On Plot Resolution and Closure in Creative Writing: When Is Your Novel Supposed to End?

When is your story box unloaded?

When is your story box unloaded?

The topic of the day: When do you know you’ve reached the end of your novel, story-wise? (That is, when do you know the plot’s wrapped up?)This is a huge consideration for an author, and it’s not as simple as non-writers might think (especially for those of us who don’t use outlines).

Yesterday I talked about how you know you’ve finished with the blog post you’re working on. Blogs are much more informal, and the question is less critical there: you can always write another post expanding more on the topic at hand.

Today, though, we’re applying that question to fiction, and fiction is different.

You’re dealing with a story and with characters. The investment of time, energy, and money you’re asking of your readers is greater. And YOUR investment is much greater as well.

ON SERIES NOVELS AND CLIFFHANGERS

There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to fiction. This might sound vague, but truly,ย  your gut will tell you when you’ve reached the end of your story.

And the end might not come at the moment you expect. I’ve had novels extend scenes beyond what I thought would be the final scene up until the point I wrote that scene.

For me, the novel is done when I’ve wrapped up the story and tied up the loose ends that the subplots have created. That seems to be common sense.

But this gets tricky when you’re dealing with series novels. My rule for my series novels are as follows:

  • Each novel is a story in its own right (even if some overarching themes connect each novel with the others)
  • This means I don’t extend a particular chapter of the overall story through multiple books. Period.
  • I make sure my overall plot is resolved by the end of the novel in question.
  • I consider subplots and make sure they are resolved.
  • I follow these rules for one simple reason: I. Loathe. Cliffhangers. (Here’s why).

I know some people are okay with them, and that’s fine. You are more than welcome to read and write stories with cliffhanger endings: lots of people do, so it can’t be that bad a choice!

Personally, I hate cliffhangers. I don’t write that way. My novels each have a solid, definable resolution to the conflict/crisis that constitutes the major story arc of the novel.

I picked that resolution up for myself after reading Harry Potter. Each Harry Potter novel, though in a series, begins and resolves its own complete story. I respect JK Rowling for that.

PLOT RESOLUTION AND CLOSURE: NOT ONE AND THE SAME

There is a difference between wrapping up a plot and providing you and your readers closure. I know my stories are done when that closure is reached.

Take my first published novel, The Crimson League: it has two epilogues that technically don’t add to the plot. They provide necessary closure, though.

Without giving away spoilers, I can say the end of the novel is not entirely happy. It’s not a fairy tale ending. That wouldn’t make sense for a story about a magical civil war. It’s war; people suffer from war; war gives scars. Always.

That said, when I finished with the plot of the novel, I realized some closure was necessary. I wanted to assure myself that the characters were okay later on, recovering from their emotional damage. Hence the first epilogue.

Then I realized something else: what about the legacy of this resistance group fighting a dictator? How would the kingdom remember them in years to come? I wrote a second (shorter) epilogue set centuries in the future that explores that question and satisfies the reader’s curiosity as to that point.

Why did the legacy matter? Because the characters themselves, throughout the novel, wonder about that point. They also deal with the legacy of the kingdom’s ancient past, so it was a way to tie everything in together.

A FINAL NOTE ABOUT BETA READERS

Don’t forget that knowing when your plot is resolved and when you have closure is one thing. Making sure every subplot is as developed as it needs to be without having fluff is another thing entirely, and you can’t figure that out on your own.

That’s where beta readers come in. After a first draft, you do what you can to smooth things out, add you where you need to, and cut where you can.

Then you share your work to get feedback. Your beta readers will let you know where you haven’t cut enough and what questions they have that you didn’t clearly answer. Sometimes, answering those questions might mean fleshing out a scene or even adding an entirely new one.

Your content won’t be finished when you think it’s finished. You need others to help you with this.

So, what are your thoughts on this post? Do you like cliffhangers? Why do you love your beta readers? Have an anecdote to share? Please feel free to comment.

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47 responses to “On Plot Resolution and Closure in Creative Writing: When Is Your Novel Supposed to End?

  1. I don’t mind cliffhangers. Apparently (without meaning to) I left off Book One of my series as a cliffhanger. I didn’t do it consciously. I thought I had resolved quite a few things — obviously not enough for some readers, however. For me, the cliffhanger leaves me all the more anxious for the next book. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes . . . well, I’m not the most patient person.

    • That’s my deal: I’m not patient enough. That’s why I don’t like them. If the whole series is published and I know they end in cliffhanger and I can buy them all before I get to the end of the first one, no big deal. Otherwise I do get annoyed ๐Ÿ™‚

      Most people don’t mind cliffhangers as much as me, though. They aren’t uncommon at all. Nothing wrong with them; they’re just not my preference for ending a novel.

