From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
For more than a decade, writers have asked me what they can do to sell their existing books. I always tell them to write the next book. Some writers don’t have time for promotion. Others don’t have the constitution for it.
. . . .
The one thing that will sell your next book is the ending of the current book.
If your book ends well, leaving the reader satisfied, then they’ll want to repeat the experience with your next book. If your ending falls flat, then some readers won’t care about your next book. If your ending is truly awful, the readers will avoid your next book completely.
What made me think of this was a movie that Dean and I watched on Amazon Prime. The movie is called Parallel. We knew nothing about it before we watched it, except for the bit of advertising copy. The movie’s about multiverses, which we both love, and it looked promising.
When we watch something together, we have a rule: either one can veto the movie at any point in the movie. We figured this one would be an early veto. Instead, it was a good way to spend an hour-plus. The script was tight, the characters—though unlikeable—were well drawn. There were some quibbles (no way could those bodies have been disposed of easily), but they were minor.
The movie hummed along. It even had the perfect ending. I was enjoying it…and then some idiot tacked on a scene with a minute and a half left.
That scene ruined the movie. I have since looked at reviews, and everyone calls the ending a jumbled mess. Yeah. It is. But had the movie ended a minute and a half earlier, it would have been just fine.
Here’s what the ending did wrong:
- It introduced new information that contradicted the information in the movie.
- It threw in a plot twist that literally made no sense.
- It was pointless and emotionally flat.
- It did not match the tone of the rest of the movie.
- It raised questions that could not be answered.
What that last scene was going for was a gotcha! sequence that you often see in horror films. You think everything is fine, and then—nope—there are little plants growing in suburbia (as in Little Shop of Horrors) or a hand rises out of the grave (as in Carrie).
But Parallel, for all its terrifying moments, isn’t a horror film. It’s a science fiction film. It even tells you that midway through by quoting Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.
The gotcha! ending doesn’t work in a science fiction film. The movie needs to be about the ideas and the characters, which it was, until 90 seconds before the end.
. . . .
Endings are really important. They have to be done right or the reader/viewer is going to be turned off completely.
What does “right” mean?
It means offering an emotionally satisfying ending, one that says “The story is over, and here’s the emotion you’re left with.” Sure, we all know that the couple in a romance will marry, have kids, fight before bedtime, and occasionally storm through the house. But they’ll still be together at the very end. They’ll probably die on the same day around their 100th birthday, hands clasped and declaring their love for each other in whispery voices ravaged by time.
The mystery ending will put order on chaos. Not every mystery ends with the killer behind bars, but at least we know who done it. And we know what the repercussions are.
. . . .
The real key to all fiction is an emotionally satisfying ending, one that ends, and does not leave things hanging. You certainly can’t introduce new ideas in your last chapter that changes or contradicts what has come before.
If you are going to change or contradict what has come before, you must set the seeds for that earlier. Little teeny hints of things not being as they seem.
And if you kill your protagonist, well, we need to know that on page 1, paragraph one, or even in the title.
“On the day that Devon died, he discovered the secret of the universe….”
Usually readers forget that you told them Devon would die, but when they get to it, they go “oh, yeah” and are okay with it. If you have Devon discover the secret of the universe and then hit by a bus without any warning at all, no one will read your next book. It’s that simple.
So the conundrum comes when you’re writing a series or linked stories. Most writers opt for the stupidest and least effective way of handling it.
They just end the action, with nothing resolved.
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