I’m going to do something I’ve never done before—I’m going to give major spoilers about a book here. If that bugs you, don’t read this beyond where I mark the spoilers. But I have to do this, because my point in writing this post is to illustrate why authors need to have good endings to their books.
So much of learning about writing focuses on “the hook.” You have to grab the reader in the first chapter. Oh, no—I mean the first couple of pages. No, wait, it’s the first paragraph. Uh-uh. The first sentence. There are even whole books about writing craft that focus specifically on the first five pages. It’s that important.
You may find a book or two, a blog post here and there, the occasional workshop, on “middles.” The middle of the book does have to keep the reader reading. Sure.
But what about endings?
I, personally, would rather have a book start slow. Give me good writing, yes. Give me a character I can connect with. But I don’t need to be “hooked” by some clever line, or some odd or intense action scene. I want to get to know my characters, and in some sense, I like to have stories sneak up on me. I would prefer a book to start slow, making me take time to warm up to it, and then grip me tighter and tighter throughout. I want the *ending* of a book to leave me begging for more.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld did that. The first several chapters were world building. I was getting to know the character of Tally. It was enough to hold my interest, but I can’t say I was blown away by the first chapters—but I could tell more was coming. I LIKE the anticipation of wondering what is going to be discovered LATER. You see, I have this assumption when I start a book: it’s a book because there is a story to tell. I don’t need that story to slam me like a freight train the moment I open the first page to know it’s there.
More recently, the book Tyger, Tyger by Kersten Hamilton won me over this way. Lots of character building. Yes, there was some conflict—Teagan’s friend Abby had a dream the goblins would be coming. But the story moves at a slow pace in the beginning as we get to know the cast and gain the information necessary to understand the major action to come. And come it did. By the end, I couldn’t get to the library website fast enough to put the next book on hold.
Think about theme park rides. Many of them start off as stories. Splash Mountain tells the tale of Brer Rabbit with animatronics lining a slow moving “river.” The end of the ride is the big splash. But who would want to ride it if it were the other way around? Or…what if the whole ride was thrilling, and then the end was a complete dud?
See? Anticipation is what counts in rides like that. Get the thrill part over with in the beginning and have nothing as good afterward and riders will complain. Or have a thrilling ride end in a dud, and most riders leave the ride with a sour taste despite all the fun they had in the beginning—because they didn’t have that “wow” to look forward to. There was nothing to anticipate.
*Now comes the spoilers, folks.*
I finished reading a book yesterday called Dark Eden, by Patrick Carman. The book starts off with this blurb by the main character, Will Besting, which is actually sort of part of the ending. No, that’s not right—you find out at the end that it’s a thought he had during his experience at Fort Eden.
Because I knew.
That’s what I’ll say when they ask.
I knew, and I was afraid.
It sounds all creepy and suspenseful at first, and then you get to the end and discover it’s really meaningless. Of course he’s afraid. He’s got anthrophobia (fear of people).
Will and six other kids his age are chosen to go to Fort Eden to receive a cure for various phobias. They are taken to a building deep in the woods. Will is too scared to go in, and you find out partway through it’s because he’s so afraid of people. He discovers a bomb shelter in the basement of the bunker next to the main building where he hides.
There are video monitors that show the various rooms inside the main building. How convenient. Will, of course, thinks he’s really lucky. It’s obviously a set-up. But, because we’re dealing with kids who have serious mental issues, it seems acceptable. You know something is coming as he watches each of the other kids get “cured” by being hooked up to this funky helmet with wires that connect to the ceiling and experience their moments of greatest fear. So it’s no surprise when Will is trapped in the bomb shelter and discovers that the headphones he’s wearing to listen in on what he sees on the monitors are actually a modified helmet.