      • Whether the series ends in a cliffhanger or not, I’m always impatient for the next to come out. I did that to myself with three — THREE — series this year. *head, desk* I keep tabs on the authors’ progress but I haven’t resorted to stalking them.

        Yet. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        • hahaha! oh NO! I feel your pain: Harry Potter did that to me. Even though the books had endings to wrap each book’s story up I was impatient to know what would happen next!

  2. Great post. This makes me feel better about my 3rd and 4th book. Both have a couple chapters after the big fight scene to clean up loose ends and push a few character development plots. It didn’t feel right to move them to the next book because they felt like part of the other story.

    I do teaser endings at times and I will admit to having 3 books in my series where there are massive cliffhangers. Really bad to the point where I better not waste any time getting the next book out.

    • I think most readers expect a bet of resolution and wrap up after a big fight scene that’s the high point of a fantasy novel. I know I do.

      Teaser endings can be fun, I think. And cliffhangers are by no means rejected by the public at large or looked down upon by most. I personally prefer an actual ending, but lots of people publish a novel in two volumes.

      (That’s what I consider a cliffhanger: a sign that a book is too long to publish in one volume and will continue. I don’t mind it as much when I realize the book will end on a cliffhanger; it really, really annoys me when I don’t know a cliffhanger is coming and I’m left without the continuation.)

      Kudos on not wasting time getting the next book out after a cliffhanger. Your readers will be grateful for that, for sure!

      • I do prefer actual endings, but it’s hard when the story of one book goes directly into the next. If there’s only minutes or an hour between the two books, you probably need a cliffhanger. Fingers crossed that I can always keep them books close together on that. One 6-month wait and my fans will burn me effigy.

        • That’s a good point. My books have some more time between them than that…years more time, actually. I can’t imagine NOT having a cliffhanger when the stories progress that closely upon each other and you’re really telling one long story.

          Harry Potter was a BIT like that. Each novel wrapped up one clear adventure but always left questions and tension about what would follow.

        • I try to have months or weeks between my stories. It just happens that a few don’t have that luxury or else I’ll have a 1,000+ page book.

          Harry Potter is a great example of how to build tension between books without going over the top.

        • Rowling always managed a few weeks of downtown between installments (except maybe 6 and 7). I would make the same choice of a cliffhanger you make rather than have a 1000+ book. For sure.

          The one cliffhanger that has really annoyed me in the past broke things off in the middle of a carriage accident that likely killed the royal family before you as the reader knew what had happened and what the results were. THAT is a nasty cliffhanger and really pissed me off because I didn’t know ahead of time that the book didn’t “end,” so to speak.

          There are good and bad ways to have a cliffhanger, for sure. When they’re done well I can accept them no problem. Why not let the reader know the results of the accident and break there? That’s a MUCH better breaking point.

        • I think an author needs to know the time that it will take to get the next one out too. Not a book, but a tv show that I recently watched had their season 1 finale. Ended with the good guys being trapped in a room and the bad guys start shooting. Season 2 isn’t until 2014. That drives me nuts.

        • oh, yeah, that’s painful. Thank Dallas and “Who Shot JR?” :-/

  3. When the journey has ended for all relevant characters. Book endings are the hardest thing to master imo.

    • they really are! you’re very right that the end comes when the journey has ended. i don’t know why it’s so hard to identify that point, but it really is.

      i had a novel expand majorly one time after I wrote what I considered would be the last scene.

  4. I don’t like cliffhangers at all, which is why I read romance mostly. Don’t even get me started about Stephen King’s “wrap-up” of the Dark Tower series. I was stunned and kept sitting there saying What? You have got to be kidding me!

    • I have never read King’s fiction, but “On Writing” is AMAZING. When done poorly, cliffhangers are the absolute WORST.

      • I like On Writing as well and got it soon after it released. I also enjoy much of what he writes, but endings aren’t his strength. I think in the JFK book he admits he had to get his son to help him with the ending, and the ending was better than most.

        • Endings are definitely tough. Thanks for saying that about King: it helps all of us to know even the successes have weaknesses ๐Ÿ™‚ I heard they’re making his JKF books into a tv show…. should be fun!

  5. This is awesome Victoria! I’m so gald you posted this! I’ve been trying to figure out an answer to this very question all week! Now I’m sure my story has reached its end and there’s no point to adding anything else! Thanks so much!

    • oh man, I’m thrilled this post was timely for you, Briana! It really can be horribly anxious, trying to figure out if you need more story or not.

      • Yes, this post did come at the perfect time. I’m curious, have you made any posts about needing to end your book but not wanting to?
        P.s. Your blog has been so much help to me, you’ve always got some awesome writing advice! Thanks so much!

