Monday, November 11, 2013

The Dearth-of-Epic-Endings Epidemic


Because I'm merrily marketing at the moment, (I'm interviewed AND reviewed at PondAcrosthePond, and there's another review and a chance to win a paperback over at Endless Reading) I'm bringing back some popular posts from years past. Until Thursday, every comment on my posts, or linked Breakable Posts can win a signed Paperback! (If you're not sure what to say - wish my Mom a happy birthday!)

And now, back to our regularly scheduled viewing...

I read a lot of bestselling YA fiction. And in the past year or so I've noticed a disturbing trend: Fabulous beginnings leading to merely average endings.

My apologies if your kids saw that...
Don't get me wrong - nothing I've read has made me screech "That's it?!" and throw the book across the room. But...

Three of the last four BIG YA releases I've finished captured my imagination completely in the beginning, while the conclusion left me with a distinct sense of Oh. Okay. *Shrug*

These are good books! I still want to read sequels (or other books by the author). But none have knocked my socks off to the point where I'm pulling a bookstore manager across the desk, demanding she give me a release date for the next one now.

And that's a problem.

The reason I'm barking about this is because as a reader I want more. Much, much more. I want unexpected twists, satisfyingly noble conundrums and realistic failures leading to nail-bitingly close calls. In short: I want to close the cover and feel like the climax satisfying.

And that tells me something important about my writing. Some questions I need to ask myself for each and every book:

1. Does my book end on events the reader can only predict in hindsight (AKA: "I should have seen that coming!")?

2. Does the climax place the protagonist in a position so precarious that loss of life, love or eternal happiness seems impossible to avoid?

3. Is my protagonist forced to make a decision that the reader prays they'll never have to make?

If I can't answer "Yes!" to at least one of those questions (but preferably all three), there's a problem.

Endings can be as bombastic as a nuclear explosion, or as quiet as a sleeping kiss... but they must be fraught. Emotions must run high. Chances must seem impossible... And victory absolutely, without fail, must be hard-won.

Blog Reader says: That's all well and good, Aimee, but how do I do that?

I'm glad you asked, Friend Writer. The answer to that is as varied as the writers behind the stories... but I can tell you how not to do it:

PLEASE NOTE: These comments are based on a bestselling YA release of a few years back. Names / creatures have been changed as I don't want to point fingers.
I read A BOOK years after it became popular. For the first three quarters of the pages it was a triumph (in my opinion). The writing was great, the characters likeable, the tensions varied and unrelenting. Check. Check, check, check.

But the ending was a prime of example of a non-epic-ending. It's too easy.


As we move into the climactic chapters, the characters 'realize' the apparent cure for Creatury Shapeshifting is an specific kind of physical illness. This moment is delivered with a flourish and one can almost sense the characters eyeing the reader, waiting for the breathless "Of course!".

Except, I (the reader) figured that out in the first couple of chapters. The first time the heroine described her early memory immediately after contact with the Creatury Shapeshifters. It was obvious. And frankly, I was never quite buying that the characters didn't make the connection.


The answer to the "How Ever Will We Induce This Life-threatening Illness?" question is answered off-stage. Annoying, stock character pops out of nowhere... Again. (She always crops up when the heroine is in need of a good motivating stimulus, then disappears until the next obstacle, I noticed) and says "I just happened to be a the hospital with my nurse-mother where a patient just happened to be dying of a germ that will do the trick, and I just happen to know how to take blood, so I pretended to be a nurse and got three vials... let's go save some Creatury Shapeshifters!"

Even if you ignore the implausibility issues of a narcissistic rich girl a) going to hang out in the hospital with her near-absent mother, b) knowing how to take blood, and c) getting hold of the necessarily medical apparatus to take no less than three vials and get them out of the hospital without anyone noticing, you're still dealing with the fact that all of this plot-central action occurred TOTALLY OFF-SCREEN.

Not only does I (the reader) have to believe it - the only evidence I'm given to back it up is that the characters told me so. 


After a (well-delivered) breathless and tense scene in which the hero is only barely able to obtain human-form long enough to receive the probably-deadly dose before changing back into a Creatury Thing, he disappears.

Now, as a plot-point this works well. MORE TENSION! Yippee!!!

Except... he just stays disappeared. For months. No checking in. No hints. Not even a red-herring. The other Creatury Thing dies and our heroine goes into an emotional spiral assuming her favorite Creature has too.

Then.... without any warning the hero shows up in the last handful of pages to establish the Happy Ending. No explanation of where he's been. No plausibility-affirming details on why he was gone so long when, clearly, the antidote worked.

Now, I'm all for delivering a story-arc over three books, but when readers who aren't late-adopters like me might have to wait a year or more for the sequel, you've got to let us see what's happening in the NOW.

If you didn't catch what the problem was there, catch it here:

The Hero achieved victory OFF STAGE. (Again!)

And that victory remained unexplained. (Again!).

Strike three = You're Out.

Now go write something that lets the reader howl alongside your hero / heroine until they're writhing with the injustice of it all - and sighing with satisfaction when it's over.

Your Turn: Have you read a book recently where the ending fell flat, or one that left you breathless? Why did it work / not? (And if you have read and know which book I used for the example, just keep it under your hat. I have no desire to point fingers at specific authors or books).