Each kid is, as I said, cured by experiencing their biggest fears. Those fears show up on the monitors as well, as though the images in their heads being displayed. If this was ever explained, it must have been in the last couple of pages which I couldn’t bear to read. At that point I was so mad at the book’s ending I could barely see straight, much less read. So we have psychotherapy, complete with mad scientists. The main doctor, who goes simply by Rainsford. Will’s doc, Dr. Stevens. And the groundskeeper, a codgy old woman named Mrs. Groning.
Will is never “caught,” of course. They know where he is the whole time. Although he does sneak in a few times and speak with a couple of the other kids. All the character interaction and relationship building though is for nothing. It has not a stinking thing to do with the ending.
Each kid also ends up with some side effect from the treatment. Joint pain, vertigo, fatigue, headaches, hearing loss, etc.
OK, following so far? It really does sound like a story with serious potential.
And then the kids all get to leave at the end. No attempt by anyone to keep them there. You’re cured. Sorry about the side effects. Go home to your families and live out your lives. None of them remembers anything about their cure experience, but they are all happy just to be cured.
Will, however, is given something by Mrs. Groning as he leaves. He’d entered Fort Eden with a digital recorder, and she ‘d added some audio files. It was her, telling the story of who Rainsford and Dr. Stevens are, and who she is herself.
Rainsford was her husband, and Dr. Stevens is her daughter. And the children’s “cure” was a side effect of Rainsford stealing their blood. Yep, he’s a vampire, and he hooks himself up to the kids to exchange blood with them, ridding himself of his old, contaminated blood—which is why they all end up with “old people” symptoms (rolls eyes)—and taking in their blood flooded with chemicals produced by intense fear, which is what he feeds on, what makes him turn young again.
ALL of the explanation is given in the last several pages, with Mrs. Groning telling Will via the digital recorder.
Made. Me. Want. To. Scream.
A vampire? Really? Not a HINT of anything supernatural in the whole rest of the book. And if Groning actually cared about the kids, why was she so mean to them? Spitting in their food—which Will saw her do and still ate it. Ew. And why even bother telling Will? I mean, he’s not going to do anything about it. It was just a way for the author to tell the reader what was “really” going on, rather than integrating it into the story and letting the reader discover it.
Actually, there were mini versions of that technique throughout, that bugged me each time, but were mixed in with enough suspense to make me forgive them. But really? Will makes some rather hefty jumps to conclusions, or statements of the obvious and it was obviously the author not wanting to lead the reader. Instead, he’d have something happen, then Will would state specifically what is going on “The headphones were really a helmet!” Duh.
Lazy, lazy author. Ugh.
I’ve read other books that do this. Page-turning plot and a complete dud of an ending. Ted Dekker is a big one. Yes, go ahead, throw the tomatoes. I’ve liked a few of his books, but they mostly make me want to throw them across the room when I get to the end, so I’ve quit reading his stuff. Another book that did this was The Maze Runner by James Dashner. This one, Dark Eden by Patrick Carman, has been the worst by far, though.
I beg of you, dear writers. Think about the endings of your books. A twist is fine! But is it really a twist if you are telling one story and then turn it into something else? To me, this kind of ending is like having the main character wake up and discover everything is a dream.
Endings, even twist ones, need to come organically. You can’t tell one story, and then tack on a big explanation at the end saying that it was all really something else, haha! Yes, maybe a good portion of information can be saved for the last part of the story—we’re all familiar with the villain monologue. But make it integrated, not what is essentially an appendix at the end.
So, sorry if I’ve spoiled a book for you. But it had to be done. This kind of writing atrocity makes my blood boil. I’ve been told a few times that Finding Angel is a little slower in the beginning than some people like. BUT every reader I’ve had so far has agreed that the ending completely sucked them in. I can totally live with that. I’d rather create a story that builds from good to better to best, than a story that starts with a bang and ends with a dud. A hook at the beginning is fine, but if it lets loose during the story, even three pages from the end of the book, the reader isn’t going to stick with that author. But if in the end the hook is still firmly in place…