Writing My Novel: The End?

the end 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.

Lotr 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?

Books Ending 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?

Comments

  1. I enjoy both (sorry, I’m not helpful either). The only thing I find is that if we’re talking about a new book, a cliffhanger can sometimes be annoying if it’s likely that the second part will not be published for another year or two.

    The big thing for me is that I like for there to be a cohesive story, and I like for there to be an endpoint. For example, I love Butcher’s Codex of Alera series, but I just can’t get into The Dresden Files (partially due to format and partially due to content). I have yet to find an episodic series of novels that really hooks me.

    • I’m the exact opposite of you, Jasyla, in the respect that I can’t get into Alera. I’m on the second book now, and it just plods along. I can’t say anything about how the books end since I’ve only read one, but so far I’ve been less than impressed with the series in comparison to Dresden, which I feel exemplifies character development and possesses a unique voice.

      I’ll have to think of an episodic series to get you to try; maybe you just haven’t found the right one!

  2. As you have said, it definitely depends on the book. Depending on the author and the series, it could go either way.

    I think that for your very first novel you probably want to wrap it up. There are a ton of authors that start their first “series” but it ends up becoming only that one book. You may end up with a completely different idea or world for your second novel. The other problem becomes having to wait for the next book in the series, that always sucks as a reader. As long as you did your world-building well and created interesting characters and situations then there is no reason to have a cliff hanger in your first book.

    I also want to let you know that I think cliffhangers at any point after the first book are fair game.

    • That’s a fear I have: starting the series and it finding a way to not be finished. Though I have a completionist personality, so I doubt that happening.

      I agree about waiting for the next installment. Both Dresden Files and Harry Potter suck solely for that reason. I hate waiting on the next book I know I’m going to love.

      I think my newest revision of the ending prevents it being as much of a cliffhanger, but it still leads directly into the second book. I’m going to send both out to my readers and see which works better.

  3. elleseven

    I think cliff hangers work better for graphic novels. I agree with Void’s comment above. He said everything I was thinking but in a more eloquent way.

    • I get really frustrated with graphic novel cliffhangers because of the nature of the industry. Sometimes, things can get pulled out, but often, when the series stops making money, story be damned and the creative team is broken up and can’t finish their work. The same pitfalls lie in TV, too.

  4. leah

    I like for my series to have a “little bit of both” ending. you know that the story arc is not finished, but the specific problem of the book has been resolved in some way. I don’t know if you ever read any Laurel K Hamilton but her series (Merry Gentry books more so then Anita Blake) do that. there’s a very definitive main story that goes from book to book. and yet each book has its own conflict that is resolved in some way at the end. and the main story is important enough not to merely be a background that connects the books together, its more important then that.

    oh – better example: Black jewels trilogy by Ann Bishop, or FIrst 3 books of the Stardance books by Sara Douglass (starts with Wayfarer’s Redemption) Both series have a very definitive underlying storyline, and yet each book reaches conclusion of some sort (with cliffhanger here and there) Jim Butcher’s Codex Allera books also have the same structure

    not surprisingly this sort of stories seem to work best as trilogies 😛 But whether its going to be a trillogy or something longer – I think the most important part is for you as an author to know where the story is heading, how its going to end, which parts of the story will show up in which books and then show this to the publisher. give them outlines for the series as a whole as well as plot summaries for each book and they should look at your proposal more favorably.

    Series, whether ongoing or having definitive number of books and predetermined ending – are very big right now. heck, I’ve been a fan of series since Tolkie and then Roger Zelazni’s Chronicles of Amber, but right now, it seems like you see more series then stand alone books, especially in a realm of fantasy/sci-fi

    • I’ve never actually read any Hamilton. I keep hearing that I need to, but there’s so much out there, I just haven’t had time yet. It’s good to know that it’s not a serialized series, actually, because that makes it easier for me to pick up and try out (did I just answer my own question?).

      That’s part of my overall plan: to be able to get the whole series’ narrative arc outlined to present to agents in query letters and publishers if (when!) I get that far. That’s part of my goal for once I start the revision process. I want to take a break from this world after I get this first draft finished by writing some shorts, and then I think a bit of my off-time is going to be working out the high-points of the whole series. I learned during the process of this draft just having an idea in my head of how things should work out is definitely not the way to go. But I’m a “try and see if it works” person, and I tried. It doesn’t work.

      And yeah, in SF/F, series are almost mandatory. I can’t think of many genre books I truly love that don’t have sequels. And then again, I can think of some that have sequels that might have been better off by having a single installment. 😉 This book was always intended to start a series, though.

      • leah

        Be prepared for reading something that’s very closely approaches porn. Ok, not porn, Erotica, but Sex is a huge part of Merry Gentry Universe (and Hamilton books in general). which I also think has a book or 2 too many – did publisher convince her, or was it fans – I don’t know, but original story arc has already been concluded and now its just serialized fiction, considering latest book – she should have stopped IMO.

        speaking of books that shouldn’t have had sequels – the closest one I can think of is sword of truth books. they started out so good, then Terry Goodkind started to flounder and then the story got so bloated up and finally he decided to wrap it up (thank god:/)

        • If you want Laurell K. Hamilton books that actually have plot you should read the first couple books in her Anita Blake series. There is a lot of interesting action and paranormal activity. Sadly, that series also devolves into porn without plot around book 7 or 8… I used to love Laurell K. Hamilton but now I can barely read her new stuff. It is all sex with next to no plot.

          • I read a bunch of the Anita Blake books. They started off well enough (even though I think the writing is mediocre at best), but quickly devolved into smut. I wouldn’t recommend getting in to the series.

  5. My best piece of advice would be not to compare your work to Harry Potter or anything else for that matter.
    Because I guarantee you that Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and everything else amazing was NOT based on anything else. They wrote in their own styles, their own flows, their own way.

    You need to do the same with this. Do exactly what you feel is the right decision, what you feel you want to do.

    My personal opinion, if I were to write something myself, is as follows:

    If you feel that you have a “master plan for the very end” (If you have to compare…EG: Voldemort vs Harry), then go for the neat and tidy ending, but combine it with a lot of loose-ends to keep that cliff-hanging feel present simultaneously.

    If you don’t have any kind of “master plan”, then I say you should come up with one, and then follow the above instructions. =]

    Good luck, keep the updates coming on twitter!

  6. BJ, you might think about writing it both ways. While that sounds like an extraordinary amount of work, I know, it would make the novel so much more marketable. Potential publishers would know that they could sign on for just the first one (then more, if people loved it), or they could sign on for the series. When you start shopping it around, I think having the option of stand-alone novel or first of a series would be appealing to publishers.

  7. What you could do is give a decent ending to the book 1, so that the reader feels a sub-plot is at least complete and after that perhaps in a prologue, you can give a small cliffhanger 🙂

  8. I love cliffhangers. Love them, love love love them. They do make me want to pound on the wall and scream from the frustration of waiting… but that’s part of what I love about them.

    If it were something I was picking up to read, and I wanted an ideal ending, it would have just enough resolution that I would be aware a major chapter was closing, but many questions left unresolved.

    The only place I want loose ends all tied up is at the end point of a series. In fact, I think Rowling tied up TOO MANY loose ends with Harry Potter. I know she doesn’t plan to write anymore in that universe, but I didn’t need to know Neville’s ultimate profession. Leave some things to the imagination.