What Makes a Good Ending?

Or does it?

Or is it?

How long is a piece of string? Does my bum look big in this? The answer to the question, ‘What makes a good ending?’ is as nebulous and subjective as they come. For some, an ending is only ‘good’ if the heroes win. For others, such an ending will always be trite and formulaic. Some writers will even avoid the question altogether, writing an ‘ending’ that is either so open or ambivalent that a reader has no hope of closure. Well, after five months of drafting, it’s now my turn to decide which ending will best suit this story.

The beginning-of-the-end(ing) really gave me pause. I had been so focused on plotting the getting there that I had little concept of what my main characters would do when they did. (Other than a few rough ideas.) There are several writing-jargon terms for the bit between the middle and the end of a three-act story. For me, the most descriptive was theatrical: it was a definite intermission. I needed some time out to think.

Some books and films mark the transition with their characters pausing for breath, the action calming before the storm. The film Zulu (1964) is a classic: our plucky lads keeping a stiff upper lip before the native hoard descends with shield and spear to engage in a spat of Bulldog baiting. Other stories present the main character with a choice: go home or go on. Rocky Balboa chased chickens in Act II so he could knock ten bells out of his opponent before the last bell in round ten. (Did you see what I did there? It wasn’t that clever, was it? Oh, well.) His wife begged him not to go into the ring, but he was Stallone on a contract, so what else could he do?

My first challenge was to work out how Out of the Darkness should move through the transition from the middle to the beginning-of-the-end. **Small Spoiler** It isn’t much of a spoiler, but my story has three main protagonists, and each needed to be set up for the climax. **End of small spoiler** That took a few days. Now I’m passed that hurdle. Everybody is where they need to be, doing (or not) what they can (or can’t). I’m reasonably happy that they got there either as a logical outcome of a sequence of events, or because they are who they are. But how to end it?

Some writers will let a story tell itself, acting as a passive channel for what grows organically on the page. Other writers have a definite aim in mind: the heroes win; the ending will be tragic; the mystery is solved. They guide their story there in clever and subtle ways. (Whereas the bad ones simply drag their characters kicking and screaming to the conclusion, hoping their readers won’t notice.) Working within someone else’s universe makes things more complex.

My writing regimen: insert grass between your toes and leaves in your ears to maximise working of the wordage wonders.

Naturally, I tend towards the organic approach (pun intentional), but there are certain endings that I cannot consider because the implications would be too far-reaching for the rest of the game universe and the fiction. Frontier and the other writers have many stories they wish to tell after mine comes to an end. ***MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!!! Well, not really*** None of the Elite: Dangerous fiction will conclude with an epic war that wipes out one of the three main factions, the cataclysmic end of the universe, or a successful time-travelling assassin that goes back and takes out the original Commander Jameson. The fundamentals of the past and future are set in stone. For a writer this limited scope is a little frustrating. I can’t go for the game-changing epic: there’ll be no Lord of the Rings or Star Wars here. Every fiction author has had to reign in any such grandiose ambitions and set their sights a little smaller.

There are also loose ends that cannot be left lying around. Anyone or anything that presents a problem for the game or the fiction will end up dead or destroyed before story-end. For those readers that like to play spot-the-corpse, or ‘Who is Wearing the Red Jersey’, there will be more than ample opportunity in every writer’s story.

The other route is to go smaller-scale, or small scale.

Just because the focus is on smaller things doesn't mean it has to lack drama.

Just because its focus is on smaller things doesn’t mean a story has to lack drama or impact.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with small scale. The importance of the story to the reader comes from their connection with the characters. The ending is important to the characters, and so becomes important to the reader. The key here is intimacy and establishing an empathy. Even if a story does not have an ending that impacts on another fictional life but that of the main character, it doesn’t matter. The closeness and intensity of emotion in such stories makes up for the absence of the epic. (Of course, if you are a decent writer writing an epic, you will weave in these small stories to make the reader care.)

