“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” – Seneca
Eventually, no matter what you’re doing, you come to a point where you understand you’ve reached the end. With writing, it can be pretty obvious—for example, you’ve killed off all your characters in a blaze of fire and destruction, or you’ve reached a happy ending (although there’s no reason both situations can’t apply)—but it doesn’t have to be. Characters and worlds don’t necessarily end because you’ve wrapped up your narrative.
So, what if it’s not obvious? What if you’ve simply reached a point where your characters simply stop? Is that good enough? Depends on what your story actually is, and understanding this may be a little tougher than it sounds. On the surface of things, this sounds like a nonsensical idea, especially if you’re familiar with the whole dramatic arc idea. You get a little exposition, your rising action, a climax, some falling action, toss in your denouement and call it good, right?
Of course, that assumes you’re not writing a literary piece, which doesn’t always conform strictly to that algorithm (sometimes to its detriment), or that you haven’t misidentified some aspect of the story. It’s OK if you do; every reader has likely come across many examples where an author thought they were throwing, for example, some rising action into the mix when it was actually an exposition fest. SF authors are often egregiously flagrant in doing this, hence the term “infodump.” Anyway, it’s not the end of the world if this confusion happens…as long as the overall story is clear in your mind.
Knowing what story you’re truly telling is important, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out. It may even take a complete draft or two, and unless you’re on a deadline, that’s OK. Sometimes a story goes in different directions than we expected; sometimes a character takes over, or events blindside the author, or the symbols obscure the subtext. Lots of different aspects can influence how a story develops, so the fact that a story can sneak up on you is neither surprising nor something to fear. However, you need to be able to roll with the flow, because if the story takes a different path than you expect, odds are good the destination will change as well. Does it have to? Nope, but it probably will.
What does it actually mean, though, to know what story you’re telling? Well, it means you know who your characters are, and their relationships to each other: how they’re connected, what they feel, how their actions play off and feed off each other. It means you have an idea of the conflict’s basic nature, the stakes that each side feels are in play, and how its resolution will affect the characters immediately and possibly down the road. It means you understand the world and the time in which all of these pieces are located, even if you don’t show your readers all of what you know or intuit. The level of detail can vary, but if you know all these things, understanding where the story is going should fall right into place.
And as long as we’re thinking about endings, it’s time for mine. After 15 months of blogging for this here writing community, I’ve decided to hang up my spurs and ride off into the sunset (as a blogger, that is; I expect to be around on the forums for a good long time, and may contribute future posts if something occurs to me to share). I’ve enjoyed the ride, and I hope that these posts have been of some use to you, friendly neighborhood readers, even if just for negative examples. Fortunately, Ervin and Justin are still on the job, so good blogging and advice will not be in short supply. Thanks for reading, and good luck, wordslingers.