Answering a question about endings

Posted in writing.

Aaron asked:
This may sound like an odd ques­tion, but:  Do you know the endings of your stories?

I.e. do you know what the final scene will be, a la Robert Jordan? Or, does it continue to evolve in your mind?

Apolo­gies in advance, because this is long, and for people who have no interest in the process of writing, it’s prob­ably also going to be TDL, and you may want to skip it.  I’m not sure how to do what amounts to an LJ cut in word­press, or I’d have put most of the answer behind one.

I’m moving para­graphs of this ques­tion around, because the answer is compli­cated. Before I start to answer, though, I need to make one thing absolutely clear: What I’m writing about is entirely my own process; it’s the way I write books. No two novel­ists I’ve ever talked to – and I’m a bit of a process geek – work the same way. So this isn’t meant to be prescrip­tive; it’s entirely subjec­tive.

If you’re reading this, and you write, and you write in an entirely different way, that shouldn’t be a surprise; the trick of learning to write a novel is really only learning how you can start and finish your stories. It has to work for you. Trial and error over the early years has brought me to my current process solely because it’s the one that works for me. There’s no supe­ri­ority of approach implied because in the end, most readers don’t care how you arrive at the finished book; the only thing they see is the book itself.

Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, back to Aaron’s ques­tion. The answer is: Yes and no.

In the West novels, I’ve known since Hunter’s Death where the overall story is going. I know the end arcs for char­ac­ters that haven’t been intro­duced yet. I know the end of Kallan­dras’ arc, and Evayne’s, for instance; I know the end of Auralis’ and I know the end of Kiriel’s — both char­ac­ters who made no appear­ance in Hunter’s Death. I know the shape of the overall events that will cause those arcs to end. That would be the Yes.


In any of these arcs, in any of these plans, there’s an element of the organic; the way the story itself unfolds isn’t scripted or orches­trated. Some of the scenes I’ve envi­sioned do occur; some don’t. Char­ac­ters that I love and know, when thrown together by events, don’t interact the way I assumed — before I put words to screen — they would. Some of those inter­ac­tions cause changes in the char­ac­ters them­selves, and some of the outcomes that I’d been writing toward shift because of those changes. They have to because that’s the way I write: the scenes are entirely rooted in the char­ac­ters who are part of them.

The farther away a char­acter — any char­acter, even Allasakar — is from text, the more fixed they are, and the more they conform to what I “know” before I start writing actual book words. But…writing opens windows into the possible. An outline is a skeleton, but it’s not actu­ally alive, and in any case, I loathe writing outlines with unbri­dled passion.

At any minute that a char­acter is on screen, there’s a range of things that they can do. An open range. I mean, they could sprout wings and fly off, although that would prob­ably damage the book & the world­building a fair amount. But the sense of possi­bility is what makes the book breathe, to me; it’s what gives it a sense of life, without which I would find it impos­sible to finish anything; possi­bility — small or large — holds promise and poten­tial; I need some ability to surprise myself. I have a strong idea of what a char­acter will or won’t do, but even then, I’m thinking ratio­nally, and not emotion­ally until I start to write. Emotion is what opens up when I start to put words on page.

What my char­ac­ters do on the page is the truest expres­sion of who they are as people. I hesi­tated to write that because it sounds…vaguely preten­tious, and that’s not in any way my intent. It is, however, my expe­ri­ence of the book as I write it. There­fore, if char­ac­ters deviate from what I thought they would or should do, I accept that my sense of who they are was not in synch with my sense of what they would do; I’m sure you’ve all been surprised in posi­tive and nega­tive ways by things people you know well have done. This is like that.

I then have the choice of forcing the scene into what made sense before I started writing the book, or allow the char­acter choices to have unfore­seen conse­quences. I go with the conse­quences. What this means is that I cannot say, for certain, what will happen. I know what I’m aiming for, because there’s a certain reso­nance of tone and emotion that runs throughout a building arc, and I think it’s neces­sary for me to have those goals, that end-in-sight.

