Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Hello authors, and welcome to the fourth article in our month-long National Novel Writing Month coverage. This is the last full week of writing for NaNoWriMo, so this week we’ll be looking at how to start wrapping up your story and make the most of your remaining writing time.
As you plan the next (almost) two weeks of writing, keep in mind that NaNoWriMo is about putting words on paper. The story you’re writing now is in its earliest stages, and the more you get down, the more you’ll have to work with once NaNoWriMo is over. To that end…
Making the most of NaNoWriMo
What I’m about to suggest might, at first blush, seem totally wrong. Perhaps it will be, for you, but remember that while sometimes our instincts jump in to protect us, it’s not uncommon for our egos or our fear of leaving our comfort zone to do the same.
NaNoWriMo casts a special magic over authors – it’s the magic of the deadline, the magic of limits, and it can bring out the best in us. It’s not uncommon for a writer to spend months prevaricating and then find that NaNoWriMo spurs them into actual action, producing more written pages than the previous four months put together.
It can feel like magic, but it isn’t; it’s a mixture of hard work and psychological readiness, and it’s something that you can take further advantage of at this point in the process. Specifically, you can do this by considering jumping forward in your book.
If you felt a jolt of resistance there, that’s not unusual. As writers, we tend to want to go from beginning to end in a straight line. Stylistic quibbles aside, that is, after all, how you usually tell a story. True as that is, there’s a special value in having ended your story during NaNoWriMo, and doing so may hang on whether or not you’re prepared to take a leap.
The official NaNoWriMo site suggests 50,000 words as a goal for November. That’s a book, but it’s a very short book, and it may mean that you end the month with much of your story untold. The trouble is that, as I keep saying, NaNoWriMo is about forming the raw clay that you’re going to mold into your finished story. It’s a time of special productivity and, in the months that follow, you’re likely to find it much easier to make substantive progress with a story that’s missing some of its middle than a story that’s missing its end.As #NaNoWriMo rumbles on, it might be worth skipping ahead so you can ‘finish’ your book.Click To Tweet
Why? Well, partly because the end is usually more important. You can, after all, give a working synopsis of a story while missing out bits from the middle. It’s still not complete, but that’s a different type of incomplete than a story that doesn’t finish.
Then there’s motivation. A story that doesn’t have an ending is still being worked on. Your first draft isn’t written, and it can be easy to go back to sleep after NaNoWriMo, intending to get back to your unfinished writing another time. A story that has an ending, but is missing some of its middle, is more demanding. Psychologically, it feels more like a finished draft, and the missing sections can feel more urgent. It’s a case of ‘I haven’t finished my first draft yet’ vs. ‘I’ve written my first draft, but it needs major improvements’.
It may feel unusual, even uncomfortable, to leave off the story you’re writing and move later (perhaps even far later) into the story, but it could also be the best, most effective way to see out NaNoWriMo. This is especially the case if you’ve plotted heavily beforehand, giving you a good idea of where you’re going and how to get there.
Writing 50,000 words in a month is impressive, but having a battered, bruised, full-of-holes skeleton of your full story is even better, mostly because it’s likely to give you more fuel in the months to come. Once again, it may not be for you, but it’s definitely worth a genuine try.
If you’re willing to give it a go, or you’re just reaching the end naturally, here’s what you need to know about concluding your story.
Climax vs. ending
The difference between your story’s climax and its ending isn’t hard to grasp, but it can be difficult to apply. The climax of your story is the moment it peaks – the thematic core of the story reaches a crescendo, the reader’s investment pays off, and the ‘problem’ at the heart of your narrative is addressed. The bad guy is defeated, the hostages are saved, and the bake sale goes off without a hitch. Maybe your hero sacrifices themselves for the greater good, maybe the villain grinds them into the dirt, but the conflict in your story is answered; whatever the story was building to all this time, it happens.
The end of your story is where you stop writing. Maybe, once the villain is dead, you spend a few moments with the characters to speculate about adventures to come, like in Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest books. Maybe you skip ahead in time to ruminate on what the protagonists do with the rest of their lives, like in Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, or maybe you go even further and look back on them from the perspective of a future society, like in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Maybe you go in the other direction and end as close to the climax as possible, as in Richard Stark’s Nobody Runs Forever, which concludes the story’s central heist but doesn’t reveal whether its protagonist escapes the police, since that’s not really what the story’s about.Your story’s climax isn’t the same as its ending, and the distinction matters.Click To Tweet
They’re all respectable choices, but they’re respectable because they’re choices. In each case, the author considered what was best for their story and how the relationship between climax and ending could work in their favour. Deltora Quest is a series, so Rodda chooses to stick around and build interest, while Mockingjay is partly about trauma, so needs to see out the consequences of its climax. Nobody Runs Forever is thrilling, it wants to send the reader out on a high, while The Handmaid’s Tale uses the gap between climax and ending to apply the reader’s lingering feelings about the protagonist to a wider philosophical view.
