Sunday, December 26, 2010

Reader Expectations, Happy Endings & Lover Unbound

According to my favorite Word Meter (which was created for NaNoWriMo but I use it for all manuscripts), I'm at the 82% mark in completing a major revision to my WIP. "Major," in this case, means skewing the whole focus of the book, writing new scenes, deleting old scenes (I've deleted more than 10,000 words so far), shifting some scenes around, and rethinking the overarching theme of the book.

I might feel better about that 82% completion if I didn't know what was coming: the ending. That final scene which, according to editing guru James Scott Bell, should do the following:
--End the novel in a way that isn't predictable yet is satisfying to the reader;
--Tie up loose threads;
--Contain resonance, that "perfect last note in a symphony that leaves the reader with something beyond the ending."

Sure, no problem.

There's more pressure. "Your first chapter sells your book," Mickey Spillane once said. "Your last chapter sells your next book." I don't even want to go there.

I wrote the ending to my first book in my head before I'd finished the third chapter. In the second book, a series followup to the first, I had three outlined chapters to go when I wrote a line and said, "This is where the book needs to end." So I ended it.

This book is my problem child, my Terrible Three, unrelated to the first two. Problem Child has, to date, had four different endings. It's about to have a fifth. (I need a fifth of whiskey, now that I think about it, or at least that bottle of Gluhwein that's sitting downstairs on my kitchen counter.)

Endings are important because readers have long memories. In one of my favorite series, JR Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, I still haven't forgiven her for the ending to Vishous' book, Lover Unbound. She wrapped up the loose threads. It was certainly unpredictable. It had a reasonable expectation of a happy ending, although certainly not the one I wanted. But that resonance of satisfaction was missing.

I lost trust in her for a couple of books after that one--not enough to quit reading the series, but enough that I approached subsequent endings fearfully, without confidence I'd finish the book with that resonance of satisfaction.

And that's the problem I understand now, but that I didn't when I read Lover Unbound. We can't write to reader expectation. A few years after Lover Unbound was released, JR Ward said she was surprised by reader reaction to the book. She expected folks to be unhappy about Vishous' sexual quirks (trying not to write spoilers here). Readers accepted that. What upset them was the ending. I was not alone.

Here's what she said about it. "Even if I had realied it was going to be a problem..I wouldn't have changed the ending...I don't write to market and never have--the stories in my head are in charge, and even I don't get to see what I want to happen in the world occur. That being said, if I were writing the book again, I'd put in another ten pages or so at the end with V and Jane interacting to show the happiness they both felt--so readers were superclear that in the couple's minds things ended up just fine."

And so, as a writer, I had to forgive her as a reader--because she stayed true to her vision for the story. It's all we can do as writers, to create endings that feel honest to us and true to our characters. But I still wish she'd given me the extra ten pages.

How do you write your endings? And have you ever had a strong negative reaction to a book's ending?


  1. I think the endings that disappoint me most are when they don't ring true to the characters I've come to love. When it feels like the author has wrapped things up too well, or brushed problems aside, or changed the characters' personalities to fit the ending (or the page count).

    Like you, the endings of my first two novels were clear from very early on. I've only just started number three, but I have no idea how it'll end (other than, of course, happily).

    Good luck with ending number five! I'm eager to read it.

  2. I actually cannot remember if I've had a strong negative reaction to a book's ending any time recently. When I finished A Handmaid's Tale, I did think, is this seriously going to end here? I want more! But I also appreciated the beauty of the ending. More recently, my experience has been that an ending will actually elevate my appreciation for the rest of the book. I thought the beginning and middle of Fated by S.G. Browne were pretty good, but the ending really made the whole book amazing.

  3. I hated the end of that book, too. I really thought, pardon the expression, that Ward shit her nest with that one. I felt cheated and I felt like V got cheated. Oh well.

    As for me, I'm on book three (that seems to be a problem number for some of us). The first draft has been written for about a year and a half...with no ending. I couldn't wrap it up nice and neat no matter how I tried. I was finally convinced by Susan Squires that I didn't have to wrap it up nice and neat and that readers wouldn't run me out of town for it. I still haven't written the ending, but I know what has to happen and why. And I'm okay with it. Finally.


  4. Thanks for the comments!

    JC/Nickie--What is it about the third book? Maybe it's the literary equivalent of the Terrible Twos? I know how my problem child is going to end but I don't have that last few lines, the ones that seem to tie the bow and make the package look pretty. I'm hoping it will just come to me when I get there. (Right.) Your reaction to Unbound sounds same as mine. I wanted V to have a REAL happy ending.

  5. Yeah, that ending left me flat. It was not satisfying and as you said, readers have long memories.

    And yes, maybe the third book is our equivalent of the Terrible Twos. Like you, I still don't have the last few lines but I'm not freaked out over it like I was before.