By Michael A. Black
A lot of people ask that question. I remember back in my first creative writing class the instructor answered that query with, “You just write ‘The End.’” Appropriate advice, for sure, but it’s a bit more involved than that. Mickey Spillane said, “Your first line sells your book. Your last line sells your next one.” Spillane, who was one of the most successful writers of the Twentieth Century, had a good point. Making sure you have a satisfying ending is as crucial as grabbing the reader with your first line. I’m an advocate of outlining and adhering to the three-act structure, that is, the beginning, the middle, and the end. Doing a good, solid outline is like writing a first draft of your novel. Once you have the plot worked out, and know where you’re going, the writing flows a lot easier.
So that’s how I do it. Once I have an outline of the story or novel completed, it gives me an idea of the pacing as well. I can see any slow points, and allows the proper ending to grow out of the story. Many times, I’ve thrown a book across the room because of an unsatisfying ending. I’ve also vowed never to read that author’s work again.
This is not to say that an outline, or an ending cannot be changed. You may get to a certain point in the story while following your outline, and suddenly realize you took a wrong turn somewhere. It’s simply a manner of making a few adjustments. With an outline, it’s easy to see where you might need to go back and add or alter some places to accommodate the new ending. It helps avoid writing yourself into a corner, and not knowing how to finish it. Another bit of advice from good old Mickey. When asked once in an interview to describe his talent for writing, he replied that he had no talent. “Talent’s something you can lose,” he purportedly said. “What I have is mechanical aptitude.” He went on to describe his writing process: he would write the ending first, and then go back to the beginning. He knew where he wanted to end up, and followed the trail.
Sometimes an editor or an agent may ask you to change an ending. I always listen and evaluate this critical advice. Any wise writer should. Keep in mind that you’re essentially trying to communicate a certain message or theme, as well as to entertain the reader. If you get suggestions that your ending does not convey this message in an effective matter, you would do well to evaluate them. My friend and mentor, writer Wayne Dundee, once told me to consider editorial advice carefully, but to never let that advice sway you from what your gut is telling you. Evaluate it, consider it, perhaps even write an alternate ending… Then see if it fits with your original vision.
How did the Bard put it? To thine own self, be true.
Michael Black is the author of 28 books and over 100 short stories and articles. He has a BA in English from Northern Illinois University and a MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago. A decorated police officer in the south suburbs of Chicago, he worked for over thirty years in various capacities including patrol supervisor, SWAT team leader, investigations and tactical operations. In 2010 he was awarded the Cook County Medal of Merit by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. His Ron Shade series featuring the Chicago-based kickboxing private eye, has won several awards, as has his police procedural series featuring Frank Leal and Olivia Hart. He has written two novels with television star Richard Belzer and is writing The Executioner series under the name Don Pendleton. His current books are Fatal Prescription and Blood Trails. His novel Missile Intercept is a finalist for the Best Original Novel Scribe award this year. His hobbies include martial arts, running and weight lifting. E-mail: DocAtlas108@aol.com. Website: www.MichaelABlack.com.