But if I get to that end and it isn’t exactly the one I envi­sioned, it’s nonethe­less the one for the book I’ve written, and that’s where it goes. If, in the small list of endings I’ve listed above as things I “know”, things change — then they change. It’s not fixed. I can tell you right now what I’m certain will happen because I do feel certain that’s where it’s all going. But I can also tell you that it’s likely that things will change, regard­less — in event, in conse­quence — by the time I get there because I honestly don’t know for certain how the events will change the char­ac­ters them­selves between here (unwritten) and there.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the endings are random, and this is where it gets trickier, expla­na­tion-wise. The endings that I aim for are the ends of emotional char­acter arcs; some are small arcs within larger arcs. They have a feel and tone for me that’s like the sound of a perfect bell; the waves resonate, grow louder, and then finally fade. In char­acter terms, this means that I know how the ending feels to the char­ac­ters, and to me.

But the events which comprise the ending can and do change in the telling because I think, on some subcon­scious level, I’m still working toward that tone and feel, no matter what actu­ally happens on the page. So…I need the endings in mind when I start at the begin­ning, but the ending events them­selves are not what actu­ally drives me: it’s the way the char­ac­ters feel, think, and ulti­mately grow.

Does that make sense?

Iron­i­cally this ques­tion came up because I was thinking of your recent post w/re to the Dragon Emperor. The same kind of ques­tion applies. Do you really have a firm picture in your mind of Kaylin’s meeting with the Dragon Emperor? Or, is this some­thing that will “happen” as you write it?

The Kaylin stories are struc­turally very different from the West novels. The West novels, start to finish, trace a single defining series of entwined arcs in my mind, and events cascade — struc­turally — in a sequence.  In the West novels, I know the shape of the overall plot from here to the final book (but have no idea how many books that will be).  I know the events that are ulti­mately neces­sary, and I know where they start, and in theory, where they finish — but the balance of open possi­bility and char­acter devi­a­tion is always running neck-and-neck with the world­building knowl­edge and the back­ground infor­ma­tion.

The Kaylin stories are much less a single cohe­sive vision; each book is meant to stand more or less alone, although there is a conti­nuity of char­acter and growth between the novels. The Cast books are meant to be more like a tele­vi­sion show in terms of beginning/middle/end; there’s an emotional payoff to watching all of them in sequence, but I’m trying not to make that watching neces­sary to an under­standing of where the char­ac­ters are.

So with the Kaylin books, I have the end of each indi­vidual book in mind. With the West novels, the edits-for-sense-of-indi­vidual-book don’t work.

For instance: in Broken crown there are two prologues; the first is Askeyia and the second, Ashaf. They are struc­turally impor­tant because Askeyia is Kiriel’s mother — she is the only person who could actu­ally bring Kiriel to term and have Kiriel survive the birth, because her ability to self-heal, and to heal, are absolutely neces­sary.

But Ashaf, the mother in spirit, is there in part because I knew when I wrote the very first scene what Kiriel would ask of Valedan at the end. That didn’t change. I didn’t feel I could cut either because I felt both were emotion­ally impor­tant to the overall struc­ture of the story as it unfolded, and I knew that this was the only living glimpse of Ashaf a reader was other­wise likely to see. And Kiriel is crucial both in the Sun Sword and in the End of Days arc; in Sun Sword she reaches the midpoint of her story. So every­thing about Ashaf, the South, and the Voyani is of rele­vance to the whole.

There are also scenes of set-up in Hunter’s Death which have no rele­vance to Sun Sword at all — but are very rele­vant to End of Days. They’re not large scenes, and people will prob­ably miss them — but they’re there because I knew where they would even­tu­ally go. How they arrive there is less clear. I don’t think it all out and I don’t plan and outline it, because if it’s that clear to me, the book becomes static, again for me; it’s almost a delib­erate and neces­sary obtuse­ness on my part, and it’s entirely my process. I think about things constantly, and I have to know at least one book in advance what I’m going to be working on next, because my subcon­scious chews over what’s coming while I work on what’s here. I think of it metaphor­i­cally as planting a seed; it needs time to take root and grow.

So the possible impli­ca­tion that the story itself as written is somehow happy acci­dent isn’t accu­rate. I need to know enough, and have subsumed enough, before I can actu­ally write; if I have to start some­thing Right Now that I’ve had no time to think through, it’s messy.

I don’t have a firm picture in mind of Kaylin’s meeting with the Dragon Emperor, because it’s not the end of a char­acter arc (or book); it’s an event, and it’s what I think of as a floating event. Until she does meet with him, there are story possi­bil­i­ties that can’t open up — but there are so many story possi­bil­i­ties in Kaylin’s life that it’s not strictly neces­sary that it happen imme­di­ately.

