Great endings are hard to craft.
Fun to read… easy to take for granted when we do. Unless it bombs.
My favorite author, Nelson Demille, totally tanked the ending of “Night Fall” when he concluded the story with a deus ex machina of preposterous proportions. After hundreds of pages of rooting for the hero as he gathers evidence and positions the antagonists for a hard and gratifying fall, the ending had them all meeting with the press and the FBI for a come-to-Jesus outing of the truth… in the North tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.
Even Demille admitted later that he really didn’t know how else to end this thing. Which shows that, even at his level – believe me when I say, these A-list brand name authors have different standards than the rest of us, and sometimes they’re lower – at some point in the process we need to write our stories with a specific ending in mind.
I advocate that point occurring before you begin a draft, as defined during your story planning process. (Read more about that HERE.)
This is one of the most powerful principles in all of storytelling.
Every other milestone in our stories have criteria and timing attached.
But with endings… the timing is obvious… and the only other criteria is that it deliver an emotional experience – good or bad – to your reader. That’s it. Doesn’t have to be happy or sad, you don’t have to tie up all the loose ends, you don’t have to even end it, you can just stop if you want… provided it delivers the requisite emotional response.
Kathryn Stockett begins setting up the ending of “The Help” at the Second Plot Point, which occurs on page 452 (of the trade paperback edition) when Miss Skeeter tells her co-authors that Harper and Row has accepted their book for publication.
It’s on. No turning back now. The consequences of their actions are inevitable.
It is the anticipation and unfolding of those consequences that create the contextual missions for each of the remaining scenes in the book. There are several storylines to wrap up, and each gets its moment at center stage, and in context to the dramatic circumstances that have been assigned to them earlier in the story.
Skeeter leaves town, gets a career. Aibileen gets framed and fired, but it doesn’t bother her, she’s free. And Minny… well, Minny certainly gets her pound of flesh out of the hide of Miss Hilly, who deserved much worse.
If you’re like me, I’m guessing that as you read this book you kept visualizing possible endings. I was expecting to see Skeeter’s book explode the entire community into a frenzy of rebellion, violence and, ultimately, a changing of the culture. Perhaps even the book becoming a national catalyst that would influence the entire civil rights movement, a Rosa Parks headline delivered in hardcover.
Stockett went nowhere near that type of ending.
And in doing so, she teaches us how powerful a more subtle and character-driven ending can be.
To have there would have been a departure from the realistic tonality the book had maintained from the first page. It would have been too Hollywood, as if Michael Bay had taken a crack at the final draft.
In a story that sought to be a serious thematic inquiry into a dark slice of American history, in retrospect I realize that the lighter touch was the only viable option.
Miss Skeeter’s book didn’t set the country free of racism.
It didn’t even set the characters free from it. Rather, it set those characters free from allowing it to define them. Through their courageous act of defiance and outrage, they became something more than their oppressors.
All the characters march forward into their lives as better people. As quiet heroes who fought for and won their own freedom of will.
This is one of the many lessons I take away from “The Help.”
In a character-driven story, the ending must be character-specific and thematically powerful. In a plot-driven story, the ending can be bigger, it can be Hollywood.
This book challenges us to aim high, to bestow a gift to the world that reflects darkness through a lens of hope. A book that invests the reader in the characters in a way that transcends empathy, that indeed become transcendent.
So many lessons for writers to learn from this book. So many lessons for human beings to learn from reading it.
It remains to be seen how Hollywood will handle the ending of the adaptation (coming out in August), but I’m guessing it’ll remain true to the book itself… if for no other reason that Stockett was called in to help the screenwriter get it right.
The only real “rule” for our endings is this: it must remain true to the story just told, and reward the reader with something that resonates.
Beyond that, this is the one place in a story where the writer is pretty much alone with their instincts and the nature of the corner into which they’ve painted themselves. The principles of story architecture lead the writer to this point, but the ending is where story and writer become one, and together they make their fate.
Wondering what you thought of the ending?
Hope you’ve enjoyed this series on “The Help.”
There’s already one wonderful guest post scheduled for next week that takes a closer look at subtext in this story, and more might surface as we move forward together.
Next series… a deconstruction of my novel, “Bait and Switch,” which I’ve just re-released as an ebook (only 99 cents through July 31).
Some have asked how the launch is going. A few hundred books have sold, almost entirely because of this blog. For all the noise about “please make it available on Nook!,” you can count those sales on one hand.
So far I’m cynical about the whole social media aspect of this – bad news, since this is where he so-called gurus of self-published digital ebooks claim is the sweet spot… I did it, it didn’t work. The best social media is word-of-mouth… so if you liked the book, please recommend it to someone.
Meanwhile, I’ll just take my starred review and go home.
Kidding… the book will remain on Kindle, Smashwords and Nook, and eventually on iBook once it gets to through their weeks-long vetting process. And I’ll keep experimenting with the various venues of pitching and pimping and promoting until I find something that actually works.
NEW BOOK RELEASE – WARNING, THIS NOVEL MIGHT BE TOO HOT TO HANDLE!!!
Does sex sell? Let’s find out.
Fair warning, it’s a highly sexual, dark and sexualized (meaning, the romance of seduction) thriller.
Not erotica, per se (it’s what I call a “relationship thriller, a sort of romance from a male point of view… this is far sexier than erotica (my opinion), as it relies on the context of seduction rather than explicitness, which it really isn’t… though you might need a shower when you’re done, and you’ll certain have something juicy to discuss with your significant other…), but rather, it’s dark and kinky and totally a guilty pleasure, one shared by several hundred thousand readers when it was published by Onyx ten years ago (the national radio campaign didn’t hurt either). At the time it was mistakenly classified as “erotica” by the major bookclubs, probably because of the cover art of the original paperback.
Read the Publishers Weekly review, and if you like this kind of thing, please give it a shot. It’s only $2.99, but on Smashwords (as a Kindle version through this venue, too) you can use the discount code – TD43M – to buy it for 99 cents, also until the end of July, when I’ll do a major release promotion.