        • I’m so thrilled you’ve found the blog so helpful! ๐Ÿ™‚ That really makes my day: I always believe people should share their experiences with others and help each other out. I enjoy your blog too…. it helps me feel I’m not alone, because the experiences you share and questions you ask are often things I can relate to.

          I haven’t written about that issue in particular, but now that you mention it, this just may be the reason I turned my first fantasy novel into the start of a trilogy. I wasn’t ready to tell the characters goodbye (and they had more to say).

        • Thanks Victoria! Glad my blog is helpful/interesting to someone! ๐Ÿ™‚

          Know what you mean. It is just hard, after you’ve created characters and a whole new world, so write The End. That’s how my Billy the Kid book was, I wanted to keep going, but had already tied up all the loose ends. Oh well. That’s just how it goes, I guess! ๐Ÿ˜‰

        • Billy the Kid has always sounded like a fascinating figure to me but I know zip about him. ๐Ÿ™‚ Might need to check out your book when I get some free time (ie once I’ve found a job)

        • LOL! The book isn’t published yet, I’m going through the editing stage with my publisher right now, and I’m thinking it might be released in November. But I have posted lots of info and quizzes about him on my blog. Good luck with finding a job/free time! ๐Ÿ™‚

        • ah, ok, gotcha! I’ll wait for Nov then ๐Ÿ™‚ thanks for the good wishes! ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Cool!
          And it was my pleasure!
          Before I go, I wanted to let you know that I’m featuring you on my blog this week: http://whenibecameanauthor.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/blogger-spotlight/

        • oh my gosh, that is so cool!!!! Thanks, Briana! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. If I know that a book has a cliffhanger ending, I sometimes wait until I get the whole series or at least two books of the series before I start book 1. I don’t tend to write cliffhanger endings, however. I’m writing a duology. Each book could be read as a stand-alone, though one arc carries through the series.

    I appreciate my beta readers. They tell me when something isnโ€™t working and when something is.

    • I too prefer to get the whole series first when I know they end with a cliffhanger. That’s the best way to go about it from a reader’s standpoint. Cliffhangers can be so frustrating!

  7. Often, I feel like I’ve found the end when I’m having a hard time writing anymore. At least for my first draft. Then I have to go back and take out driveling excess.

    It seems like the story often tells me when I’m done. And yes, it comes back to wrapping things up.

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  9. I don’t mind small cliffhangers, but NOT the major plot. I don’t feel that that plays fair with the readers. I reviewed two books on my blog that are perfect examples of this: One is a series, and one promises to be one. The one that is a series worked because the protagonist had a personal mystery..her husband, owner of a p.i. agency, was murdered in his office and the protagonist inherits the agency and comes across some evidence that he may not be who she thought he was. The major plot however, was that she had her first case in discovering the murder of her first client’s husband. In the first book, the case was solved, but not the husband’s murder or the mystery surrounding him. I liked the way it was done. In contrast, there was one that had a surprise ending, a real twist, thrown right at the end..a gratuitous cliffhanger, screaming: BUY BOOK #2!!! So far, book #2 hasn’t happened. (It also had about a 60+ page prologue too, but that is an entirely different rant..lol) They were such polar opposites, that it cemented how I feel about cliffhangers. I am not crazy about them either. In the first case I can tolerate it, but not in the 2nd example. Overall, I prefer to have all the questions tied up and everything resolved. There can be a hint as to another issue coming up, but the current one should be wrapped up to play fair with the reader who has invested both money and time to get those answers. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Rebecca, thanks SO much for taking the time to make this distinction with the examples! I agree with you completely: two very different scenarios. The major plot of the first novel had a resolution, so not resolving the progatonist’s husband’s murder: not so huge a deal. That can wait for another book. That’s not going to annoy readers. The cheap kind of cliffhanger that screams “Buy book 2” I can always do without.

  10. I love stories with teaser endings or those that end with a twist. It makes us think and ask questions. It is important to engage our readers as a good story always does.

    • Engaging the reader is definitely key!!! Thanks for sharing the alternative point of view to mine. It’s good to know there are definitely people who can appreciate a teaser ending. I love twists myself, but I need a resolution at the end of a book.

    • Engaging the reader is definitely key!!! Thanks for sharing the alternative point of view to mine. It’s good to know there are definitely people who can appreciate a teaser ending. I love twists myself, but I need a resolution at the end of a book.

    • Engaging the reader is definitely key!!! Thanks for sharing the alternative point of view to mine. It’s good to know there are definitely people who can appreciate a teaser ending. I love twists myself, but I need a resolution at the end of a book.

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  15. Ending is as important as the introduction so this post is really good to read. Have tweeted and followed you at twitter. Cheers!

  16. Pingback: On Plot Resolution and Closure in Creative Writing: When Is Your Novel Supposed to End? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life

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