My novel is drawing to a close. In fact, I’ve written one version of the final scene and just have to go back and fill in a few chapters in the middle I realized could use a little expansion before I decide if that’s the ending I really want the book to have. And that’s where I am having the problem.
In my mind, this book has always been the first part of a series. I don’t know how long of one, but it’s not so much a single narrative arc or series of standalone books following a single character as it is one very long narrative broken into parts, each book being a different act of the story.
So when writing the end of Act I, I worry that by going ahead and bleeding into the next book and blurring the line of separation between them that I am hurting myself. So my dilemma right now is to either make a nice, tidy ending for Book 1, (and in doing so lengthening the book considerably) or ending it where I think it fits thematically and segue into Book 2?
Two Sides of the Coin
Some of my very favorite series, personally, utilize the “standalone stories in a series” technique. Harry Potter, for instance, has the characters deal with a single conflict every year as the subplots tie into the overarching mythology of defeating the main villain. Readers can pick up the series at nearly any point and enjoy the book for its own merits without having read a single earlier volume.
It works for the series. Very well.
The first part of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower functions in much the same way and eventually moves into being a single cohesive story toward the midpoint. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher has an overarching narrative offset by individual adventures and trials that Harry encounters in his job as a working private investigator. Each book (typically) has a single mystery that needs to be solved, and the background storyline is just that—background.
And then there are stories where the individual novels are arbitrary in terms of where the narrative actually goes. The Lord of the Rings is probably the best example of this. Tolkien wrote the three novels we know as as single volume. It wasn’t until they got turned over to a publisher that the story was split into a trilogy and retitled (as an aside, Tolkien hated The Return of the King as he saw it as a spoiler for the whole shebang). One cannot simply pick up Return without having read Fellowship. It just doesn’t work.
And yet, Tolkien’s work may be the most influential piece of literature in terms of defining genre and narrative of the 20th century.
Bringing It Back to Me
Don’t think I’m comparing myself to Tolkien, Butcher, King, or Rowling. I respect their work a great deal, but I realize my writing has a long way to go before reaching their level. But still, their series are the benchmarks as I see them for how lengthy narratives can work.
As my novel stands right now, my manuscript feels like Act I of a larger story. Worlds are set up, characters are introduced, and some things happen that make readers (hopefully) care, but nothing is really wrapped up because the meat of the story is just starting to unfold. Or, more accurately, the subplot is wrapped up and there’s a pretty drastic cliffhanger with the very last scene. It’s more Empire Strikes Back than A New Hope. And that worries me not because the device is weak, but because it’s the first book of the story.
And while it’s one thing for me as the author to say it’s okay to start the series off without a round arc working as a foundation, is that okay for anyone else? Is that okay for agents? For publishers and editors? For readers?
Will agents think they’re trying to push half a book? Will editors not know what direction to go in? Will my readers feel cheated instead of intrigued?
I’m torn on this point. Which is why I plan on sending this book out to more than one person to read in both alpha and beta stage and see what kind of feedback I can get that will influence subsequent revisions.
As a reader, I go both ways on books. Sometimes, I plow through whole series because the narrative hooks me regardless of where each volume ends (Dresden Files). Others, I actually stop to get back to at another time because the story, while intriguing, did not force me to continue (The Lies of Locke Lamora). So my own tastes are pretty unhelpful in determining the direction I need to work toward.
Luckily, this is the first draft of my manuscript. There are going to be many iterations of it before I begin actually shopping it, and there will be much revision done. The ending may very well change. And I know I get caught up too much in the details. It’s a problem if mine; I accept that, and my next novel will hopefully be that much better from learning it during the process of this one.
Right now, as I close up the first draft of my first novel, I now know Stephen King’s pain and why he says that he hates to write an ending. It sucks.
Which type of ending do you prefer for books in a series? Cliffhanger or tidy resolution?