What’s the hardest part of writing a novel? Some say the beginning. Some say the middle. Some say the ending. The only part I never seem to have much trouble with is middles. My bete noir is endings. That’s because I don’t write the kind of book that has a specific goal for the protagonist, like finding a treasure, becoming king, or marrying and living happily ever after. My protagonist always winds up having to make a difficult decision, and it’s a tossup as to which of two or more choices he’s going to select. That choice is going to depend on what kind of person he is, and by the time the novel is almost finished, that’s completely out of my hands.
So that’s one difficulty with ending a novel the right way. Another is knowing when the novel is complete. The very first novel I ever wrote, for the 2009 National Novel Writing Month, ended in the most obvious place. The protagonist, this time a young woman, had gone through revelations and trauma and had come out the other end, ready to start a new life. The End. But wait. The strange young man who’d turned her world upside down had been rudely snatched away by the villain of the piece, never to be seen again. There had been a chance for a relationship and now it was gone.
Or was it? Why did I assume that the young man would never be heard of again? There was an opportunity for high drama and, as an inexperienced writer, I had overlooked it. But a year later, with another novel under my belt and a number of stories well under way, I wasn’t quite as inexperienced. I took another look at the novel: Gift of Blood. This time I saw what was missing. It could have ended where I left it, but it would have been anti-climactic, flat. The story of what happened to the young man and how that knowledge would affect the young woman and the other major characters still had to be told. And it finally was.
My NaNo novel for 2010, The Warden, had the opposite problem, at the opposite end. It began with a detailed chapter that set up the background for the rest of the novel. It was a very well-written chapter, even if I do say so myself, and I’m still proud of it. But it’s all about a secondary character, not the main character. And it was 3,000 words of delay in getting to the main character and the setting in which the novel takes place. So I rewrote it, cutting it down by about two-thirds and making it part of the real first chapter. It was a painful case of what novelists have to do sometimes. I killed the thing I loved. But it made the novel infinitely better.
Another story, not yet finished, needed more background, according to an early beta reader. When I considered the characters and what we need to know about them in order to care what happens to them, I had to agree that she was right.
Beginnings and endings are probably the last thing a new writer is going to think about, but They’re a vital part of the editing and revision process. Think about them in terms of drama. Does the beginning of the novel make the reader eager to see what’s next or make him hang around waiting for something interesting to happen? Does it mislead, making the reader think it’s about one thing when it’s about something else entirely? Does the ending leave the reader with a sense of completion, even if it isn’t happily ever after, or does it leave him unsatisfied because it’s either too abrupt or it fades to a dull gray?
How do your favorite novels begin and end? Learn from them.