Tuesday, November 10, 2009

End It With A Bang!

I've been thinking a lot about first lines lately. So much emphasis is placed on them that it seems a lot of writers are stressed over whether or not their first line…first paragraph…first page, etc. is enough to hook readers. It's kind of ridiculous how much we concentrate on this—almost to the point of obsession. If I'm completely honest, I've never once set a book down and given up because the first line wasn't totally kickass. That said, I'm just as guilty of obsessively scrutinizing my opening lines/pages as the next person. I'm not proud of this. In fact, every time Nathan Bransford holds a first paragraph contest, it's like all other life ceases for me. I drop everything to hone and fine tune THE paragraph that is going to win this time!! I never do, though. (grin) It's so silly how tied up I get over it all because as important as first lines may be, I would almost argue that endings are even more important.

Why? Because they are what will propel your reader forward. They make readers want/not want to read the next chapter. To rush out and buy the next book. To stay up all night because they simply keep saying to themselves, "Just one more chapter!" and end up finishing the blasted thing before they realize it's already morning. (Hopefully they finish before the sun comes up. I've seen those first morning rays too many times for my own good.)

I think—and maybe this is taking a huge leap of faith—that most readers are going to give you at least a chapter to decide whether or not they really want to read your book. Perhaps I'm overestimating the attention span of many readers, but I don't think so. Especially if they've shelled out the duckets for your book. And while you need to snare your readers with a good beginning, you also have to leave them wanting more at the end of that first chapter. THAT is the make or break point in my opinion.

So, how do we write a kick arse ending?

Well, I think it all boils down to leaving questions in the readers' minds that simply have to be answered. I have to say, one author who does this exceedingly well is Janet Evanovich. Who in the world will ever forget the ending of HIGH FIVE?

"Howdy," I said.

He looked amused at that, but not amused enough to smile. He stepped forward into the foyer, closed the door, and locked it. His breathing was slow and deep, his eyes were dark, his expression serious as he studied me.

"Nice dress," he said. "Take it off."

[End book – curtain falls. Thaaaaat's all, folks!]

Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude! Had I been reading these books when they were originally published, you would've heard my screams from whatever corner of the world you inhabit. Luckily for everyone, eleven books were already out when I discovered this series, and finding out who walked through Stephanie's door that night was a matter of going to the other room to get HOT SIX. But seriously – I would have been a 'clamoring for the next book. Be it right or wrong, I WANT to achieve this type of ending. As I go about revising FAKING IT, I'll definitely be looking for spots to amp up the tension. So, I decided to talk about a few techniques that I enjoy using.

Obviously, everyone is going to have their own style when it comes to writing the endings to their chapters. I've tried many, many different techniques to propel readers forward, and here are some of the ones I've found have worked (in theory): This is just a few out of many, many options.

Cut off a scene right smack dab in the middle. It's the ultimate Jedi mind-BEEP! If readers want to know how a scene ends, they have to read the next chapter. This works especially well in a fast-paced book. Here's an example from the original FAKING IT:


Scene: Madison is at a bar getting seriously drunk. She's had a blow-up with both male protags—Drew and Gabe, and has no clue who she ultimately wants to choose.

    "Over here, lady." The bartender held my purse above his head and I rushed over and tried to snatch it from his hands. He pulled it away and my fingers grasped at the air. "I don't think so. You ain't in no condition to drive. Want me to call you a cab?"

    I blinked at him, the lights behind him were so bright. "But my car is outside."

    "Listen, lady. I ain't risking you driving home and suing me later. It's either a cab or you can call someone to pick you up. Do you remember where you live at least?"

    "Of course I remember," I said indignantly. "It's the big brown apartment complex, easy to find. Lots of trees."


    I puckered my lips. "You're so f*cking picky." Lucy Adams' words rang clear in my mind for some reason, and I laughed when I realized I had quoted the greasy girl.

    "Yeah." He pawed through my purse and pulled out my cell phone. Flipping it open, he hit one of the buttons.

    "Hey! Give me that." He stepped away from me and I attempted to climb up on the bar stool to get a better reach. I couldn't seem to do it, though.

    "No, it's not Mad…" The bartender spoke glibly.

    I froze.

    "This is Hank." He paused. "She a petite brunette with brown eyes and a real mouth on her?" Another pause. "Yeah, she's here and I need you to come pick her up. Man, she ain't in no condition to drive."

    Hank gave the person the address and closed the phone. He stuffed it back in my purse and placed it behind the counter. "Your ride is on the way."

    I laid my head on the cool bar top and closed my eyes. A feeling of disorientation came over me and it felt like my world spun. "Hank, you're pretty cool, you know that?"

    Hank didn't answer and I must have drifted off for a bit. The next thing I knew, a warm pair of hands pulled me out of my seat. My legs wouldn't work and the hands swung me up into someone's arms. My head rolled back and I stared up at the person. He looked familiar, but right now it was too hard to figure out who he was. He smelled wonderful, all…manly.

    "Sssh," he said. "I'm taking you home."

    "But I need my purse."

