Endings Really Matter

By John Gilstrap

I just finished a book that was sent to me in search of a blurb.  It was one of the most thrilling thrillers I’ve read in a long time, and because the publisher was on tight time constraints, I gave the book a rave blurb when I was only about three-quarters of the way through.  I mean, this was a pulse-pounder.

Until the last 30 pages.

“Before you kill me, you’ve got to tell me why you did it, and how all of your compatriots fit into the puzzle.”  Okay, it wasn’t that on-the-nose, but it was close.  Such a disappointment.  I don’t regret the blurb, and I would read the author again because of the exciting 9/10 of the storytelling, but I really felt let down.  And no, I won’t share the book title or the author because I don’t think that would be fair.

Folks, this show-don’t-tell trope holds from the beginning of a story all the way through to the last page.  I think that writers sometimes get tired of their own stories, or they’re leaning face-first into the fan blades of a submission deadline and they sort of eject from the plot and characters, settling for, “Well, it’s good enough.”

And you know what? I get that.  I’ll readily forgive that of an author I’ve followed and whose works I enjoy, provided it’s a one-off.  I’ll write it off as their Mulligan book, their bye.  But at that point, they’re on notice.  The next book better be up to standard, or they lose their spot on the TBR pile.

This is why the bar is set especially high for new writers.  Rookies don’t get a Mulligan on their first swing.  They’ve got to slam that baby three hundred yards straight down the fairway.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

8 thoughts on “Endings Really Matter

  1. Ah, the Poirot in the parlor scene. I fear these when it’s time to make sure all threads are tied up. I just finished the first draft of my next book, and I know my last scenes will need extensive repairs. It’s almost harder in a romantic suspense, because you not only have to tie up all the suspense issues, but you have to wrap up the romance and promise of the HEA for the hero and heroine.

    And yes, endings are important. The first page sells your book; the last page sells your next book. You are a forgiving man, John. Other readers won’t be as nice.

  2. John, nice follow-up to P.J. on revision, yesterday.

    An author may not know the ending till she gets there. If so, she’ll probably realize she hasn’t covered all the bases, as it were. Rewrite Hell. But John’s right. Gotta do it. Else it’s something like quitting a marathon at the 25- or even the 26-mile point. But who am I to pontificate? I’ve neither run a marathon (25K my longest race) nor written a novel (though I’m accumulating bits and pieces in Scrivener).

    • Eric – you’re right, an author may not know “the ending” until they get there. But they darn sure should know “an” ending… and then perhaps discover a stronger one that is available (with some retrofitting) when they get there. That’s what professionals do.

      Otherwise, the draft becomes part of the story defining process… and the actual drafting doesn’t stand a chance until the writing finds something they can commit to, even as a placeholder (a better option is to actually believe you’ve got the best ending possible… and then, when you realize you have a better one, it’s all upside).

  3. “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” – English actor Edmund Kean

    “Beginnings are easy. Endings are hard.” – American author James Scott Bell (uttered repeatedly during and after the final episode of LOST)

    Good layout of what might cause this, John. Getting tired, deadlines, settling for “good enough.” I’ll toss in one more: pure pantsing. There are some writers who say all you need is a good set-up and you’ll find the ending somehow. I should point out that some their books have weak endings.

    If you pants your way through to a “whatever” ending, my strong advice is that you consider that draft only a discovery draft. Reshape the material so the ending is a knockout and rewrite the whole dang thing. Endings are that important. Remember what Spillane said: “Your first page sells that book. Your last page sells your next book.”

  4. I gotta add one of my own. Was reading a book by a famous bestselling thriller writer whose previous works never disappointed. And this one was another corker. But then we got to the climax where the hero goes into the fray to rescue an abducted girl and kill the bad guy. Great ending to the set-up chapter, which has the hero going into a deep dark creepy woods knowing he might get both himself and girl killed. Could not turn the page fast enough.

    The next chapter opened with the hero coming back out of the woods, rescued girl in hand. And then he recounts to the awaiting cop-crowd what happened in the woods.

    ARGH!!!!!

    I wanted — needed — that scene on camera. What the heck happened? To this day, this one bugs me because this writer knew better.

  5. I’m a discovery writer (I prefer that term to ‘pantser’). I write to see what happens. I usually have something of an ending in mind, though, something to work towards. But of course there needs to be revisions to make sure everything fits. In my works, usually that includes adding things, because I draft short and because I tend to come across subplots as I write.

    I don’t know why any writer would ‘tell’ an ending, rather than show it. Showing the ending is what makes it all worthwhile.

    For some reason, I’m reminded of the story of the tall tale-telling cowboy and the little boy. “There I was, trapped in that canyon, surrounded by the bad guys, and I ran out of bullets.”
    “What happened then?” asks Johnny, breathless, eyes wide with excitement.
    “Why, Johnny, that’s when I died.”

  6. Great point John. I hate rushed/info dump endings. Bring me action and story all the way though. I can even handle a few loose ends, that just means there’s space for the next book to fill in more.

    That said too, if you’re ending a series book with any kind of cliff hanger, make sure the protagonist you leave hanging off said cliff is actually clutching a branch or rope that is secured to something solid that makes the reader want to come back and find out what happens next. Cuz if they leap off that last page grasping at a root that is anchored nowhere it’s gonna be a big ol’ splat for that character and series.

  7. Great reminder. This is a continuing challenge for me, and definitely something that is often only obvious after a draft or two is in place. That decision about what to highlight and what not to highlight–sometimes it’s just not immediately clear. Now I must go back to the story I just drafted and see if I’m guilty this time!

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