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Crafting an Epic – Part Four: The End..?

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It’s never a bad time to start thinknig about your ending for your epic creation. But how do you go about it? Discuss!

So I may be getting somewhat pre-emptive with this, since I’m still a long way from the end of part one of ‘The Project’, however, this was a subject on my mind this week, so lets discuss…

How to end a project. 

Matt raised an interesting point last week: 

A writer writes, an author finishes

Because the all-important finish is the ultimate goal, is it not? This doesn’t just apply to the mammoth type of fiction I am writing, but to all fiction. So I think it’s important to consider it right from the outset, even if you’re not at that point in your writing – it needs to be on your mind. 

Not Just the End

Because it isn’t only about finishing the project, it is about concluding it in a satisfying manner for the reader. It’s about wrapping up the loose threads, bringing the character arcs to a satisfying conclusion, and – at a basic level – returning to the status quo. 

Which isn’t easy. 

In a way, writing epic fiction allows you to cheat this a little. Because – chances are – the book you’re (and by that I mean “I’m”) writing has a good chance to be the first book in a series. So if it’s a given there will be a follow-up, you need to consider the ending differently. I’m not talking about a sequel here though. Sequel hooks are a different matter, and I’ll look at them in a bit. 

In an ongoing series, it is pretty much a given the adventure continues, but even if that is the case, the first book (particularly the first book) needs to have some kind of closure. Even if it just one plot strand, or one character arc, or something

An Example

Let’s look at an example shall we? Star Wars, there’s a good one. The first film (and by that I mean Episode IV) wraps the primary story up nicely. Death Star is destroyed (sorry, spoilers), the rebels have their award ceremony, and look! Even R2 is fine! All is great with the world! 

Star Wars successfully concludes Episode IV, whilst still leaving an as yet unseen Big Bad to deal with in the following films

Except it isn’t. Darth Vader is still out there, as is the rest of the Galactic Empire. This is just a battle that has been won in an ongoing war. The good thing here is it leaves a lot of leeway for possible sequels. The main threat of the piece has been neutralised, but the greater threat (the man behind the man, as it were) is still out there.

What Star Wars does, (like a lot of epic fiction) is drop the viewer (or reader) into the middle of the action. The greater struggle is ongoing. This is where having a well planned out back story comes into play. As long as it feels there is a greater world out there, a living breathing world, which exists, and in which things happen detached from the characters you’re dealing with, then you can get away with a lot. 

Another cinematic example (one which I don’t think deals with this so well) is The Matrix. The grand enemy here is “The System”, far more nebulous than the Galactic Empire. The face of the system in the first film – the main threat – are the Agents. Particularly Smith. At the end of the film (again, spoilers), Neo fights Smith, destroys him, and ends up flying off into the, well, the camera. 

Yes, billions of people are still trapped in the system, but there isn’t really any sense of the man behind the man. The first film concludes without any real sense this story needs to continue, which is why – in my humble opinion – the sequels fail. 

Drifting off track. 

The ending needs to be satisfying enough that the reader doesn’t feel cheated, but – in the case of epic and ongoing fiction – needs to have enough mystery remaining that the reader will want to return to this universe for more.

The Matrix so desperately needed a figurehead for “The System”, it not only resurrected Agent Smith, but also created a weird baby face thing in the trilogy’s final moments. Like a lot of things in the sequels, neither fully made sense.

The Sequel Hook

Now obviously the cheapest way to do this is to have a cliff-hanger of an ending. I say ‘cheap’ instead of ‘easy’ because as I said above, the reader can feel cheated. It may be a case that the plot of the book has been wrapped up, but then some character may say ‘but he wasn’t the real killer.’ Possibly followed by a ‘dun dun DUN!’ 

Or, as in the case of those old Saturday morning serials, have the hero in some dire peril from which there appears no escape. 

Again, this can be frustrating, especially if the reader has to wait a year or two to find out whether said hero actually survives. 

The soft version of course is to have the main story wrap up, and have our plucky heroes ride off into the unknown. Literally the adventure continues. From what I recall when reading it, this is what happens at the end of The Passage, by Justin Cronin. The plot of the book wraps up, but there are still stories to tell. 

The best sequel hook however, is to have something with a little more subtext. Yes, the main thrust of the plot has been concluded for now, but there are other dangers out there, and since our hero/heroes/heroine has defeated ‘the bad guy’, then the man behind the man now has his or her full attention on said hero/heroes/heroine. And they are pissed

The Project

So yes, while the end of my own project is a long way off, I’m feeling the need to formulate how it’s going to conclude. I have the major critical points, though they are more in relation to the grander scheme of things. 

I am loathe to admit I have been working on basic storylines for the follow up. I guess part of me has been so focussed on the bigger picture I’ve overlooked the smaller picture for the time being. I have a greater sense of where the universe is going in the piece, when I should be focussing on where the characters are going. 

I have mentioned before that I have several different major plot strands going on. Well, I know where the majority of them end up (and its not looking good for the characters), but I’ve focussed less on how they actually get there. It’s sort of a ‘top down’ approach, making sure the drama is all where it needs to be for the next instalment, when I guess I should be working a little more on the ‘bottom up’ approach, in getting everything established. 

Sort of like I’m writing a prequel, when the actual book it is a prequel for doesn’t exist yet. On the plus side, I have an actual ending to work towards. 

Over to you:
Do you find reaching the end particularly troubling? Do you find it difficult to deliver a sufficiently satisfying conclusion to your tale? And for those of you who may write longer ongoing fiction, how do you cope with the conclusion/continuation balance. As ever, comments below.

  • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

    Great post as always Craig! Although you did have to bring up The Matrix sequels and ruin my day! There are so many reasons those films don’t work, but I agree that poor handling of the lack-of-personified-antagonist is a big one.

    I’m not sure I get the distinction you make between a string of sequels and an ongoing story. To my mind A New Hope only feels like an ongoing story after the fact (by which I mean after the trilogy is complete). Otherwise, it has a “there might be a sequel” type ending. Contrast this with The Empire Strikes Back where the ending is a much more definite “this is part of an ongoing story” type ending.