Tuesday, May 11, 2010

John: Ending with a Bang

Every morning at 6:00 a.m., my alarm clock wakes me to the sounds of a sports talk-radio show in DC. The show is (and I say this charitably) pretty terrible. I seriously should start listening NPR or something. But I never do, and the reason for that illustrates an important lesson about storytelling.

Whenever a particularly painful segment of the show compels me to switch the station, something happens. Invariably, the host will be going to a commercial. This host has a great many deficiencies, but when cutting to commercials he's nothing short of a mad genius. He will say something like: "Could a baseball icon really be getting married to Tila Tequila? More on this highly unlikely romance right after this message."

By that that point, my hand hand has frozen over the dial. I've become transfixed--I absolutely must know who this baseball icon is and whether he and Tila Tequila are getting hitched! So I keep the station on for the rest of the morning, until the process repeats itself all over again two weeks later. The stories never turn out as good as they seemed (like, you find out that the "baseball icon" is the Philly Phanatic, and their "engagement" was a Twitter joke), but that's not the point.

The point is this: endings keep you reading. Allow me to explain.

If you're writing a novel, you know you need a strong opening. To engage the reader, you want to grab them from the first setence. This principle is particularly relevant to aspiring authors, who are using their opening pages as their calling card to the industry. So, yes, it's important to create a compelling opening.

But that will only get you so far. While an opening kick-starts a reader's interest in a story, the novel writer's bigger challenge is sustaining that interest over 250 pages or so. And to do that, good endings are vital.

I'm not talking about the end of the novel itself, but rather the endings to the individual segments--scenes, chapters, etc.--that comprise your story. Ending those invidivual scenes and chapters the right way can give your story a powerful forward momentum that makes the reader downright eager to plow through to the end.

Broadly speaking, each "segment" of a novel should present a conflict and resolve it some way. Let's say, for example, you are writing a chapter about a professional mascot asking Tila Tequila out on a date. The potential sources of conflict here are endless (can the mascot overcome his shyness, can he traverse the crowded bar to talk to Tila before she starts dancing on it, etc. etc.), as are the resolutions (many of which, I imagine, involve the Playboy mansion).

The specifics aren't important. What's important is this: the ending of the chapter should spin the story in a new direction that presents some new conflict facing the main character.

Consider two versions of this chapter. In both, the Phanatic has overcome his great shyness to ask Tila out for a date.

In the first, Tila throws a drink in the Phanatic's face and says no. End of chapter.

In the second, Tila smiles and says "I only date guys with tatoos. You don't have a tatoo, do you?" The Phanatic, who has a paralyzing fear of needles, swallows hard. "I could g-g-get one," he says. End of chapter.

The end of the first version brings the narrative to a grinding halt. The second ending, however, twists the plot in a new direction. It resolves the immediate scene, but also presents a new goal for the hero (get tatoo) and obstacle (fear of needles) to tackle. That mere suggestion of a fresh new conflict--a new question to be answered, a new challenge to be addressed--is amazingly effective in sustaining readers' interest.

It's exactly what the sports radio show does to me every morning, and I fall for it every time.


  1. Great point John. I used to want to put neat buttons at the end of chapters, to really close them in a final way. I'm finding now how much more useful it is to use end of a chapter as a dramatic bridge to the next one. Ending on a question is a great way to think about it.

    Say what you will about his writing, Dan Brown is a master of this. I think it's what makes DaVinci Code so compulsively readable.

  2. Thanks Jeff. The bridge metaphor is a great one. Haven't read Dan Brown, but I just saw Iron Man 2 and (without spoiling anything) there's a great example of this device if you stay through the end of the credits.

  3. Dan Brown is a master of this. I think it's what makes DaVinci Code so compulsively readable.

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