Writing on the smaller-scale is an interesting balancing act. You have the epic, but of limited scope. The war will be over in a relatively short time. The cataclysm is limited to a single planet, or system. In most genres, what happens in a country, or on a continent, or to a planet is epic. The sense of ‘epic-ness’ is relative to its backdrop. The problem of epic-ness here is that the backdrop of the Elite universe is, well, the entire universe*. Because of this every E: D writer, myself included, will be drawing on their characters and maybe some of the history to make the reader care about what is happening in their corner of the universe, right there, right then. It is the characters that will differentiate one asteroid field spaceship shoot-out from another**. Game history and reader nostalgia can be a heady cocktail; add some relate-able characters and you have the potential for a fantastic read. But… I didn’t exactly do that.

So, what about Out of the Darkness? When I originally proposed my story idea to Frontier it was epic, really epic. It was also set so far back in time that its implications for the year 3300 were minimal, from a human point of view. Yep, T. James attempted an origin story for the Thargoids. (Label me arrogant, but really I just got excited by our insectoid friends.) But even stories set in pre-history make waves in the present. Frontier’s future-present 3300 could not contain the Thargoids I had written. Even alien history has to fit with Frontier’s vision: of who and what the Thargoids are in 3300; and so their origin was ably and convincingly re-created by Michael Brookes as part of the Thargoid Guidebook. That’s why the Out of the Darkness you will be reading is now a rather different beastie.

But… I couldn’t quite bring myself to let go of the epic. I love high-risk, high-stake plots, those where real storms of smelly brown stuff can happen if things go wrong. The ones where humongous fans spray it everywhere when the heroes fail; I’m sure you know what I mean. However, with the choice to go epic, there has had to be a willingness to let go of a raft of possible endings. It isn’t my universe to change. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a martyr, sacrificing my creative freedom, far from it. Frontier have granted me the incredible privilege, and responsibility, of going-it-large. David and Michael have been amazingly accommodating, given what I am proposing. In return, I accept the narrower paths available for me to walk. BUT, even if the path I walk is a little narrower, I get to walk an Epic Path—and that’s freakin’ awesome! (There something about American English that’s so free when it comes to expressing positive emotions, don’t you think? *Does Steve Ballmer-style fist pumping*)

What consequences that will have on my ending-choice, you are free to guess. Even I don’t know yet, and won’t until I draft the final scenes over the coming days/weeks. The possibility of death, mutilation, tragedy, and loss of pocket money due to bad behaviour are all still possible. The fun will come in deciding who, when, and how they will happen. At this stage of the writing—as a writer—I conclude there is only one type of good story ending: one that makes me want to go, ‘MUHAHAHA!!!!!’***

Except David Braben, rightly, decided no one had a home PC powerful enough to model the entire universe, and Frontier does not have the staff to populate something so big with interesting stuff to do. So the Elite Universe is, in fact, the Milky Way galaxy. If you’re going to deal in the epic, you have to make it manageable.

** Credit for this observation goes to someone in a Laveradio broadcast. I can’t remember which broadcast it was, or who made the comment, but, whoever you are, consider yourself credited.

*** I believe, but am willing to be corrected, that it was Terry Pratchett who proposed a link between the number of exclamation marks a writer uses and their sanity, or lack thereof.

***

Image Credits:

‘Old antique typewriter with text’, © Anna-Mari West – Fotolia.com. Usage rights purchased.

‘Book With Tree’, © Danilo Rizzuti, hosted on freedigitalphotos.net. Used with kind permission.

‘Dead Fly Scene’, © Grant Cochrane, hosted on freedigitalphotos.net. Used with kind permission.

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4 Responses to What Makes a Good Ending?

  1. Void Sun says:

    Another great update. An entertaining and informative read as always. Great to be getting an epic, I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

    • TJames says:

      Thanks for stopping by to comment. It’s good to know I’ll have at least one reader. Now, just let me check my jeans pocket. I’ve got that epic ending somewhere- I just need to find it…

  2. John Harper says:

    Interesting read. Good to get your opinion on these things. Hopefully my ending is subtle and not kicking and screaming!

    • TJames says:

      Hi John. It’s always nice when another writer finds what you write about writing is interesting to read. Drew was kind enough to write on his blog that he liked what I had written about writing an ending, and now you’ve written a comment to say the same. So, I thought I ought to write a reply to your written comment about my writing about writing endings. And now I have.

      As for your ending… you didn’t fund-raise on Kickstarter so kicking in your final chapters is not mandatory.

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