How do you know where to end your novel?

Dead End road sign
How do you know if it’s the right ending?

I’m not naturally a plotter, nor am I able to just sit down and magically create. I’m somewhere in between. So I always start off with a plan. It’s usually a proper story, you know, with a beginning a middle and an end and turning points and all that. I know the big stuff that happens. The rest… well, I have to write to find out the rest. Mostly, I write the thing and realise that the story the characters want to tell doesn’t actually fit very well with the plan.

This happens a lot with endings. I’m bad at plotting endings. I know this. I’d love to be able to plan lovely resonant endings that pull together the whole book (like the endings to Nicholas Sparks’ books!), but I can’t. I always plot utilitarian endings that tie things up logically.  I usually reach these endings way before I hit my word target. Then I read them back… and realise that the place where I thought was the ending was going to be isn’t actually the ending at all. The romance I thought was the main story was just the vehicle for the story I was actually telling.

Doctor January originally ended when Hibs chased after Beth and kissed her. He didn’t bump his head on her cycle helmet and she didn’t express her doubts. I read it back and thought ‘huh.This doesn’t work.’ But why not? It’s a romance. The whole point is for the two of them to get together, right?… wrong. I read the whole thing back and realised that the book was actually about Beth standing up to the men who had been bullying her. If she really were to finally realise that the way Gordon and Roger treated her was wrong, then in didn’t make sense for her to just move on and rely on another man to make her feel better. It wasn’t the end at all.

In order for Beth’s story to reach a proper conclusion, she needed more time. She tries to turn Hibs down and Hibs, the man who always gets his women on his terms, has to enter a relationship where the balance of power lies with Beth. This is part of her becoming the new Beth. It ended up being another 20K words before I got to the ‘proper’ ending where both Beth and Hibs had changed.

My next book, Please Release Me, was originally going to end when Peter sees Sally at the Casino. It was a shortish book. When I re-read the first draft I realised that the story wasn’t just about Peter falling out of love with the woman he married (and in love with someone else), but it was also about the friendship between the two women. The real ending to the story was when Grace and Sally made peace with each other. Grace had to move on from being a carer and regain her love for life. Sally had to let go of her need to get even with the world. Again, the ending was several thousand words beyond where I’d planned it to be.

The reason I’m telling you all this is that I’m looking at the ending of my WIP and I’ve started to realise it’s not right. I don’t know what the story is really about yet. Once I figure that out, I’ll be able to work out what the real ending is. Hopefully, it’ll be another 25K along or this book will end up being a very short novel indeed.

How about you? Do you always get the ending right first time? Have you read books where the ending felt ‘wrong’?

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