There is a raging (well, a polite) debate over on Linked In about this: How does a writer know when the book he is writing ends?
I know, you’d think an author would plan ahead, wouldn’t you? Some are dogged about sticking to outlines, but many would rather free-wheel it. For them, sticking to a plan is not so simple in reality. “The best-laid schemes… ” and all that.
When writing long works, a writer might tend to drift in the wind, be attracted to shiny objects, and follow a train of thought all the way to the station.
When the trip is finally over and the writer disembarks from the train, something amazing often happens, and is usually expressed this way: “Where the heck am I?” The writer finds himself either with a surprising new ending to the novel or in an altogether new story.
It’s like magic, only psychotic-like.
SIDEBAR: This frequently happens not just at the end of the manuscript, but at the end of chapters, conversations, and action scenes.
How can a writer gain more control over his own brain and fingers and nail the ending that he or she sees in the distance? Writers try many things, from the tricky “I’ll write the ending first, muh-ha-ha!” to the creepy “I’ll let my characters lead me to the ending they want.”
Bottom line: There are no guarantees joker slot where you will end up employing those two non-strategies.
I have been known to take that wild ride down into the Valley of Verbosity myself. (I may be doing it even as I write this.) However, when I have a crystal clear idea of a lovely novel that I would very much like to execute as envisioned, I apply a little tactic. I call it The Joker’s Genius.
Here’s what I do. I give myself one direction: I will write this book as if I am writing a joke, with a set-up and a punch line.
I know (and this is the genius part of this) that neither the set-up nor the punch line can change or the joke is lost, busted, a failure.
However, everything between the set-up and the punch line is flexible and of immense value. This is the area where your writer’s instincts and expertise will be tested.
In a joke, this area is called timing. In a story, it’s called editing.
The late comic Henny Youngman’s famous line, “Take my wife… please!” was foreshadowed by dozens of jokes that came before it over months of material, such as “Take my boss, he’s so cranky that… ,” “Take my mother-in-law, last night she… ,” “Take my teenager, she thinks she… ,” then later, “Take my wife… please!”
Not only was the line superb and came out of left field, but the pause between “wife” and “please” made it seem as though the word “please” was shot out of a cannon. It brought down the house. Mr. Youngman planned his set-up to that one line with The Joker’s Genius.
In a story, rambling exposition and unedited musings can destroy the timing of your ending, even change its location. This is where you need to feel the momentum of your story, trust that you foreshadowed and set-up your ending well, then write your way to the finale.
Not every book ends with a slam-bang ending, but that’s not what you’re shooting for. You goal should be to leave the reader satisfied, or disturbed, or laughing… whatever you initially intended for them to feel..