Today, someone asked a question about how to come up with the end to their novel.
Honestly, this was a new one. I’ve heard people ask questions about how and where to start their book. I’ve heard people worry about a sagging middle. But I’ve never heard complaints about the end.
The end is the downhill part of the story. It’s the release and the relief. It’s the natural resolution of everything that’s happened. It’s finding the new equilibrium and settling into it — as permanently as any human can. (I’m of the opinion that stories and characters do continue on to live lives outside the bounds of the story and not these finite, fixed things.)
The end of the story is a natural consequence of the character’s actions, their desires, their hopes, their beliefs. The only way that you’re going to find a natural ending is to understand your character as best you can.
When I wrote my first book, without a guide or a plan or a hope of knowing what I was doing, I discovered my characters in my drafts. It took miles of prose written on the screen before they settled into their discrete shapes. As I began to understand them better, I started to understand what they wanted and where they needed to go.
I’m aware of how strange this sounds. And I’m aware that other people will have different methods on how they create their characters. With my future projects, I had started working with Shaunta and The Plotting Workshop, which is a whole big system for understanding your story before you write a single word of it.
The second step is to develop your characters.
If I’d done this with my first novel, I might have cut down years of writing time. I would have written everything I known about these girls out, gotten inside of their heads before I wrote a single word down. That doesn’t preclude, of course, that things might change during the art of writing, but it gives me much more of a foundation.
I also have to add that I might not have discovered the exact characters that I ended up on if I’d done TPW on my first book when I first sat down to write it. I can only imagine how different they and the story would be. The method doesn’t kill the magic of discovery. It streamlines the process.
There’s still definite work — and writing — involved. Before I write page one of the first draft (Most of the time — sometimes I cheat and write a few thousand words, just to get my head in the story. But I always go back and plot.) I write thousands of words about the characters.
I want to know the primary characters inside and out. I want to know the secondary characters pretty darn well. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know what they look like. I want to know their deepest dreams and their darkest secrets. Every hope, every fear, every dream.
I don’t fill out a checklist or give short answers. I write in complete prose — sentences and paragraphs. I have a list of topics that I want to hit on, borrowed from Elizabeth George’s wonderful book Write Away, but I don’t have to answer all of them, and I don’t have to go in that order. It’s there to prod me in case the free writing ever stops.
Here’s a little bit about a character from my latest project, The Grave Thereafter:
Savannah Loren Blaine is an seventeen year-old resident of Kerrigan, Colorado. She was born on May 2nd, and will turn 18 shortly after the beginning of the novel.
She is 5’10”, fairly tall for a girl, and just an inch taller than Jordan. Her hair is sunflower blonde — and totally natural, she is proud to admit, unlike some of the other girls she’s gone to school with — and undulates in waves down to the small of her back. When it’s just her and Katelyn and Jordan, she’s a ponytail champion, but for going out she likes doing crowns and braids and more elaborate hairdos. She’s been tempted to play around with colors, especially after her parents left, but she grew up hearing from her mom how tacky they look. So she hasn’t dyed her hair yet, but it’s a definite possibility.
Her wardrobe is wide and wild, mostly discovered in thrift shops in the greater Denver area. For everyday, she tends to go with jeans, leggings, or slacks with t-shirts or peasant blouses, comfortable, but really good looking. She is, after all, an Instagram queen. When she’s feeling more fancy, she’ll break into the dresses. While she has never shared Katelyn’s love for simple sundresses, she owns her share of them — but also a few formal knockout numbers that definitely didn’t come from the thrift shop.
Her shoe collection isn’t as elaborate as some — sneakers/running shoes, sandals, flip-flops, a nice pair of black heels, and dance/stage shoes. Her father’s always chided her for having too much, but it’s really a bare minimum, at least in her eyes. But her father isn’t around now to critique her choices, anyway.
She is the kind of girl that will wear a sunflower crown and keep one hand on the switchblade in her pocket. After two years of weight lifting for her PE class, she is not ripped, but she definitely has a presence. Amazonian was the word that her mom hurled at her, more than once. Laci definitely meant it as an insult, but, especially after seeing Wonder Woman when she was 13 (check this), she took it as a complement.
It isn’t perfect prose. It isn’t all entirely straightforward. But I keep going. It’s very stream-of-consciousness. If I don’t know something, I don’t stop to look it up. I make a note, and I keep writing. This is only a fraction of this character’s bio — I go into everything: her relationship with her family, with the main characters, her goals. Even if I never write a word from her point of view, I want to know what makes her tick.
The better that I know her, the better that I know what she’ll do under any given circumstance.
Plotting a novel isn’t about forcing a story onto characters. Maybe you have an idea about the story and where it should go, and that’s great. But in order to create a great story, you need to shape your characters, make them as real as humanly possible.
Then, it’s just a matter of pointing them in the right direction, and pushing them in the direction you want to. You get to throw obstacles at them — whatever obstacles you want. If you’ve built them well enough; if you’ve truly breathed life into them, you will see how they react.
You let them work their way to the end. To steal from Lin-Manuel Miranda: They live, they die, you tell their story.