Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the tenth chapter, “The Ending Is The Beginning.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What’s A Story, and How Do You Find One?
The Ending Is The Beginning
Life is full of mazes. You’ve probably had dozens of experiences that were bewildering and upsetting and glorious and dazzling at the time, and you just had to keep moving forward the best you could. And then you get to the end, and it finally starts to make sense. You learn more information—but also, you know how things turned out.
Once you’ve finished living through something, you can see the whole shape of it. You can turn it into a story.
The same thing is true of the stories that you make up out of whole cloth (or scraps of reality, as the case may be.) You can have some idea of what the story is about—and in a later essay, we’re going to talk about intentionality—but when you get to the end, you can see all the pieces, including the ones that might not fit at all.
There’s a good reason why one of the most common pieces of writing advice is to write the first draft as fast as possible, and then go back and revise: You don’t even know what your story is until you know how it ends.
Put another way, the ending is like a finished cake, and the rest of the story is all the ingredients you’ve assembled. Until you know for sure what kind of cake you’re making, you can only guess at the ingredients you’re going to want. Even if you outlined in advance, to the last detail, you won’t know how an ending is going to work until you’ve actually written it.
How do you know when you’ve found a good ending? There are all kinds of criteria: a proper ending ought to wrap up some of the conflicts, or at least show how our understanding of them has changed. Big questions might need to be answered. The final page should probably leave us with a sense that the immediate crisis (whether of faith, love, identity, politics, or war) is over—or has reached a new phase.
But for my money, the best ending is the one that serves your characters best. They’ve been on a journey, and they’ve arrived, and they’ll never be the same again. And they do something, or experience something, that lets us know how all this has transformed them, and maybe moved them closer to figuring themselves out. Because we haven’t just been following a bunch of plot devices around, we’ve been following people—and we care about those people, and want to know how things turn out for them. The ending is the “how things turn out” part.
If I can know with some certainty how the characters started out, and where they land at the end of the story, then I can start to sketch out how they get from the start to the finish. Especially if I’ve been sketching in some big character moments along the way, that I can retroactively decide are part of this one nice progression.
Once you know the beginning and the end, you can draw a not-particularly-straight arc between them. You don’t want to put up signposts that tell the reader exactly how the story is going to end, way in advance, but you do want the cake to feel like you used all the eggs, butter, sugar and flour that you showed the reader earlier. (Mmmmmm, cake.) Often it’s better if some of the ingredients were only glimpsed in passing, or if the reader thought this was going to be a sponge cake and it ended up as a Bundt cake instead.
(And if you want even more talk about endings, Annalee Newitz and I did an episode of our Hugo award-winning podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct, about them.)
How I leveled up at writing endings
When I was starting out writing fiction, I decided to try and write one short story per week. I seldom hit that goal, but I did crank out a ton of short stories in a two-year period—and this meant I got a lot of practice at coming up with endings.
Looking back at all of those stories now, I can see how I slowly leveled up. And each of those levels represents a different aspect of bringing a story to a conclusion.
I can still remember the first time I got to the end of a short story and—painfully, confusingly—managed to grope my way toward a final paragraph that tied off the narrative threads from the story. My first several endings involved my characters facing a dilemma at the start of the story, and then finding the answer at the very end.
In one of my earliest stories, a man is trying to understand why coffee loses all its flavor when it’s zapped back to the time-traveling researchers who are living in the Paleolithic era. In the end, a random superspy (don’t ask) accidentally shoots a cup of coffee, bathing it with negative ions, which turns out to be the key to protecting the coffee’s flavor in the time vortex. Problem solved! There are some cute moments along the way, plus a wholesome appreciation of various different strains of coffee, but little or no character development. A conflict is introduced, and summarily worked out.
At some point, I started getting more ambitious with my endings—which meant, in practice, being more ambitious with my beginnings and middles, too. I started trying to layer in more emotional stakes and themes, that the ending of the story could pay off. Often this was a bit crude—like, people would have an emotional epiphany that also provided a plot cookie. (“Understanding why my mother never loved me also gives me an idea of how to fix these broken starship engines.”)
And often, this also meant a lot of downer endings, as my characters confronted their own inability to change—this felt clever at the time, but now feels like a cop-out, because I was letting myself off the hook for my failure to write people with a real inner life. (As bad as an unearned happy ending is, an unearned miserable ending is actually worse. I love a dark, ambiguous ending, but only if it’s fully baked.)
