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I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here today . . .

February 7th, 2010

Last week, I finished the first draft of The Goblin Emperor (::wild cheers::), and in the last five to ten thousand words or so, I gained a new appreciation for why mystery writers so frequently resort to the last chapter In Which The Great Detective Explains It All. And so today I’m going to talk about ending a novel.

Ending a novel is harder than it looks.

For one thing, how do you figure out where the story ends? How do you choose where to stop? For another, unless your novel is exceptionally spare and stripped down, you’re not finding an ending point for one monolithic story, you’re finding a point where you can bring together the ends of several different story-strands, spatially, temporally, and as Captain Jack Sparrow says, ecumenically. And still make it look quote-unquote “natural.” This is where “Rocks fall, everyone dies” becomes a major temptation.

And there’s also the problem–again, unless your narrative is so minimalist Raymond Carver would be proud of you–that you probably have more than three characters with names. You don’t have to explain what happened to all of them, but you also don’t want your readers’ first response to the brilliant, touching, masterful end of your magnum opus to be, “Hey, what happened to whatsherface?” Hence the Great Detective gets all the characters together to explain whodunnit to them. Or, in Victorian novels (which often evade the problem of having to collect all the characters in one room by being in omniscient) there will be a sudden rash of marriages in the last chapter, to get everybody tided out of the way. Both The Great Detective Explains It All ending and the Mawwiage Is What Bwings Us Togethah Today ending are artificial in the extreme, and frequently–as Elizabeth Bear pointed out when I mentioned it to her–awkward, obtrusive, and unsatisfying, but the thing is, I understand why people do them. Because it gets everybody to hold still for FIVE FUCKING SECONDS so you can END THE GODDAMN BOOK ALREADY. And I don’t care if your eyes WERE closed, Aunt Mabel, this is the picture that’s going to the newspaper.

But understanding the temptation is not the same as thinking it’s a good strategy. It isn’t. The more artificial and obvious the narrative structure is, the more likely your readers are to be distracted from the brilliant, touching, masterful end of your magnum opus by the creaks and groans of the machinery. All the more so as the Great Detective Ending and the Mawwiage Ending are cliches, and the majority of your readers will recognize them the instant they hear the oom-pah-pah of the calliope, and you will have to work twice as hard to get their attention back.

So, okay, Mole, you say. Cliches are bad. Clunky artifice is bad. What do we do instead?

Well, you try to make your artifice look natural. You can’t, by the way, avoid artifice: that’s all writing a novel is: artifice and sleight of hand. If you aren’t writing a novel predicated on artifice–like John Myers Myers’ Silverlock or Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next books or Tristram Shandy–you want to camouflage it as much as you can, so that the reader will forget to look for the zipper down the monster’s back, or for the wires enabling Peter Pan to fly. Even if you’re writing category romance, in which part of the attraction of the genre is its patent artifice, you still want it to look like your characters reach their Happily Ever After because they love other, not because the plot made them do it.

To be perfectly clear: I don’t think artifice is bad. I don’t think patent artifice is bad, either–otherwise I wouldn’t love revenge tragedies, or the work of Georgette Heyer, as much as I do. But part of the artifice of writing a novel is that you’re trying to make it look not-artificial. Renaissance rhetoricians had a word for this: sprezzatura, the art of making the difficult look effortless. And that’s really what I’m talking about. Not how to be natural in your writing, but how to appear natural. Sprezzatura.

You can try for sprezzatura with regard to your ending in several ways:

1. Limit the number of artificial interventions in your story. To tell a story at all, you have to choose an artificial starting point, and a trigger: a murder or a visitor or an earthquake. The more you can set up your starting point and your trigger so that the rest of the story follows naturally from them (remembering, of course, that like I said a couple paragrahs up, “natural” is also artificial in the world of a novel), the less the mechanics of your narrative have to be visible, and the less likely the artificiality of the ending is to call attention to itself.

2. Misdirection and distraction. Brilliant prose style! Wacky characters! Dialogue that your readers will be unable to prevent themselves from quoting to hapless friends! The brighter and more wildly the surface of the novel shines, the less attention readers have to spare for noticing things like plot. Concomitantly, the more likely they are to forgive the artificiality they do notice. I don’t mind when Lord Peter Wimsey Explains It All, because listening to Lord Peter talk is somewhere between half and three-quarters of the reason I showed up for this book in the first place.

3. Try to find an ending point that doesn’t look like you’re going for a merit badge in knot tying. I know many readers are frustrated by the endings of my books because the arc of the characters’ lives can’t be predicted (“What’s going to happen to X?” they ask plaintively–but please notice that that’s a different question than “Hey, what happened to whatsherface?”), but for me, that’s a feature, not a bug. I think you should feel at the end of a book that the characters’ lives are going to continue and, like real people’s lives, be unpredictable. Even if you like more closure than I do, getting it too pat will make the game look rigged.

Of course, the game is rigged. But your job is to make people feel like they won it on their own.

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  1. Robert Jones
    February 7th, 2010 at 16:25 | #1

    You began with a humorous title and supplied handy and thought-provoking advice. Thank you for both. You also get many extra kudos for your “Rocks fall, everyone dies” remark. It was hilarious.
    Thank you for that also.

  2. KT
    February 7th, 2010 at 17:25 | #2

    Sprezzatura is a fabulous and useful word — thanks for bringing it to mind! And a big “hee!” to the Lord Peter comment.

  3. February 7th, 2010 at 18:00 | #3

    Huh. Was just wrestling with this myself.

    It takes on a particular hue when you have let loose five or six different factions in the story, all of which have different ends.

  4. makito
    February 9th, 2010 at 10:55 | #4

    Ending a story is something I’ve always had trouble doing!

    Toward the end there I kept thinking about how you ended Corambis (and even The Mirador, what with Mehitabel going off on her not-so-merry way, and the rest of the Melusinian characters we never saw in book 4). How it left plenty to the imagination but still resolved everything and tied it together. Felix and Mildmay would keep on with their lives and probably solve some sort of mystery about the lighthouse… I don’t know. It was very well-crafted, I thought. It didn’t feel crowded with narratively satisfying bits of closure, unlike many other books I’ve read (especially in the realm of series fantasy).

    Also? Sprezzatura is now in my every-day vocabulary.

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