Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 38: Irrelevant Book Endings
Is there anything more fun, more bittersweet, and more challenging than book endings? Arguably, nothing matters more for ensuring reader satisfaction than the ending of a book. As such, few parts of your story are going to be more important to get right. But naturally, the room for error rises in direct proportion to the importance of any aspect of your novel. One of the easiest writing mistakes to fall into in your book endings is actually one that has as much to do with book beginnings–and, indeed, the entirety of your book.
I’m talking about irrelevant book endings. As editor Jeff Gerke says in The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction,
I can’t tell you how many unpublished novels I’ve read in which the ending has absolutely nothing to do with the beginning.
How to Write Distractingly Irrelevant Book Endings
This one’s super-easy! Just write a plot that hooks a 90-degree turn somewhere in its second half. For example:
- Jane spends the first half of the book on a quest to find sentient life in the stars–but then switches focus in the second half to the custody battle over her kids.
- Edward spends the first half of the book trying to get the love of his life to forgive him–but then switches focus in the second half to bringing down the Mafia.
- Laurie spends the first half of the book reconciling herself to her cancer diagnosis–but then switches focus in the second half to writing a scandalous exposé on an aging movie star.
- Jake spends the first half of the book learning to skydive–but then switches focus in the second half to adopting a son.
- Elinor spends the first half of the book learning to use her new superpower–but then switches focus in the second half to reconciling with her estranged father.
How to Write Relevant Book Endings That Resonate
You may be quick to realize any of the above combos could work in the same book to create some really interesting layers and juxtapositions. But they only work if both halves are properly set up in the First Act. A story is a sum total of its parts, but all its parts must work together to create a pleasingly cohesive and resonant sum. Anything that happens in the second half needs to be set up in the first (for more on how to do that, read this post on foreshadowing).
We might remedy the disasters in the previous section by reworking them just slightly:
- Jane’s overall goal is to find sentient life in the stars, but a subplot focuses on her personal life and the custody battle over her kids–which might tie into the main plot via a motif of the family as a symbol of the universe.
- Edward’s overall goal is to get the love of his life to forgive him, but to do that he has to cut his ties with the Mafia by bringing it down from the inside out.
- Laurie’s main personal issue is her cancer diagnosis, but the plot might be about her (last) chance to write the biggest article of her career–a scandalous exposé on an aging movie star. It turns out the movie star has a few things to teach her about living, dying, and coming to grips with her illness.
- Jake the adventurer starts out the book learning to skydive, but when he meets orphaned Hank early on, he quickly forms the relationship that will cause him to rethink his self-absorbed lifestyle and lead him to adopt Hank.
- Elinor’s early goal is learning to use her new superpower, but in order to truly claim personal empowerment, she will also have to resolve the subplot (featuring the Ghost from her past) with her estranged father.
Of course, you could also rewrite all of these more dramatically to maintain a more obvious cohesion between beginning and ending:
- Jane spends the first half of the book on a quest to find sentient life in the stars–and in the second half she goes to Mars.
- Edward spends the first half of the book trying to get the love of his life to forgive him–and in the second half he kidnaps her to try to get some alone time to talk to her.
- Laurie spends the first half of the book reconciling herself to her cancer diagnosis–and in the second half she goes on a bucket-list cross-country trip where she collects important pieces of wisdom from the people she encounters.
- Jake spends the first half of the book learning to skydive–and in the second half he falls, is paralyzed, and has to learn to jump out of planes without the use of his legs.
- Elinor spends the first half of the book learning to use her new superpower–and in the second half she heroically unites Disney and Warner Brothers.
The possibilities are as endless as your imagination. The only rule is that the ending must be the direct result of the beginning.
5 Reasons Irrelevant Book Endings Happen
The problem of irrelevant book endings can result from a number of issues, including:
1. The author didn’t know the ending when she started writing, and her beginning failed to properly set up the ending.
2. The author didn’t know the ending when he started, and he had to write his way through half a book of “fluff” to figure out the true plot.
3. The plot in the first half of the book ran out of steam around the Midpoint, and the author had to come up with an additional plotline to finish out his word count.
4. The author planned a slambang ending, but found herself needing to kill time in the first half the book since the setup didn’t provide enough story events to fill out the plot before she arrived at the true conflict.
5. The author lacked a foundational understanding of story structure and failed to realize that the lack of continuity from beginning to end of the book is problematic.
Time to ask yourself some important questions: Do you know where you’re headed with your story? If so, is the ending a logical reflection of the beginning? If not, how can you use the events featured in your story’s beginning to set up a logical and resonant finale? These are tough questions, but their answers are what define every book. Find the right answers, and you’ll never have to worry about the common writing mistake of irrelevant book endings.