Pub Rants

Category: Endings

Stories should start on page one. This we know, yet every seasoned fiction editor will tell you that most stories don’t. Most stories start on page five or ten. Or thirty. Or fifty. Hooray for critique partners, beta readers, and editors who can spot when our stories truly begin—and double hooray for writers who revise accordingly! But here’s a similar, more puzzling phenomenon I’ve been running into lately: when stories don’t start in the first book.

This is when I get to the end of a full-length manuscript and realize that I have more questions than answers. That the author left more threads untied than tied. That the entire manuscript read like a prologue to something bigger.

When I call this out to the authors, the response I often get is something like, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m going to answer all that in book two.”

Yikes. There are three red flags here.

First, we have to sell book one before book two.

From a publishing-industry standpoint, the likelihood that we’ll sell book one if, on its own, it doesn’t tell a satisfying story from beginning to middle to end is pretty low.

The Fix

Treat every book you write as if it will be the only book you write. Make it as self-contained, complete, and satisfying as you can, even if—especially if—it’s part of a planned series.

Second, we worry you got lost in the weeds or are resisting revision.

A “prologue novel” tends to read as though the author found themselves approaching 100,000 words and realized they’d better wrap things up (for better or worse), yeet some query letters into the world, and cross their fingers. Maybe they really do intend to resolve all the unanswered story questions in a sequel, and maybe they know exactly how. But again, without delivering close-the-book satisfaction with book one, we can’t reasonably expect publishers or readers to plunk down more money for another tale that might also feel unfinished.

The Fix

Getting lost in the weeds or overwriting can mean that a writer struggles with one or more of the following:

  • Prose (word economy)
  • Pacing (scene economy)
  • Plot (structure; beginnings, middles, and ends)
  • Revision (a skill far different from drafting)

Start by knowing which is your greatest opportunity for improvement. Then get thee to a critique group. In a lot of critique groups, you’ll find The Prose Person, The Pacing Person, The Plot Person, etc. Cozy up to the person who is really good at your area of opportunity and offer to trade beta reads.

If the whole idea of revision intimidates you (or, worse, if you’re laboring under the hope or belief that first drafts are divinely inspired and shouldn’t be messed with), then please pick up a copy of James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells.

Third, the writer might not know how their story ends.

By promising a second book in which All Will Be Revealed, the author might be kicking the literary can down the road, buying time to figure out the answers for themselves—and hoping for a second contract and another advance in the process.

The Fix

As advised above, find a mentor or critique partner who is good at endings. Ask them to help you figure out a satisfying ending for this book—not for your planned series of books—and then work backward to make sure your pacing and scene work lead toward that ending in a tight, satisfying way, in a genre-appropriate number of words.

What about series?

Of course, novels in a series do leave questions unanswered—hooks that entice the reader to continue reading. So, yes, you can do that as well. Here are two strategies:

  1. The Episodic Approach: Wrap up each book, making sure all the story questions are answered, and then at the very end—like, seriously, the last page or two—tease a new story question for the next book.
  2. The Series-Arc Approach: Think in terms of building both story arcs and series arcs. Each book has its own story arc complete with a beginning, middle, and end, but the series also has its own arc—an open-ended story question that will not be answered until the last pages of the last book in the series. This approach requires more forethought, but the potential for a satisfying payoff is greater. A good example is the TV show Monk. Every episode sets up a crime that Monk solves by the end of the hour, but there is one crime Monk has never been able to solve: the murder of his wife. That thread, that question, that arc, is pulled tight across eight seasons until at last it is solved in the two-part series finale.

Photo credit: Matt Deavenport, Flickr

Any fiction writer who deals in speculative elements must eventually decide: How much of this story requires a realistic, grounded explanation at the end, and how much can I leave unexplained because, hey, it’s magic, supernatural, paranormal, metaphysical, or miraculous? Can’t I just get to the end and say it was all unexplainable and leave it at that?

My short answer is no. In broad strokes, stories ask questions and then answer them. The human brain has some hardwired, logic-based pathways where story is concerned. Part one: Set up the pins. Part two: Knock them down. Sounds simple, but let’s be honest. It’s not.

