How To End a Story

I was recently given the challenge of writing about endings.  How does one end a story in a satisfying way?  I’m not sure if I’m the best one to ask since I haven’t finished any project of note or scope.  A few of my short stories are complete, but most of them aren’t very good.  However, I’ll do my best.

Stories revolve around conflict.  Sometimes the conflict is very small, like misplacing your keys and trying to find them before you are late for work, or the conflict could be huge, spanning star systems and deciding the fate of entire worlds.  Most stories fall somewhere between the two.  Fantasy does tend to go large-scale with some kind of threat to the world or at least to the local kingdom.

A story begins usually just before the conflict is introduced.  We see what is “normal” and then something happens that creates conflict for the character.  They lose their job, they are taken out of slavery, they become a slave, they gain or lose a kingdom.  The conflict introduced may bring them positive changes, like in Mercedes Lackey’s Dragon Jousters series.  A boy name Vetch is a serf, bound to the land under a harsh master, but that changes when a Dragon Jouster comes to his home and takes him on as a servant to help tend the great dragons.  Obviously Vetch will be facing a new set of challenges, but his lot has improved from his previous state of serfdom.  Or the conflict could be more negative and dangerous.  Richard Mayhew in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is living a perfectly ordinary life until he stumbles across an injured girl named Door.  He takes care of her and she’s out of his life in less than 24 hours, but as a result, he suddenly becomes invisible to the upper world.  His good deed costs him his fiancée, his job, his money, his home, his very existence as a normal person.  Because of this unfortunate turn of events, he must descend into the dangerous London Below to try to get his life back.

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Prolific Penmasters

It’s ironic that the three writers I look up to the most are also some of the most prolific.  Mercedes Lackey has dozens upon dozens of novels.  Many are collaborations, but many are not, and even collaborating takes a great deal of time and effort.  Oddly enough, she started off as a writer of fanfiction and was a protegée of Marion Zimmer Bradley, one of the mistresses of sci-fi and fantasy.  J. Michael Straczynski writes for 10 hours a day, every day, except on his birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s.  He says, “If I don’t have an assignment, I’ll write a short story, I’ll write a spec script, I’ll write a novel. I just enjoy the hell out of it.”  Out of the 110 episodes comprising Babylon 5, he wrote the scripts for 92 of them, plus all of the movies.  Joss Whedon has created several cult classic television shows with some of the most unique and memorable mythologies and characters.  He worked on BuffyAngel, and Firefly as writer and director during the 2002-2003 television season, and said that he only feels his best when he’s writing:

“You know, I always get cranky when I’m not writing,” Joss admits.  “I’ll be mad and I don’t know why.  I just feel like I’m angry with everybody and I hate everything and life is a sham.  Then I’ll realize I haven’t written anything. And rewriting doesn’t count.  It has to be an original script” (Havens, 158).

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To Write, You Must Read

One of the greatest and most basic rules of thumb in the world of writing is: “Write a story you would want to read.”
 
The next question is, “What kinds of stories do you enjoy reading?”
 
Once you’ve answered these two questions, your journey into the realm of writing has begun. And yet, so many writers seem to forget these basic questions. Too many get caught up what they think other people want them to write, or what other people want to read, or what kind of story formula will guarantee sales that will make them a multi-million-dollar success. If you start coming at stories from that angle these days, you are only sabotaging your own efforts. Your readers can tell when a story has heart and when it was written with calculation designed to draw them in. To an extent, every writer is trying to pull readers in, but the difference is this: are you trying to hook them because you think you have a good story to tell? Or are you trying to hook them for the money and popularity?

Accepting Criticism With Grace

No one likes criticism.  No one wants to hear that the paper or story or script that they spent days, weeks, months, even years slaving over is no good.  Or even that only parts of it are not good.  “Sorry, you missed the mark, try again.”

Rejection hurts.  Criticism hurts.  It’s like watching someone sucker-punch your infant child while having your fingers amputated because you aren’t worthy to be a writer and then having salt and alcohol slathered over those gaping, bleeding wounds.

Okay, I don’t think I’ve felt quite that extreme a reaction to criticism, but it is a lot like amputation and birth contractions, coming in waves with occasional sharp pangs that make you want to crawl into a hole and hide your face from the world forever.

But like the pain of a birth or an amputation, criticism is necessary in order for us to grow.

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Everything Old Is New Again: How Not To Be Afraid of Clichés

Cliché.  Perhaps the most dreaded word in the history of writing.  The last thing any writer wants to hear about their work is, “This story is so unoriginal.  It’s riddled with clichés!”

The dictionary definition of a cliché is:

  1. a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, such as “sadder but wiser,” or “strong as an ox.”
  2. (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.
  3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

It’s a word, phrase, stereotype, character type, or even storyline that is way, way, WAY overused.  I’ve heard some people accuse Shakespeare of using too many clichés.  Little do they realize that he came up with half of the expressions that were so witty and original at the time that everyone wanted to use them until society got sick of them.

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The Appeal of Fantasy

What is your favorite genre?  What kind of story inspires you, intrigues you, appeals to you?  Do you seek the spine-tingling screams of Horror?  The alien worlds and high stakes of Science Fiction?  The head-scratching maze of Mystery?  The depth and realism of Historical Fiction?  The pounding pulses and happy endings of Romance?  (If you would like a full list of the main genres and sub-genres of fiction, I highly recommend reading “Writer’s Digest Sub-Genre Descriptions.”)

I think everyone has a favorite genre or kind of book or story that they seek out over the others.  Some people like a wide variety of books while others are very particular about what they read and specialize in only a few types of books.  Some even focus on only one kind.  I don’t think one way is better than the other, although it is good to be at least exposed to other works and genres even if you don’t read them on a regular basis.  My personal area of expertise is the wide-eyed wonder of Fantasy.

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