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Begin with an ending in mind

Posted June 1, 2007
by Terry Carroll

The fiction writer has a great start.

A compelling premise lends itself to a terrific opening. The story moves. The protagonist encounters challenges and overcomes some of them—whether internal or external or both—only to be faced with others. The setting works. Dialogue is strong and reflective of character.

What now? Where is all this going?

Weak or unsatisfying endings are almost as common as gripping openings. Ordinary filmgoers are only too aware of this story phenomenon. Agents and book publishers and writing courses pay so much attention to opening lines and the first few pages that writers often ignore the importance of a good ending.

How can you avoid the pitfall of a resolution that fails to resolve? It’s one thing to deliberately write an ambiguous ending, quite another to craft a story that trails off, leaving the reader unsatisfied.

One tip is to begin with an ending in mind. Just as a great vacation may involve delightful surprises, you may find that particular ending is not where you will end up. But at least you have a general idea of where you may go.

Along the way, play with alternate endings. Try on different possible resolutions to scenes as you go. And keep thinking about where the overall story may be headed. If they turn your crank, make lists.

When you’re two-thirds of the way through, try a self-edit. Print off the manuscript to date, do some red pen work and watch for elements of the story that seem to be leading naturally toward in a direction. This may or may not be the one you originally had in mind.

While a surprise ending is always a delight, an ending that is prefigured within the story is more gratifying than plot twists that come out of nowhere.

Writers’ group members can help you get there—usually by letting you know that a current ending doesn’t work.

Listen to others but it’s your job as the writer to choose the right ending for your story. That’s not accidental. It’s a deliberate act.

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