One of those stories took place in a future where people only socialize online, and only with people who share their exact interests—but the main character has a torrid one-night stand with a man who turns out to be a “communitarian,” or a believer in socializing with the people who happen to live in his local community. They form a real connection, but once the protagonist returns home, his distrust of communitarians gets the better of him again, and he realizes that he could never date someone who’s not in his exact affinity group. So he ends up ghosting this handsome and lovely man, with whom he shared one perfect night.
For this sad ending to work, we’d have to invest in the relationship this guy throws away, and also feel him wrestling with the choice between love and ideology—and in retrospect, the story doesn’t do any of that work.
At last, I leveled up again, and started being able to layer in more emotional and ideological struggles into the rest of the story, so the ending had more to work with. And I found that it’s like a battery: the first nine-tenths of the story build up a charge as the characters keep thrashing against the constraints of their situation. The more energy the story has stored up, the flashier the bang I can get when I discharge it at the end.
I also learned, very much the hard way, that endings, more than the rest of the story, required me to pay attention to my characters: What are they actually feeling, what do they really want, and what are they aware of at this point in the story? The closer I could get to answering those questions from my characters’ perspectives—as opposed to my god’s eye view as the author—the more the characters could surprise me at the end.
I don’t think of a first draft as being finished until I have an ending that blows me away and makes me go, “YES THIS ONE YES.” The right ending is often the fifth or sixth one that I come up with, and I have to keep going back and thinking more about everything I’ve been throwing into the story up to this point, and gaming out different scenarios. I often feel like the right ending is the one that requires a lot of attention to detail on my part, but also a willingness to take a wild leap into space.
You can change the question to fit the answer
So these days, I try to find the most intense, memorable, thought-provoking, overly ambitious ending I can think of. And then my entire revision process is a matter of trying to make the rest of the story support that ending. Like, if the ending relies on the reader being invested in the relationship between two characters, then I’ll inevitably go back during revisions and add more scenes of those characters getting to know each other. Plus, if a character needs to be an expert knife-thrower at the end, then we need to see her practicing knife-throwing over the course of the story.
I decided while I was revising All the Birds in the Sky that the actual ending of the book takes place on page 300-301 of the paperback edition: the moment when Laurence makes a choice that will shape the rest of his life, based on his feelings for Patricia. So a lot of my revisions were aimed at supporting that moment, by making sure their relationship was at the center of the book every step of the way. The actual plot, and the big questions of the book, are resolved several pages later, in a preposterous moment that I was absolutely terrified nobody would accept unless they’d already gotten an emotional catharsis from that earlier moment with Laurence. I sweated over both those resolutions, but I also tried to convince myself that if the first one felt satisfying enough, people would be willing to go with me for the second.
The good news: fiction-writing is one of the few areas in life where you can change the question to fit the answer. You can’t enter a random number at the bottom of your tax forms and then go back and change your yearly income and deductions to justify it (unless your accountant is an actual wizard). But you absolutely can arrive at an ending that tells the story you set out to tell, and then go back and rework everything that leads up to it so that it all holds together.
It’s not about the end, it’s about the center
Also, I’ve stopped thinking of the process of writing a novel or short story as getting to the end—instead, I think of it as getting to the center.
As the story goes on and the characters (and I) learn more about what’s at stake, we also burrow deeper into the unfinished business of the story, both emotional and thematic. And ideally, the center of the story is also the moment when the characters hit bottom. They’ve gotten as much clarity as they’re going to get, and they’ve drilled down to the heart of their issues, and they’re able to make choices that they couldn’t have made before. At least, that’s the hope.
When I think about my favorite endings in books, movies, TV—like the endings to The Third Man, Blake’s 7, The Good Place, The Four-Gated City, The Dispossessed, and Steven Universe—the thing they have in common is that they feel right for the characters we’ve spent so much time with, and something happens that feels both stark and irrevocable. Someone dies, or something changes forever. The best endings don’t compromise the integrity of the characters or the world, but feel inevitable.
And finally, a killer ending shows us what happens after the inevitable occurs. You might see something huge coming from a long way off—to the point where we start to dread it, or be curious to know what’ll happen when it arrives. A pretty good ending shows us what happens when that juggernaut in the distance shows up at last, but a better ending shows the fallout and all the consequences and reactions that we couldn’t have expected. Especially when characters are forced to make some tough decisions, or to realize that they’ve been going about things the wrong way this whole time.
Unexpected but inevitable: that’s the balance that most endings need to strike. Luckily, once you find that ending, you can always cheat and retroactively rework the rest of the story to plant all of the clues and devices you’ll need to make that magic trick succeed.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.