I know certain things about the meeting, and one of them is that Kaylin’s ability to present infor­ma­tion in the very narrow confines of accept­able-to-the-Emperor is entirely lacking at the moment. I know some of the things that she’ll be required to speak about, because she’ll have knowl­edge that no one else does, in theory. But it is, in fact, one of the things that will happen as I write it.

Which sort of answers the ques­tion in a very long-winded way, but I wasn’t sure the shorter answers would actu­ally explain enough.

10 Responses to Answering a question about endings

  1. Aaron says:

    To be honest, I’m not quite sure if I more enjoy your writing…or enjoy you writing about your writing. :)

    Thank you for responding.

  2. Eva says:

    Wow, thanks! I have been inter­ested, I hope its not too personal to ask, do you see the arcs as images, like dreams, or do the words flow through your mind, like conver­sa­tions?

  3. starlady38 says:

    I love reading about your writing process; it’s not mine, but it sounds really cool. And the end result is also really cool. *g*

    Speaking of which, a friend of mine and I were discussing how best to refer to your West books. The Sagara novels have the conve­nient series name “The Chron­i­cles of Elantra” (and the Sagara-West books are the Books of the Sundered), but I’ve never seen any single over­ar­ching name for the West books. If I can ask, is there one that you use, or is “the West novels” as close as it comes?

  4. Lorrie says:

    Joy, joy, joy! After having no internet access for an excru­ci­at­ingly long time, I finally logged on today, found your article & discov­ered what I’ve been hoping for- confir­ma­tion that you will continue the Sun Sword story!! I’ve been searching for proof of that ever since I finished The Sun Sword- I knew you couldn’t leave us hanging! Well, actu­ally you could, but that seems rather sadistic of you.…. any idea when you’ll get to write the End of Days books?

  5. Jen says:

    I have a ques­tion about the Elantra books.

    Will any of them be published as Mass-Market paper­backs in the future? I’ve been waiting for Cast in Fury since Oct 2009 (since usually between first publishing and the mass-market trade is 1 year). My mild OCD won’t allow me to have books from the same series be different sizes on the book­shelf :(

    I look forward to reading them in the future no matter what, but I was just curious about your plans for publishing.

  6. Katherine says:

    In regards to endings, The Sun Sword series ended but didn’t. There is still so much more that seems to be happening. It reminds me of a battle one but the war is unde­cided. Any possi­bil­i­ties of contin­uing this series in some form or another?

  7. Any possi­bil­i­ties of contin­uing this series in some form or another?

    I am working on the contin­u­a­tion of that now, finally.

    I wrote Hidden City, City of Night and the forth­coming House Name; they’re prequels to the events of The Sun Sword, and they started out as part of the current time-line’s House War. For a variety of reasons, they didn’t stay in the current time-line. They deal almost entirely with Jewel & her den, from its incep­tion to the moment they’re given the House Name.

    The book that I’m writing now, House War: Skir­mish is the first book that takes place pretty much directly after the end of Sun Sword. It is the begin­ning of the actual war for House Terafin, but it takes place against the back­drop of larger events, some of which began at the end of the Sun Sword: the dreaming plague in Aver­laan, for one. The rise of the Shining Court, for two. And … the after­math of the culmi­nating war in Sun Sword, because some things happened there that shat­tered — no wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

  8. Michael says:

    — no wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

    …Grrrrrrrrrr. So, how much were you smirking when you wrote that horribly mean little sentence? :)

  9. Michael, Michael, Michael. Authors don’t smirk :D.

    Actu­ally, more seri­ously, I did stop because I some­times don’t remember what’s already in the text and what isn’t — it blends together, for me; I know what happened, but it’s not entirely clear to the char­ac­ters yet.

    And some people really hate spoilers, so…

  10. Aaron says:

    Everyone else out there is suddenly wondering “shat­tered…” what?!!??! I can only assume is has some­thing to do with Kiriel’s rather mortal deci­sion at the end of Sun Sword (wow, that was 6 years ago!).

    And for the orig­inal post-er that wondered what to call the West books that cover Sacred Hunt/Sun Sword/House War: in the Yahoo discus­sion group, we gener­ally refer to the conglom­erate as the ‘Essalieyan Universe’. It may not be apparent when you first start the books, but in the end, they all revolve around around the focal plots of Aver­alaan.

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