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Apr 8, 2009

Ending - Twist or Plunge

The End.

I always type those words at the end of my first draft. (Sometimes, if I'm trying to be sophisticated, I type "Fin" instead.) Fins are considered fishy these days, but I still like the taste of them.

There's a lot to say about endings, and Natalie the Ninja has some good advice on writing endings, especially for those who are nearing the completion of a manuscript right now.

My concern at the moment is a little different. My Secret Novel is not yet begun, never mind near complete. As I've mentioned before, I seldom begin a book without knowing how things will end. So, in a sense, this post is actually the counterpart of my discussion of beginnings.

Just as beginnings can be marathons or relays, so endings can be likened to the final run on a roller coaster: the Plunge or the Twist.

The plot of a book is like a roller coaster, full of of ups and downs, twists and curves. At the climax of the ride, you have to decide -- how will the ride end? Some roller coasters climb up a big hill. As your car rachets higher and higher on the track, you know it's going to have to go back down in one huge plunge which will have you screaming your head off.

Or maybe not. Some rides don't end with one big plunge, but with a final gravity-defying twist which takes you by surprise.

Now, all books, if they are any good at all, have some twists at the end, otherwise they would be thoroughly predictable. But this doesn't make them Twist Ending books. Take Lord of the Rings. There's a slight twist at the end involving Frodo and the Golum, but you don't find out that Sam is actually Sauron.

Compare with the The Life of Pi or with Ender's Game where at the end, you realize you have been reading a different book than you thought. All through the story you've seen things in a certain light, perhaps because the protagonist has seen things this way, but now you realize the protagonist either missed or withheld vital information. The revelation transforms your view of everything which went before.

The Empire Strikes Back ended with a twist. (It's become cliche now, but at the time, the boy who seeks to avenge his father but finds his enemy is his father was a marvelous twist.) Return of the Jedi ends with a plunge.

I do already know how my Secret Novel needs to end, and it isn't much of a plunge. The tension rises a bit, perhaps, toward the end, but is it sufficient for a satisfying ride? I'm not sure.

The alternative to a scream-worthy plunge is to throw in a extremely clever twist, so I'm considering that option. Problem -- I have no clue what the twist will be. And this is why I can't start a book before I know the ending, and what kind of ride the book will be.

I have a vague idea involving a postcard.


Natalie Whipple said...

Great post! Very hard decision. I usually have twists in my novel, but not at the end. I guess I'm a plunger:)

Good luck finding that end. Ask your characters, that usually gets me closer.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

The end of my WIP had a plunge that I knew about from the beginning, but as I was writing it, suddenly there was also a twist that I hadn't seen coming at all. Sometimes, that is the most fun - when you surprise yourself!

laughingwolf said...

tara, would your writing the 'last' chapter, by itself, and allowing the situation your character[s] is/are in tell you how THEY want things to be wrapped up?

ooops, i see natalie has the same idea... kate's way is good, too :)

SandyG said...

Are there any other options besides twist or plunge?

lotusgirl said...

Great post! I love this comparison. I tend to be a plunger with a gentle slope at the very, very end.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Sometimes I think novel endings don't twist OR plunge. They just come to a nice, gentle halt. It depends on the book. Sometimes that nice, gentle halt is very satisfying.

I'm not sure what my novels are. The end of my first one has a huge twist at the end, but then comes to a gentle halt. My second novel there's a small twist, but then again, that gentle halt. Not sure if it works great or not yet.

This is a great post! I love your analogy. I'm definitely keeping this in mind, you genius. :D

Davin Malasarn said...

I do love some twist endings, The Life Of Pi being one of them, but I avoid it in my own writing. For me it's fun and challenging to just stick with the original story line and dig deeper rather than dig in a new direction. Great post!

scott g.f.bailey said...

Sam is actually Sauron? Now it all makes sense! Why didn't I see that before?

My current book has, maybe, a precipitous sort of ending that you see coming. The drama isn't so much in the plot, but in the reader saying (I hope) "No, don't do it!" and the characters plunging forward anyway. I also sometimes worry that after the real climax (a death), there are two more major characters killed off. But I'll think about that in a couple of weeks when I've reached that stage of the rewrite. The final page is a very gentle halt. With, of course, sinister undercurrents because I'm like that.

Tara Maya said...

Natalie, Laughingwolf - It's a good idea to ask the characters. Maybe the problem is really I don't know them well enough yet. Hm.

Kate - Occasionally, I do experience that kind of surprise. But usually, I still know the end what surprises me is how the characters get there. The problem is if I suddenly decide on a Twist Ending, I usually have to go back and do a lot of rewriting to make sure it fits.

Sophie - My division is completely arbitrary. Think of it as male and female endings. Some stories don't fit easily into such binary catagories. ;)

Lotusgirl - Natalie talked about the leisurely wrap-up in her post too. I think of that as the denouement rather than the climax.

Lady Glamis - A subtle twist and gentle halt would be fitting in a subtle and gentle story. If you had a story with a lot of chase scenes, battles and explosions, it wouldn't be right to have a climax with *less* action. You could however, have a gentle denouement.

Say, for example one had a soldier in a war story who always talked about how he wants to go home and fish with the newborn son he's never met. You could have a brutal climax battle in which the soldier himself is killed saving his buddy. Then you could have a soft final scene in which his war buddy takes the soldier's six year old son fishing.

Davin - That is the classic plunge, and it is the standard for a reason. Twist endings, if they go awry, can be cheesy or confusing. Just in the time since I wrote this post, I've been wondering if trying to tack on a twist to my story won't simply make it feel forced or hokey.

Scott - Your story is interesting because you are touching a story people think they already know. That kind of project has additional challenges.

I'm a Smallville fan and there's a similar problem. For instance, recently, the show hinted that some major characters would be killed off. Well, we all know it won't be Clark, Lois, Jimmy... Likewise, Lana and Lois both have a thing for Clark, but we all know who his "real" true love is.

Part of the fun in such stories is that the reader has privileged information the characters don't. The reader already "knows" the ending. The trick is to still deliver something new and surprising, despite certain plot inevitabilities.

Jessie Oliveros said...

I like your analogy. Especially since reading a (good)book is rather like riding on a roller coaster. And a postcard? Very mysterious.

SandyG said...

Damn, when did you become so interesting? I must have been asleep!

Sherrie Petersen said...

They all have to climax near the end. I guess I see the VERY end as needing to wrap up loose ends which I suppose could include a plunge or a twist...I think I'm like Glam with the gentle halt, a satisfying conclusion to a fun ride...