Hello readers, and welcome back to another installment of Being a Better Writer! A little late today, as my morning ended up running a little long. But still here on Monday, so that’s what counts.
Not much in the way of news to talk about today that won’t be showing up in the Bi-weekly Update post later, so I’ll just settle for a singular note that there were some great reviews that rolled in this last week! Colony and Jungle each picked up a nice array of Five-Star reviews, and Axtara – Banking and Finance got some Five-Star love as well! If there’s anyone that doesn’t love that dragon yet, they haven’t shown themselves!
But we’re not here to talk about the news. We’re here to talk about writing! And today’s topic is one that may be a bit familiar to long-time readers of the site. We’ve discussed it before in a few ways, but it’s because it’s a topic that keeps coming back around, and never hurts for new explanation. Before, I’ve called it a keystone to making a story work—an assertion that isn’t wrong—but today, I think I’ll refer to it in a different fashion: sticking the landing.
Because no matter how the rest of the sky dive goes, if you don’t stick the landing … Well, let’s just say you’re going to leave an impression and let your imagination do the rest of the work as to what kind of impression that is.
Let’s talk sticking that landing and getting the last third of your novel right.
Actually, in classic fashion, now that you’ve passed the jump, let’s step back a bit and talk about what it means to “stick the landing.” At least, in the comparison we’re going to be talking about today. At which point, let’s talk about national parachuting competitions.
Wait, what? No, you read correctly. National parachuting competitions. People will make a sport out of anything. And one of those cool things we’ve made a sport out of, with rules, requirements, and scales for judging a contestant’s skill, is parachuting. The act of diving out of a plane at various altitudes (which, according to the rules I’m looking at, varies based on weather) and making a successful parachuting descent.
Now, most of you are probably thinking that to “win” in this competition, all you have to do is make it to the ground without becoming a pancake. And sure, some people who jump out of planes no doubt have that goal in mind. But there’s more to it than simply successfully jumping and deploying a parachute. In fact, have a look at these official scoring notes for judging a parachute jump (from the skydivers competition manual):
- Maximum score is 45 meters.
- The individuals with the lowest total accumulated scores will be the winners.
- Competitors will be judged on:
- Accuracy: The distance between their first point of contact and the target center, from dead center to 15 meters maximum.
- Stand-up landing (failure to land on one’s feet will impose a 15-meter penalty)
- Landing control
So see, to win in a parachuting competition, you don’t just jump out of a plane and successfully deploy a parachute. You have to apply skill at controlling said parachute and bring it to a proper ending point with a degree of accuracy. You also have to land on two feet without stumbling to one’s knees or rolling—or in other words, your contact with the ground has to be skilled and under control as well. As does your approach to the landing zone (which, if you’ve never seen a video of a parachute landing going wrong, can lead to broken legs, and many a Youtube video of harrowing landings exists).
Writing (and now we jump to the meat here) is the same. You have to stick the landing.
I’ve read a lot of fiction over the years. And I do mean a lot. From fanfiction to trad-pub to indie. And in that broad swath of fiction, there is a lot of range of skill, editing, and talent (and no, I’m not assigning those one-to-one, and they wouldn’t likely go where most would think anyway).
But there’s something that I’ve noticed in a wide array of reading material, from amateur fanfic to yes, traditionally published works: Some authors approach their story with the grace of the skydiver who doesn’t have a parachute. They leap out of the plane, story whizzing along, and as long as the ending comes, it doesn’t really matter. These stories roll along, sometimes at breakneck pace, sometimes plodding, until the ending arrives with all the suddenness of the ground arriving at high velocity, pancaking the reader’s expectations in the process. You reach the end of a chapter, turn the page and … That’s it. No resolution, no climax. Just … an end. A stop.
I believe this is because a lot of authors don’t think about the ending when they’re writing their story. They see it like a sky-dive, that the joy is in the fall, not in the arrival at the end of the ride. And so they don’t plan for that ending at all. That’s not the point in their mind. The point is everything that came before it. If it stops out of nowhere … eh. Who cares?
Some writers, meanwhile, are a bit more knowledgeable of the impact of that sudden stop, but still think more of the journey before it as the important part. They’ll open a parachute, but they’re not so much concerned with hitting a specific target or landing properly as they are having and ending that doesn’t hit the reader like, well, the broad side of a planet. The landing might not be pretty, but it is a landing.
But … is that really what any of us want from a story, be it one we’re reading or one we’re writing? I’d suggest that no, it isn’t. The good stories, the very best, are ones where the ending is, well, prepared for in the same way that a professional parachute jumper might prepare their landing. Where the goal isn’t just to deliver the fun of the fall, but also to resolve that fall with skill and precision at a specific point or in a specific way.
So let’s take a look once again at those parachuting rules and think about what they can teach us about giving our stories a good ending to stick.
Maximum scare is 45 meters
Don’t make your ending too broad. While there’s a definite point of having an ending that’s too little, there’s also an issue to be had with stories that set to broad of an ending as their goal, to the point where the ending ends up becoming almost its own little self-contained story or covering too much. And ending shouldn’t be “the ground” but rather a specific location on the “ground” for you to guide the story toward. This in turn resonates with the next rule—
The individuals with the lowest total accumulated scores will be the winners.