  1. I read a certain popular YA series recently where I was staying up until 3 a.m. desperate to find out what happens next until I landed on the last book in the series. Things quite making sense, like characters coming along for no other reason than as a literary device to keep the story moving. And all the things the protagonist cared so deeply about in previous books suddenly didn't matter. People the protag would have cut off their arm for disappeared and they couldn't care less. I hated that cheap ending!

    Another well known series of several books when we finally got to the end to hear what the secret organization that had been haunting the protags the whole time was about, the protags said something like, "Meh, sometimes it's better not to know." Seriously?!?

    That's why I've found getting feedback from fellow writers so helpful. They can tell us when we're being cheap if we let them.

    Great post Aimee!

    1. Thanks, Jae. Yes, I'm surprised by some of the choices out there too...

  2. I found this to be an interesting post and can't help but wonder if the problem doesn't lie (at least partially) with all the polish we apply to our initial chapters just so it can get past the query+3 stage. We worry and fret and toil over these opening chapters until they're nigh unto perfection and possibly fail to give the climax/ending the same care.

    A wise editor once told me that the beginning is the most important part of the book EXCEPT for the ending. How true.

    1. That's an interesting thought - and probably at least a portion of the book population suffers for that reason.

      I would have thought editors could help writers identify when their endings are unsatisfactory. But I guess in the end it comes down to personal taste!

  3. I recently read a book that had all the makings of an awesome ending, i.e MAJOR conflict between girl and guy before they finally resolved it and things went gooey. Unfortunately, this book skipped the massive conflict, with the guy accepting all of the girl's appalling behavior because he realized he loved her anyway. Gah! *bashes head against wall*

  4. A great post. I think the problem here has to do with cliffhangers: because many books are part of a series, the author feels that he/she has to leave things open for the next book, mistaking a "bad/no ending" for an "open ending". I just finished a new release (YA fantasy) and nothing was explained or came to a conclusion at the end. Instead, the book finishes abruptly on a "cliffhanger" (that I'm sure will be solved in a few pages at the beginning of the next book)and the reader is told to buy the next book in the series "to know what happens next". Not an example of great writing...

  5. Great post, Aimee! Of course, now I'm dying to know what book you are referring to so I can go see this example of what not to do for myself :)

  6. I totally agree with wanting some sense of closure (satisfaction) with an ending. Too often it's all about the interesting, slightly mysterious premise (maybe because this is what gets pitched). I know everyone seems to be writing a series now, but if I have to wait for the next book - I want to have a warm fuzzy (something's been resolved) ending to stew on while I'm waiting. Great tips on what to keep in mind while we're writing ours though!

  7. Awesome post, and agreeing with the few comments above, it is frustrating when a book ends on a massive cliffhanger, just because it's part of the series. And if it is part of a larger series, each book needs to have it's own 'story within a story'. Of course there can be plot's left behind to fill in some next book, but not resolving the one story that is being read is a horrible feeling(as a reader).

    I loved your questions too, particularly the second:
    "2. Does the climax place the protagonist in a position so precarious that loss of life, love or eternal happiness seems impossible to avoid? "

    Man, if every book was written with just this question in mind, I bet there would be a lot better ending's out there.

    Thanks again

    1. Thanks, Ron. I agree. Although, in practice I realize it's a lot harder to do than I thought!

  8. I agree with other posters who wonder if, in part, endings of books these days tend to be a bit wishy-washy BECAUSE they're written to either BE one in a series or HOPE TO BE one in a series. I feel like there's this pervasive idea that yes, you should write a complete first book BUT you should keep in mind the potential to develop the book into a series if, you know, it "takes." That's all fine and good--and more power to those authors who land multi-book deals--but you totally hit the nail on the head: The book STILL has to be good from beginning to end. Wussing out at the end make me less likely to pick up the next book in a series. I try to think of it like TV or maybe even (franchise) movie writing--each episode/movie needs to contribute to the over-all (and much larger) story, but should make the viewer WANT--no need--to come back and watch the next episode/movie.

  9. Great post! I try for all three of the points you mentioned in the endings to my own stories, too. The ending has to make the rest of the journey worth it, and I also like to have a twist in there that makes sense to the story. No deus ex machina, off-screen action, solutions that have no relation to anything that's happened before, etc. Perhaps it's a result of a lack of planning that sometimes endings to great books fizzle out, or that the author didn't know what they were building up to or how to resolve all the plot threads they'd set up. It certainly isn't easy, but I never want to disappoint my readers so I take a lot of time to come up with a solution to the plot which is both plausible AND unexpected. It's a tough balance!

    1. I think you're right about the planning. And I know for me, achieving a twist ending took a long time. They are hard to figure out - not to mention write! And not every story lends itself to a twist. I like twists as a reader, but they aren't compulsory. More important is the emotional sense of resolution. I think that's what a lot of writers don't realize. It's not about tying up the plot as much as the emotions that have driven the plot. Des that make sense?

  10. It's been my month of "read the first fifty pages, and walk away." I'm not even making it to the endings. Is that awful? I suppose that's how it goes, eh?

    1. Ugh. I know EXACTLY what you mean. Ever since I've studied fiction craft, I've become a very picky reader. It's fine when authors are consistent, but what bugs me is when I pick up an indie book, read the sample and love it, then buy the oak and find out the author only had the first three chapters edited and the rest is a mess. VERY frustrating!