Friday, March 19, 2010

Where Endings Come From

Last night, Lupe posted this comment on yesterday's blog entry (I'm averaging one a day this week, although that will probably calm down once the book is finished and I don't need any excuses for not working, not to mention no more apartment flood crises, I sure hope).

Where was I? Oh yes, Lupe's question:

How do you visualize the ending? How do you know what the ending is going to be before you even know the middle of your book?

I've been frustrated by this everytime I write a story...I know my plot, the story, but I can never visualize my ending.

All right. A couple of things.

First of all, there is no right way and no wrong way to write a story. Lots of writers start with the most basic of ideas and develop it as they write their first draft. They're comfortable dealing with dead ends, and are willing to toss and rewrite as they go along.

This method wouldn't work for me because I really like to get my work done fast, since I prefer not to be working. And given that I'm not a great judge of my own writing, I can fool myself into thinking a mistake is a masterpiece. It's simply better for me to pre-write and solve the problems, thus avoiding the mistakes, before I begin the real writing of the book.

Secondly, I don't visualize. This also falls into the category of different people work (and learn) different ways. I'm an auditory person. I hear lines of dialogue. I hear the characters talking. In a first person narrative, I hear the main character reciting what happened. For much of my life, if a stranger told me their life story (which strangers did; I have that kind of face), I could remember the details for years thereafter. But I once didn't recognize my best friend when she walked down the street.

I would have made a great radio writer.

I think it's easier for me to work out the endings of my book in process because children's and YA books have certain restrictions (at least as far as I'm concerned they do). I believe children's/YAs should offer at least a little bit of hope. Which isn't to say they can't be moderately desolate, but not 100%. And in the case of younger children's books, lots and lots of hope and happy endings.

When I'm working out the story, which I do by a series of questions (Who is the main character; who is her family; how old is she; who are her friends; where does she live; etc.), I also try to determine where she's going to be at the end of the story. If I know that, I can work through most of the middle (I never know everything; I'd really get bored if I did) to get there.

Things do change, but the basic where is the main character going to end up stays pretty much the same. For example in the dead and the gone, I knew the book would end with Alex out of New York City. Originally I thought there'd be an extended section of his traveling (I had thought I'd get him somewhere near where Miranda and her family were, which is one reason why there are references to Alex and his sisters being Fresh Air Family kids; I'd thought maybe I'd get them there).

But then, maybe before I began writing, or maybe while I was writing it, I rediscovered that there had been two snowstorms in Life As We Knew It. I remembered the blizzard, which I knew I could use in d&g, but I forgot about the second storm that causes the stove to backfire in LAWKI. And I just couldn't deal with a second storm in d&g. So I cut the book short. It still ended with Alex escaping from the city, but at an earlier time (before New Year's rather than in March, the result of which was I had to do a lot of tapdancing to figure out how Alex and Miranda meet in This World We Live In).

The important thing wasn't when was Alex getting out. It was Alex gets out. And since I knew that was where the book was going to end, I adapted the middle to make it happen. Somewhere there's a blog entry where I have the ongoing outlining process for d&g. I haven't read it in ages, but I think I've reconstructed the events accurately.

Or take This World We Live In (although I'd rather you paid for it). I knew the ending had to be Something Big. I'd killed off most of humanity, so there was a real risk of an anticlimactic ending, and I needed to avoid that. I went through a number of possible endings, but the basic idea of Something Big stayed with me, and it was just a case of figuring out which version would put Miranda in the center of the action.

So for me, what works is to know the ending before the middle is firmly in place, and then I can manuever around the middle to get to the ending I've predetermined.

Once again, there's no right or wrong. This is the method that works for me.

Speaking of work, I really ought to. If what I've written here doesn't make sense or if there are any other questions, comment away, and I'll try to do a better job of explaining.


Anonymous said...

Hey Sue!
I absolutely LOVE your books!
But the ending to This World didn't sit well with me...
will there be a 4th?

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi Anonymous-

I'm sorry the ending of This World didn't sit well with you.

I knew when I wrote it, there would be people who might not like the ending.

But I have no plans for a fourth book. I'm not being coy about this. I really truly don't. And my publisher doesn't. And it will kind of surprise me if either my publisher or I develop plans for one.

So I'm afraid you're stuck with the unsitwellable ending!

Elaine Marie Alphin said...

The ending came as a surprise, and I was shocked - but it was the type of shock that felt right. Miranda's decision was not casual - it was difficult to make and to carry out. Some characters (and people) could do what she did and readers would hate the action and the character. But Miranda made a hard choice out of love and acted with compassion, and showed just how much she had grown into a woman from the girl she had been before the moon was struck. I've read This World twice now, and the ending sits better and better.

My word verification is "wingowns" - I'm not sure if that means I will win lots of gowns (which would be a waste, since I'm not a gowns type of person) or whether I poetically own wings. I like that one best.

Anonymous said...

Ok. I JUST GOT YOUR BOOK. :D I was casually walking through Barnes and Noble with my yum-yum smoothie in hand, I turn the corner and practically fall down. It's there. Below Number 1 and 2. I like ran over and snatched it, ever so gently. I didn't let it go until we got home. I am so ready to read it. Thank you! :D

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Happy Sunday Morning Elaine Marie Alphin and DeviouslyCartoonified-

As you know, I worked hard on the ending of This World, and I'm very pleased with it. Or at least my memory is that I'm pleased with it. I haven't read the book in a long time, mostly because I want to reread LAWKI/d&g first, and I don't want to do either while I'm working on Blood Wounds.

Life is so complicated.

I went to my local Borders bookstore on Friday and saw six shiny copies of This World there. I think tomorrow (assuming I finish Blood Wounds today or at a decent time tomorrow), I'll go to the B&N in Newburgh (that's the closest one to me) and see what I can see.

Maybe I'll bring my brand new camera!

Katherine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KAH said...

I have always wanted to be a writer and I am trying to live that dream. But I am going through a big period of suck. I have great ideas but they haven't been transferring well from mind to paper. Or i start writing and it's really good for a few chapters, but then it starts going downhill from there. How to i get out of this massive period of suck? Have you been through this before?

p.s i am a very young writer. (thats what I like about writing you can be any age.)

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...


You certainly can be any age when you write; that is one of the best things about it.

If you're consistently getting stuck in the middle, with the first few chapters going well, and then things going downhill from there, why not try a shorter form, like a short story or a novella? Maybe you're stretching a good idea too long.

It's just a thought.

Aoife said...

Hi Susan,

I've managed to get a copy of World, and wow. It's fabulous...everything I hoped it would be. I was so proud of Miranda at the end, and I like to think if Alex ever finds out, he'll understand why she did it. :D

I find when I'm writing I can have a general idea how the story ends, but if I know exactly I get bored and often don't bother writing the middle. Which might be a bigger deal if I was writing for a living, but when it's for fun I can afford to do that.

Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hello Aoife way far away on the other side of the ocean-

I feel about middles the way you feel about ends. I need some level of unknowing to keep from being totally bored.

It's a tricky balance, and one I apparently don't yet have under control for Blood Wounds!