The first half of any manuscript is easier to write than the second—which is why millions of would-be authors never finish anything. It’s fun to set up lots of evocative, compelling, mysterious, hooky questions at the beginning of a story. Then you get to the halfway point, and you must come up with answers. And not just any answers, but satisfying answers. Meaningful answers. Twisty answers. Worthwhile answers. Delightfully shocking or surprising answers.

That’s hard.

I attended a panel of speculative-fiction writers at AWP many years ago. One panelist admitted that he, years prior, wrote 150 pages about a guy who lived in a house with a door to an upstairs room that couldn’t be opened. Every now and then, a light would come on in that room and shine through the cracks in the door frame. Although the author was having fun writing about this guy and his creepy house, he eventually abandoned the novel—he himself couldn’t figure out what or who was behind the door. He had some ideas, but he knew that after 150 pages of setup, readers would be expecting a big payoff, and he just didn’t have it.

Stephen King tried three times over several decades to write what eventually became Under the Dome. He knew he wanted to write about a town suddenly and mysteriously trapped under a massive, impenetrable bubble…but he didn’t know where the dome came from. He knew he couldn’t write the story without that key piece of information. His understanding that readers wouldn’t accept “the dome just was”—and his unwillingness to accept it himself—is part of what makes King a master storyteller.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill is based on a stellar, high-concept premise: An aging rock star who collects occult objects buys a haunted suit on the internet. It’s not enough to ask readers to just accept that the suit is haunted and be satisfied. Readers are literally reading the book to find out the answers to who is haunting the suit, and why, and what the suit wants from the protagonist, and how the protagonist is going to defeat it. Why is the antagonism between them viscerally personal and not merely incidental? Couldn’t anyone have bought the suit on the internet? Turns out, no. And that is part of the mystery that makes Heart-Shaped Box such a satisfying read.

The fun thing about being a speculative-fiction writer is that your explanations can be spectral. They can defy the laws of our natural world. They can presuppose technologies that don’t exist, discoveries that have not been made. But that’s also what makes writing spec-fic more challenging. Since spec-fic writers can leave some things unexplained, they must search for their story’s best ratio of explainable to unexplainable.

For instance, in Heart-Shaped Box, we suspend our disbelief only so far as is necessary to accept that a vengeful ghost inhabits the suit. That’s all. For everything else, readers’ logical story brains require rational second- and third-act explanations. How did the ghost end up in the suit? How did the suit end up on the internet? How did our protagonist, who was the intended buyer all along, happen to be browsing the internet at just the right time and click “buy” before anyone else did? If Hill had said, “It just worked out that way because it’s supernatural,” the book never would have been published.

Leading readers down a path that ends with “it was all supernatural” is too easy—and whatever is too easy for writers is often not satisfying for readers. Think about the relationship between real life and fiction. In real life, people get obsessed with some dark mystery or true-crime drama, like the Amityville Horror house. We search the internet and watch all the documentaries and movies and TV shows and interviews about Amityville. We feed our imaginations with information. The question of what really happened there is just too compelling to let lie! We consider rational explanations (it was just a crazy kid killing his family with a shotgun) as well as supernatural ones (the evil entity that resides in the house made the kid do it) as we try to arrive at our own conclusions. All the while, we are driven almost mad by the reality that we can never actually know the truth.

That is exactly why fiction is so satisfying! Because the author takes us where reality cannot. The author gives us conclusions and explanations that in real life we will never have. The author answers all the hard questions in ways that our logical story brains accept—at least for as long as we are inside that story world, and sometimes longer. Sometimes, with the very best fiction, forever.

After all this, I wish I could give you some magic ratio of explainable to unexplainable that will make every story you write satisfying. I can’t. Every story is different. Every speculative subgenre shoulders its own set of reader and fan expectations.

What I will offer is this: Readers won’t suspend their disbelief if you’ve given them nothing to suspend it from. The more suspension of disbelief you’re asking of readers, the stronger your story’s logical, rational, realistic framework has to be. Build plausible conditions in which your speculative conditions can thrive, and tie up all your loose ends. If you want happy readers, that’s a good place to start.