I USED TO BE the editor of a magazine which was published every few months, containing the best freshly-written stories from several countries.
Many people sent in bits of writing from novels they were working on. Some were good, some were bad, and some were terrible!
After a while, I noticed something. Novel writers who sent chunks of half-written books produced work which was often reasonably good, but was rarely great.
But short story writers who sent me short but complete tales achieved so much more. Many of their stories were really fun to read, and much more satisfying. I enjoyed them much more, despite the fact that I had never been a huge fan of short stories as a format.
I couldn’t avoid the truth: their tales were much better. I felt I could tell what sort of writers and they were, and whether they were going to achieve much.
Why was this? After an embarrassingly long time, I worked out the answer: it was because they had ENDINGS.
More on that in a minute.
This is part four of a series of articles on how to write stories.
Part one dealt with defining the word “story”.
Part two dealt with understanding why stories matter.
Part three dealt with choosing a title.
This part is about the importance of setting aside enough time to get to the end of the project.
Endings are the most important part of a story.
People slave over opening chapters/ scenes as if they are the key part, but they aren’t.
Pretty much anyone can begin inventing a story—children can certainly do it very easily. But it takes an exceptional writer to make the perfect ending to a story.
In one sense, the ending is what the story is all about—it’s not the icing on the cake, it’s the bride and groom on the top. It’s the reason the story exists.
It takes a great author to create the perfect ending.
How many times have you suffered through a hard-to-enjoy novel or movie only to discover, after an amazing ending, that the whole thing actually works brilliantly.
Good writers often do that: they make you work to follow the story and then reward you with a stunning denouement.
Why do endings define writers? Well, let’s put it simply. To reach the final page you need three things.
First, you need a rich, flowing river of imagination to keep going with your characters and your plot developments right through a whole story.
Second, you need organizational ability, so that the loose ends (or at least some of them) are tied up at the end in a satisfying way.
And if you want an “open” ending, then you need even more skill, since open endings can be horribly unsatisfying unless they are handled perfectly.
And third, you need stamina, to keep on writing until thousands of words have been written—story writing is about quantity as well as quality. Readers of poetry may enjoy nouvelle cuisine, but readers of novels prefer a hearty meal.
When I was young, a typical novel was 65,000 words. Today, it’s closer to 100,000 words.
We’ll talk about the elements of a perfect ending later in this series. The message I want to leave you with this time is to realize the importance of setting aside enough emotional energy and physical time to FINISH your book or play or movie screenplay.
This topic reminded me of the time my first book came out, more than 20 years ago, when I was working as a reporter. Many other journalists asked me to help them get their books published.
I wanted to be Mr Nice Guy so I said to them: “I’ll help you get your book published: come and see me when it’s finished.”
Not one of them came back! It’s easy to start writing stories, but hard to finish them.
Getting into the right mindset is key: you have to decide that you have to be the one that finishes, not the 99 per cent who begin.
This gives us another important lesson, and one I have seen demonstrated in real life many times:
The person who gets published is not necessarily the best writer, but the one who finishes writing their story.
Are you willing to carve into your schedule time to create, say, three pages of writing a day for 90 days? That’s all it takes to write the first draft of a novel.
But what about making sure you have enough creative ideas to fill a whole book or movie? We’ll look at that subject next.