    "Don't worry. I've got it." His voice was soothing, and I snuggled close to him.

    "Good, there's a skirt I wanna buy."


[end chapter—the next chapter begins in the car ride home. We have NO idea which man has picked her up at this point, but hopefully, readers will turn the page to find out.)

Questions, questions, questions. If you leave the readers with unanswered questions they'll likely need to keep reading. From FAKING IT – the moment Drew leaves Madison at her new assignment.

    I didn't want to leave things on such a somber note. But for the life of me, I couldn't find anything positive to focus on. A few more minutes passed, each of us lost to our own thoughts of each other. I knew it as sure as I'd known anything in my life.

    "I'll be back soon," Drew said finally, his voice hoarse. He coughed to clear the frog in his throat and laid his hand on top of mine. "Promise."

    I tried to force a smile, but faltered. I slid my hand away from his warm touch. "You better go. You don't want to miss your flight."

    We both stood and passed an awkward moment at the door. I didn't know what to say to him, and clearly he didn't know what to say to me. In the end, we said nothing. He simply leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. I closed my eyes and clung to the feel of him—the closeness of having him near. When I finally looked up, I took everything in about him in minute detail. Memorized him.

    Then, just like that, he was gone.


    {Oh…the ultimate, will they or won't they moment. When will they see each other again?? Will their relationship change—you just know it will, right? Eee}


High points of tension. The chapter that ends with your characters falling asleep is sort of the antithesis of high tension. For me, they make ME want to go to sleep too. Therefore, I've found that if a scene ends with my characters going to sleep, there has to be _some_ level of tension there that the reader can pick up on. One example of this is from BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT:


    I awoke some time later and found my room bathed in moonlight. Ty was gone. After a quick stretch, I rubbed my knuckles across my blurry eyes. At last my digital alarm clock came into focus. It was a little after two in the morning. I shed my clothes and pulled on a T-shirt before crawling into bed.

    As I started to drift off, I made a quick mental note to talk to my dad. I needed to let him know there must be coyotes in the area. It'd been one of their howls that awoke me in the first place.


[End chapter. Now, hopefully at this point in time people are suspecting a few things—namely about Ty and these *cough* coyotes. We don't know for sure what's going on with Ty at this point, but hopefully there are enough clues and questions to keep readers wanting more.]


A point of resolution. Hopefully you're putting your characters through the wringer. Forcing difficult decisions upon them that have tough consequences. A moment where they resolve to overcome a situation is a great way to end a chapter. An example from BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT, when Makenna decides to cross her friends. She's confronted in the bathroom by her best friend, Jenna, and this is the end of their encounter:

    I brushed past her and gathered my things. Before I could leave, her voice stopped me.

    "Watch yourself, Mac. You're nothing at this school without your friends."

    I studied the door before me as the vehemence beneath her words sank in. She was right, crossing my group would equate to social suicide. Taking a deep breath, I straightened my spine and pushed out the door, determined not to give a damn.


What I refer to as a BAM! moment. This is where you reveal something that hopefully the reader didn't see coming. I have a PERFECT one from FAKING IT, but I'm afraid I can't share it here. Suffice it to say that I want stomachs to plummet into shoes when people read these endings. Here's one from BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT (not quite as stomach plummeting, but still a BAM! moment): Makenna has just confronted Ty for being distant. The evening before she searched for him in his house and made the silly mistake of bringing her boyfriend along. Ty and David (the boyfriend) do not get along. At the time, Makenna believed the house empty. This is the next day—they argue, and this is the end.


    "Stay out of this," he said.

    I cringed beneath his hard stare. "Are you threatening me?"

    His face softened for a split second, but soon he had it pinched back in line. Without a word, he thrust the kit into my hands and pushed me toward the door. Too stunned to protest, I went, my thoughts a jumbled mess.

    "And Mac?"

    I paused in the doorway.

    "Don't ever bring David into my house again."



So yeah, those are just a few examples. The main thing is that I want readers to feel the urge to turn the next page. It can be a quiet ending, but there has to be some reason for them to want to continue.


What have you tried that you feel really worked? And for giggles, tell me some of the books that kept you up all night reading – that kept you saying, "Just one more chapter!?" J


Some of the books that did that for me were WEST OF THE MOON (formerly titled WEST CLUB MOON) by our very own Kristen Callihan—omg…grainy eyes and everything the next day. But I couldn't stop once I started. Several of Diana Gabaldon's books have kept me up…THE BOOK THIEF…HARRY POTTER (cuz I had to finish before going into work the next day!), anything by John Green, Scott Westerfeld, Janet Evanovich (Thank gawd they're short!). Sad to say there are many, many others. Too many to name.


What about you?


  1. FWIW, I don't think I've ever given up on a book after one line - or one paragraph - regardless of whether I bought it or not. I give it about 3 chapters or 50 pages, give or take.

    A very small selection of the books I haven't been able to put down:
    * Harry Potter, Book 5, I think it was, I sat down to read "the first few chapters". Four hours later...*g*
    * anything by Scott Westerfeld
    * Prey by Rachel Vincent. I zipped through it in about two sittings (two, because I had to go to work *sigh*) and am now counting down until March 2010 when the next book is out.