Generally, the climax is the moment of most intense energy. The further you move away from it, the more of that energy is lost. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing – you can transmute that energy into something useful – but it’s a pretty solid rule.
To take advantage of this, consider the other elements of your story in relation to your climax. What else needs to be wrapped up before you can progress – what subplots and characters arcs need to be resolved? If you want to end close to your climax, consider how you can resolve these plot elements prior to the big finish, or have the climactic event wrap things up for you.
It’s a cliché to have the protagonist slay the villain, saving their love interest and then sharing a passionate kiss that shows everything is going to be alright, but this is where it comes from – the main obstacle overcome in a way that also addresses the romantic subplot.
On the other hand, if you plan to stick around, consider how you can use the distance from your climax to elevate the story. When big events pass, we look back on them with a mix of feelings – do your characters regret what happened, do they still bear the scars, or can you present their future in contrast to the events of the past, using the climax to make a less thrilling ending all the sweeter?
- Here’s How To Write A Killer Climax That Leaves Readers Breathless
- Scared Of The Anticlimactic Ending? Here’s How To Kick It To The Curb
- Why Your Story Desperately Needs… A Revelation!
There are a lot of options, but considering them now will give you time to set up the one that works for you.
Generally, the climax is about the protagonist addressing their core goal. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, some more showy than others, from fights and kisses to agreements and accidents. Wherever possible, however, be sure to also bring the themes and ideas of your book to a head. The hero shouldn’t just meet their goal, they should complete the ideological argument of your book.
Is your hero fighting fascism? Well then something about their opposing ideology should help them win. Are they bucking social mores? Well then something about their irreverent approach should be what lets them triumph. Or, if your hero is learning a lesson, then it should be the realization of that lesson, or an event that proves it to be true, that brings the climax about. Stories are about events but they’re also about ideas, and your story will be a lot more satisfying if the climax binds those things together.
On a practical level, of course, your climax will often revolve around a major event. I suggested some reading on fights, battles, and death last week which is still relevant, so this week I’ll suggest focusing on the emotions they’re designed to bring about.
- Surprising Ways To Use Happiness In Storytelling (And How To Get Them Right)
- How To Handle Grief In Your Novel
Closing or extending character arcs
As the climax and end of your story near, it’s time to start thinking about character arcs. In a great narrative, different characters offer different perspectives on the themes and events that make up the story. As those aspects of the tale develop, so do the characters, and since stories tend to resolve in one form or another, the characters usually experience a journey. Where that journey ends up addressing something core to the character, where they end up somewhere that they can be said to belong, thematically, that journey is an arc.
Your character might fall in love, lose their prejudices, or even completely abandon their original morality. The protagonist of In Bruges is a childish hitman fresh off a job on which he accidentally killed an innocent. As the story develops, he admits to his guilt, coming close to suicide, but finds a reason to live… right before he’s forced into a gunfight with the bloodthirsty antagonist. In one reading of the film, it’s only once he no longer wishes to die that his death can come close to balancing the moral scales, a resolution that ties the film’s story, themes, and character arcs up into an incredibly satisfying ending. (Other interpretations are just as valid, and just as satisfying.)
Ask yourself how you can create satisfying moments for your characters to close their arcs, and how those moments can contribute to the main story, and even the arcs of other characters. Don’t spend too much time worrying about the perfect moment that brings everything to a close – it’s fine to resolve the arcs of secondary or minor characters earlier in the story, and this is only the first draft – but look at the final string of events in your story in terms of who can do what, and what you can make their actions say about them.
When to add an epilogue
As your story comes to a close, you might be tempted to consider an epilogue – a short section detached from the main story that adds context or sets up future events.
Epilogues can work well, but I suggest staying away from them in your first draft. Setting up your next story can divert your attention from your current project and tempt you to leave space for development at the exact time you should be trying to write the tightest form of your story.
There’ll be time for epilogues later, and you can always open things up to make room, but it’s much easier to open up a standalone story than tighten up a story crafted to tease the future.Adding an epilogue too early can bake a lack of closure into your story. Click To Tweet
Of course, it may be that elements of your story are deliberately there to feed sequels and need to be addressed, or that the epilogue does something for the story that makes it complete. If so, go ahead and write the best epilogue ever – hopefully the articles below will help.
- Writing An Epilogue Can Be Useful (As Long As You Do It Right)
- How To Write A Book Series That People Finish Reading
Mo’ NaNoWriMo, less problems
For all this talk of endings, there’s still plenty of NaNoWriMo left, so don’t despair, and keep chasing that word count. As ever, I’ll be in the comments for any of your questions or concerns, and (after our usual great articles on Wednesday and Friday), I’ll be back next week with the final article in our NaNoWriMo coverage, where I’ll talk about how to begin the editing process and look back on your National Novel Writing Month experience in a way that helps your writing. Until then, your characters are crying out to have their arcs resolved, and you’re just the writer for the job.