Saturday, 29 September 2012

How to end a book

Ending a book is as important and as difficult as beginning it. I have spent the past month trying to get the last chapter of Eden’s Revenge right. But what does ‘right’ mean? For me it means several things:
  • It must conclude the story
  • It must tie up loose ends
  • It must be satisfying
  • At least some characters must have changed
  • There should be some form of ‘resonance’ with the rest of the book
  • If it is part of a series, it must make the reader want to read more
There are also some things the last chapter must avoid:
  • It shouldn’t be longer than it needs to be
  • It shouldn’t be rushed
  • There should be no tricks, no ‘deus ex machina
  • Characters should not change in ways that don't make sense given what has happened to them and their choices
  • It shouldn’t have a different tone to the rest of the book
  • It shouldn’t get sentimental or maudlin
  • It shouldn’t end in the middle of a scene
In a thriller or traditional conflict-based story, the action climaxes and concludes in the penultimate chapter: there is a physical or metaphorical battle, and the protagonist must overcome their enemy and/or their own inner fears. This was pushed to its extreme in the final Harry Potter book/film, where Harry realises that he must die to kill Voldemort. After Harry has defeated his enemy, the final scene (more of an epilogue) is brilliantly concise. We see Harry and his friends grown up and married with kids, Harry’s son about to go off to Hogwarts for the first time. The key resonance in this piece is the son’s name, and what Harry says about it. The son’s forenames are Albus, after Harry’s mentor and hero Professor Dumbledore, and Severus, after Professor Snape who until the very end had appeared to be Harry’s enemy throughout all seven books. Harry says they were the two bravest men he ever knew. Nice ending, Ms. Rowling!

It is not always done so well. Often books finish in a rushed fashion, particularly in contemporary science fiction, as if the writer is happiest when steeped in conflict and space battles, and leaves the reader hanging emotionally at the final page, unsure how to ‘put the story to bed’ in a satisfactory way. In films this can result in crude final scenes (consider the ending of the original third Star Wars film) where everyone is standing around smiling and looking happy. Yuk, doesn’t work. No wonder most people’s favoured choice of best Star Wars film is The Empire Strikes Back, which ends on a pure note of Luke Skywalker’s sadder-but-wiser resolution toward future conflict with his father, Darth Vader.

Sometimes the writer achieves ‘perfect pitch’ at the end, my favourite Iain Banks ending being Player of Games, where the last two lines caused a physical tremor of emotion down my spine, and I closed the book for a moment, then opened it at the first page, immediately wanting to read it again. Masterful. Other good endings include for example Larry Niven’s masterpiece Ringworld, and Greg Bear’s Eon, and more recently Alistair Reynolds’ House of Suns.

Eden’s Revenge was originally meant to be the end of a trilogy, after The Eden Paradox and Eden’s Trial. In the first book humanity finds out it is not alone, and just how hostile it is ‘out there’. In the second book humanity ventures out into the galaxy, where there is an inkling of a Galactic War that will eventually impinge on mankind. In Eden’s Revenge, set eighteen years after the first two books, the War is in full flood. But about three quarters of the way through writing it, I had a small epiphany about what the War could really be about, and it meant that I had to write a fourth book, which will be called Return to Eden. This made writing the end of Eden’s Revenge tricky, because I wanted it to be satisfying but also to act as a lead in to the finale. I don’t want to write ‘soaps’ where the same characters go from one book to the next doing similar things in different settings – the Eden Paradox series is a single story in four parts, each one entertaining a wider Galactic scope, exploring how humanity might develop and evolve.

Mark Twain famously referred to final chapters as the marryin’ and the buryin’, meaning that there was a sort of ‘accounting’ of what happened to all the characters, those no longer around and those whose lives would continue afterwards. Since Eden’s Revenge culminates in a battle that rages across six chapters, and there are casualties on both sides including major players, my final chapter does actually start with the protagonists standing over graves, because that is what they would do in ‘reality.’ But this scene is short, and thanks to my writers’ group I’ve avoided it being sentimental or maudlin. Staying instead with the tone of the rest of the book, there is drama even in the last chapter. And there are revelations which hopefully answer some questions that have been around since the first book (e.g. what is the significance of the ankh symbol?) and the second book (e.g. what is the role of the spiders? What does Qorall really want?). But the revelations are ‘big’, triggering a change in strategy by the remaining protagonists, and I hope the readers will agree that the plot necessarily spills over to a fourth book where everything will conclude.

On a more personal note, the person who Eden’s Revenge will be dedicated to had an ‘issue’ with the end of book two, Eden’s Trial. She read the last ‘official’ chapter, which was very much a marryin’ and buryin’ chapter, and was fine with that, but when she was reading (on her Ipod) the final, short epilogue, which is really a hook into the next book, she kept trying to turn the last page to see what happened next. Of course, there was no next page. She thought her Ipod was broken and so switched it off and on again. Now, normally, as a reader, if you have a question about a book, you can’t phone the author and ask him or her about it. But you can if it’s your brother! So, I promised to do something different this time, and so there is a very short Epilogue in Eden’s Revenge, where I have tried to emulate the feeling I had when finishing Iain Banks’ Player of Games, and also Alistair Reynolds’ House of Suns. I doubt I have succeeded as well as these two geniuses, but hope at least not to get an ear-bashing when my sister reads the final page.        

Eden’s Revenge in my mind has a similar feel to it as Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back, or Tolkein’s The Two Towers from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The tone is serious, sometimes heavy, there are tough, gritty battles whether in space or in face-to-face mortal combat, testing the characters to the limit, the high stakes being both personal and epic.

One of my readers asked me a simple question a few months ago – will the series have a happy ending? It was such an obvious question it floored me. But I answered that it will have a positive ending. The title of the last book, Return to Eden, is ambiguous (in the series, Eden is not what it seems), but implies a return to something better. The tone of Eden’s Revenge is ‘character under pressure’, of strife in a time of War. The tone of the last book, by the end, will be of redemption. But along the way expect cool ships, character conflict, and plenty of action, including the Level Nineteen Kalarash doing battle with Qorall and his legions. And there will also be, of course, the final showdown between the Alicians and humanity, and a revelation to close the series. As in my favourite line from the entire J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, ‘I open at the end.’

Now I just have to write it…

The Eden Paradox series:

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ampichellis, Omnilit and Waterstones

Eden’s Trial is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon

Eden’s Revenge will be available early 2013

Return to Eden will be available early 2014.  

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