  2. I feel guilty if I give up on a book and there's very few I have done that with. Other times I'll skim through to the end, if I can't bear to read it. I'm trying to remember what was the last book I quit... I might have to skim to the end of Wicked, though; it's really doing nothing for me.
    There's a lot more books that I just couldn't put down - Diana's, the Harry Potter books, the first time I read The Lord of the Rings (it was twenty years ago today... well, roughly), Stephen King's It and The Stand (the former cos it was so scary I had to finish it in one day and the latter cos it was so good I couldn't part from it) and... there must be others but those are the ones that come to mind first.

  3. Helen -- I actually used to be one of those people who would finish a book no matter my enjoyment level. I've sludged my way through some really bad books--all for the sake of finishing. Not anymore. I usually either a. Stop and never go back b. Give a book another shot sometime down the road--maybe I wasn't in the right headspace to enjoy it. That actually happened with Libba Bray's A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY. Just couldn't get into it the first time I tried, but months later I LOVED it. Go figure.

    Now, I'm a bit more pressed for time, so probably a little less forgiving of books that don't snare my attention right away. But still, I usually give them a decent shot of at least a few chapters. (g)

    I read the first in the Rachel Vincent series...STRAY? I thought it was awright...bought the next in the series but it's somewhere in my massive TBR pile. :) And YES on HP and Westerfeld. Definitely.


  4. Thanks, Deniz! :) And yes on all of those books. Though I must admit, *cough* *glances around for a nearby rock to hide behind* I found that I didn't enjoy the LOTR books quite as much as an adult. I recently listened to the first two, tried the third and just couldn't do it. Probably the frame of mind thing, but I think after seeing the movies so many times, they're a little slow.

    *runs and ducks for cover!*

    *Peeks out*

    Still friends? (g)

    And yeah, I used to be the read and finish no matter what girl...but each time I finished a bad book, I would lament the amount of time I lost. That's 6 hours I'll never get back...or dang, could've worked on MY book during the hours I spent sludging through that crap. But then again, no matter what the book, I always take something away. Even if it's just knowing I do NOT want to write like THAT. (g)


  5. Jen -- so, so true! To me, it is ALWAYS what comes next that drives me to keep reading. And that fact can easily be overlooked.

    Thank you for reminding us all. AWESOME post!

    As for books that kept me up at night: totally the Harry Potter books (hey, you couldn't risk some loud mouth spoiling the ending for you!), and the last book that did that for me was Shana Abe's The Dream Thief.

  6. Jen,

    Okay, hate to admit this, but I am sick to death of the obsession over the beginning of a story. YES, YES of course I understand that agents have limited time and that if you don't grab them right away it's over, and I've even sat through Surrey Idol a couple of times, but still.

    I picked up a book the other day and the first sentence was so contrived that as I read it I couldn't help but wonder if the author was trying to win some outlandish first sentence contest.

    So I'm thrilled that you talked about the END of a chapter. You've got some great examples!

  7. Hi Jen,

    Agreed - I used to always finish books, but life is too short and my TBR mountain range is too big to waste time on bad books! *g*

    Yes, the first in Rachel Vincent's series is STRAY. I enjoyed it, but it didn't grab me like PREY. I think she gets better with every book.

  8. Stephanie,

    It is pretty crazy how first sentence crazed everyone is, isn't it? Granted, everything needs to "hook" the reader, but man, how many times have you read something where the start doesn't quite live up to the rest? LOL. I always feel suckered. And I wonder WHAT happened?! So yeah, concentrating on the end is probably even more important. We may slack once we get that perfect opening... can't let that happen. :)


  9. Helen -- Cool! Thanks for responding about RV. I never like to give up on an author after just the first book, but yeah, it's been tough going back to that series for some reason. I'll be sure to read the next book. :)


  10. Hey Jen,
    It's probably one of those right-time-right-place things. I read LoTR for the first time so long ago that it's a fixture in my reading life. I have no idea what it would be like to read for the first time at this age, especially after the movies.
    "But then again, no matter what the book, I always take something away. Even if it's just knowing I do NOT want to write like THAT. (g)" Sooo true!

    Oh, speaking of bad books, has anyone else read Shane? We had to read it for school in Grade 8, as far as I remember, and I *hated* it. WTF? was my first reaction. A few years ago I made myself reread it just to see if there was something I'd been missing... Nope, it still SUCKED!

  11. Deniz,

    Nope, I haven't. Pretty awful, huh? I'll probably avoid it. (g)


  12. Jen, great topic, and excellent examples of how to keep the reader turning those pages. I am thoroughly sick of the emphasis placed on first lines, too. Sure, they serve a very important purpose, but no more important than any other facet of a well written book. IMO. (g)

    And the one book I could not put down, read from cover to cover in one sitting, was Silence of the Lambs. I read it before the movie was made, was scared out of my pants the whole way through but COULD NOT put it down. I finished it at about 3am, then lay in bed, heart pounding, until the sun came up! LOL. So scary, but so good.