How to understand what reader feedback *really* means (2/2) – Endings

On November 21, I gave a short story writing workshop with Lydia Peever to the Ottawa Independent Writers. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to cover everything we wanted.

One of the things I wanted to discuss was how to translate feedback you might get from readers or editors into ways to identify problems with your story. In other words, what they really mean and what can you do about it.

I posted earlier about the beginning and middle of a story. Now it’s time to look at the end of your story. While beginnings are delicate (just ask Princess Irulan) and middles can be tricky, the purpose of the story’s end is to tie everything together. When it doesn’t, you might hear…

“That ending came out of nowhere”

What they are really saying: There was no set up that we were heading for the climax.

Life is usually chaotic, but in we are used to a pattern in stories: the climax is the inevitable confrontation between protagonist and the antagonist. We know the climax is coming because other options are closed off.

When your ending “comes out of nowhere”, there were still other options the characters could explore. While rushing headlong at the antagonist might make for an exciting scene, most people prefer an easier non-confrontation than a harder, riskier encounter with their antagonist.

Or, you didn’t communicate how close the protagonist and antagonist were—having the evil wizard suddenly materialize in front of the warrior, and the warrior killing him with her magic sword, without any set up isn’t satisfying.

How to fix it: In Part 1, I said that as the main character tries to make things better, things get worse. But in short fiction, limit the number of things they can try. As the end looms, signal to the reader that the main character has one—and only one—last shot:

  • The main character assassin’s friend calls to say the target is boarding a train to leave the city
  • The crush is driving to the ex’s house for that weekend, and the main character needs to race to get there first
  • The helicopter arrives to take the strike team on their mission

Motion, especially toward something, is a great way to signal a coming climax.

Another way to signal the climax is to come out and say it. Have your characters discuss their plan to get what they want. Nothing signals the coming climax like someone saying: “We either do this, or we die.” The plan can (and should) fall apart, but it tells the reader that the end of the story is coming.

We also need to understand how the antagonist operates. If the antagonist doesn’t get its own scenes, at least explain its rules so when the confrontation happens we understand how.

“Ending took forever”

What they are really saying: This is opposite of what’s above when you didn’t signal we were heading into the inevitable confrontation. Instead, you signaled that we were heading into the climax too early. The climax, in general, is the last 1/4 of your story. That’s not a hard rule, but you should spend more time setting up how we get to the climax than in the actual climax. Enter it too early and readers are waiting (and waiting (and waiting)) to see who will win and how.

How to fix it: Using the examples above on how to signal we are transitioning into the story’s climax, go back and see how early or late in the story you give this signal. You might not even mean to set up the climax, but the reader thinks you did.

A common mistake that makes the ending seem to go on forever is raising the stakes in the climax. In longer works, you might be able to have one more reveal for raising the stakes, but in short fiction raise the stakes in the second act, but as we head into the final confrontation, we know what’s on the line. The end of the story is to wrap things up, not introduce new ideas.

For example, let’s say the convenience store manager from my earlier post is leading a group through the airport (the motion I mentioned above) to a waiting plane during a zombie attack. The stakes might be not just the survival of the group, but her own identity since earlier in her life as an army lieutenant she had failed to save her squad. If you suddenly introduce that one of the group knows how to stop the zombie apocalypse, it changes the story. Characters have to react and change as a result of this revelation, stretching things out. It might be only 100 more words, but it will seem longer. Lose that momentum and you lose the reader.

If you have story-changing reveals that appear in the climax, can you move them earlier in the story and make the middle more exciting?

The other aspect of this is after the climax. Short stories might not have enough room for denouement, but some can. Poorly done denouement, where things aren’t wrapped up or settled quickly, drags. It begs the question from readers of where are you taking them. When your main character wins over their crush, how does their life change? Tell us that and end the story. Page and pages describing dates and romance are events, not story.

“It just kinda stopped… there wasn’t an ending”

What they are really saying: This is a combination of the two items above. There were no signals that the story was coming to an end, and nothing is resolved.

How to fix it: Take the above advice into consideration.

But also, make it clear what’s on the line if the main character fails. Just as I said to not raise the stakes in the climax, we must know the stakes going into the climax. Otherwise we don’t know what all of the conflict is for.

For your main character assassin, why is it important to fulfill the contract? Money is not enough. Make it so we learn the master assassin (the target) has a contract for the main character’s family. For your character trying to ask out their crush, maybe they know that the crush wasn’t really happy with their ex, but the crush is lonely, so the main character is also helping the crush by saving them from a bad relationship.

And lastly, go back to the idea of the main character wanting something. Did they get it at the end of the story? If you begin a story with a man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit and he’s desperate to prove his innocence, but it ends with him killing the abusive gang leader, you didn’t finish your story.

In other words, your story will introduce some ideas and will-they-won’t-they questions. Make sure these are wrapped up.

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