How Do You Know When to Quit?

Most authors agree, it’s sometimes hard to find the beginning of the novel. Many, many writers have the experience of turning a first draft over to the editor, and then hearing that the first scenes… even the first two or three chapters… gotta go, because the story starts right HERE. (Image of smudgy editor’s thumbprint on the manuscript.)

But sometimes it can be just as hard to find the ending. Some novels are so great, you have to end them several times, like with certain epic fantasy novels (Tolkien cough cough). And some novelists are so great, they don’t always have an ending beyond ‘and then the problem went away’ (Stephen King cough cough). And of course, sometimes you wonder if they’re ever going to end at all if the author keeps adding new characters and branching off the fractal storylines faster than he can kill them off (I don’t even have to cough here).

So how do you know when to quit?

One answer is to return to the beginning. The beginning and the end, in the most satisfying novel structures, have a resonance. They don’t have to mirror one another, so that the characters return to the exact same status quo. And there doesn’t have to be a frame, so that the same image that opened the novel is repeated at the end with a new meaning. Those are good devices, but in most satisfying novel structures, the end is simply inherent in the beginning.

What moved and shook your characters out of their status quo in the first place? If you’ve written a strong plot, it wasn’t just something that happened to them. It was something they are, something they believed in, whether true or not, something about them that made them worth writing a story about. Some deep, unshakeable part of their nature.

The end of the novel happens when that is resolved: when the character finds out what it means to them, finds out more surely who they really are. If the novel’s bones are strong, then the outside world will reflect and make possible the journey to that point, and the outer world’s conflict will resolve in a resonant way with the inner world’s conflict. The resolution of both will be because of, and part of, one another.

Imagine an argument that resolves when both participants realize that in fact, they agree, though they were approaching the truth from wildly differing directions. They were talking past and over one another, but they have just spoken the same word and are now staring at one another, realizing. That’s what the ending of the novel can feel like.

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