make sure that the ending doesn't spontaneously change halfway through the story. I swear, one time I was writing a mystery story, and the culprit turned out to be someone completely different from who I thought it was, and I was the one writing the story.

    Unfortunately, the more detail you go to during the planning phase, the harder it is to actually get the thing written...

  6. Hmm… we should write a 6-star story for Chris to review when he gets back. I'll... wait... no. That's a dumb idea. Sorry, I don't know what got into me for a second there. Never mind.

    1. Don't be such a tease, Chicken! C'mon, write the story. You know you want to... ;)