—which while at first seems like it might not apply too well, but then, if one thinks about it, does. The best contestants in a parachute contest are decided by the lowest accumulated score. In a similar manner, the best endings in a lot of books are going to be remembered by the readers for how closely to the core of the story they stuck. The ones that range away, or tell their own stories, or even miss the “ending zone” (more on that in a bit) entirely? They’re the ones we forget. But the closer a story comes to making its ending “on target” the more memorable to our readers that story will be.
Competitors will be judged on Accuracy: The distance between their first point of contact and target center
Just a second ago I said there’d be more on that ending zone, and well, this is it. What are we referring to when we say that a story will be judged on its accuracy from first point of contact to the center. Well, think of it like this: Have you ever read a book where the ending had little to nothing to do with the rest of the story, or the characters built up in the first few chapters?
That’s a story where the “landing” is too far from the distance of the “point of first contact,” or the beginning. This is often referred to as ‘bookending,’ where a story will end with similar scenes, or building on similar themes, as it set up in the opening. For example (because I have a soft spot for this particular bookend), the first Halo title opens with the protagonist being woken from cryo-sleep, while the last (or at least until money decided the series would keep going) ended with the same in reverse, the protagonist entering cryosleep with the words “Wake me, when you need me.”
It’s a great bookend because it a way it echoes that initial meeting most experiencing the story participated in. Now, this isn’t the only way you can “bookend” an ending and keep those points of contact close. You can have a character be reminded at the beginning of a moral, for example, and then have the ending be a test of that moral in some way. You can have an ending harken back to an opening by having a final battle take place right back where a story started, or with a character returning home.
Point being that in some way, a good ending will reflect how a story began, be it in tone, setup, situation, location, theme, emotion … or any number of other alternate elements. Narration dialogue in and out is a common for this one in film, along with establishing shots similar to what were given in the opening but showing the changes wrought by the events of the story.
There are a lot of ways to do this, but the core of it is that in some way your ending should be reflective of the rest of the story. It shouldn’t be a million miles from where you started, and encompass themes and elements that weren’t in the rest of the story, but instead reflect those that are in the story, bringing a clear resolution to the themes and ideas your story has explored.
Competitors will be judged on completing a stand-up landing
Now, in addition to having that “location” you’ve aimed your story at, you also want the ending itself to be smooth and guided when you hit there. I have read stories with endings where suddenly, out of nowhere, the text itself seems to realize “Oh yeah, and there’s an ending coming so BAM! Ending time!” And then you get a chapter or two ending events and tying things up, but it feels like …
Well, it feels like stumbling to the ground and rolling. The kind of thing you don’t want to do with a good parachute landing. A story’s shift to its ending should feel firm and conclusive, in a way that the reader knows what’s coming, and should be “solid” for the reader, but also not stumble.
How can we do this? Well, a lot of it comes down to that final rule …
Competitors will be judged on landing control
Okay, so what is landing control? Landing control is, unless I am mistaken, everything that leads into the act of landing itself. Watching for crosswinds that can throw the story off course. Making sure that everything is under control, that the participant is heading in the right direction. That their speed is such that they won’t overshoot their target. How they deal with winds that arise near the ground or at the last moment.
In general, how smoothly the story is guided toward its conclusion. Is the pacing kept proper for the reader? Are the stakes properly being raised? Are the characters objectives and goals being properly addressed?
In other words, is the story preparing for that landing? Up above I talked about stories that just hit the ground with an abrupt, unplanned end, and directly before this rule we talked about stories that “landed” properly at that ending on their feet, rather than suddenly hitting the reader with “Oh, and these next few chapters are ending now.”
A good story won’t do that, even if they plan things like surprises to catch the reader off-guard (like a last minute spin in the wind before landing). It’ll still be something that’s planned, and the form and format of the story as a whole will react accordingly. While the “free-fall” of the story is fun, the entire time the writer will be planning for the moment to “open the parachute” and start guiding things towards the climax and conclusion. Checking for the proper altitude and the right conditions so that the actual landing fits the kind of ride they’re going for.
So in the end, what does this really boil down to? Planning for your ending. All stories end, even if the characters go on. Acknowledge that, as a writer, and plan ahead for it. Don’t let the ground arrive with a suddenness that could be fatal to the reader’s interest. Deploy a chute, guide them into an ending that resonates, that is properly paced, planned for, and connected to the rest of the story’s elements. Watch for the proper time to “pull the chute” and start windings things toward the conclusion. Plan and write so that the ending doesn’t “trip up” the reader or the story.
And make it an ending that leaves readers feeling fulfilled. It’ll take practice, sure, but it always does.
Good luck. Now get writing.
Don’t forget! Being a Better Writer, as well as Unusual Things, exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters:
Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, Thomas, and 22ndTemplar!
Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and the Being a Better Writer articles coming!
If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!
Thoughts? Comments? Post them below!