Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Real Beginning

[This blog post originally appeared in the RMFW Monthly Newsletter in the March, 2015 issue]

“Make your first pages shine.” Everywhere I look, it seems that writers, agents, and editors are talking about how crucial your first few pages are. “Without a solid hook,” they say, “you’ll never keep a reader’s attention.” A lot of emphasis is placed on those opening pages, and with good reason. They hook the reader, draw them in. Get them to commit to your story. But once you convince them to invest their time (and money), they want satisfaction. Those first pages make a promise, and a believable ending that fulfills that promise is crucial to getting readers to go out and buy the next book.

I cannot emphasize this enough, so let me repeat it: without a good—no, make that great—conclusion, you’ll never get readers to stick around. Yes, the good opener gets the reader to invest in your book. But if you want them to buy the next one, and the one after that, you need to finish the story well!

Without the drive to read more of your writing, they’re unlikely to tell their friends about you. And word-of-mouth is still one of the best ways to expand your audience. If I read your book, and I like it, I’ll tell my friends. For every friend I tell, you might gain a new reader.

The problem is that readers who feel ripped-off by a poor ending will definitely tell their friends. And while good reviews spread one-by-one, bad reviews travel by the dozens. If a reader feels like they wasted their time on an unsatisfying book, their angry opinions can be as devastating to your career as a wildfire to the face of a mountain.

As an example, I read a duology a few years ago that seriously hooked me in. Great writing, engaging premise, solid prologue and first chapter (both of which I read in the store). My wife bought the books for me for my birthday because I was so excited about them.

By chapter two, the writing got tedious. Universal rule-changes appeared at random so the author could advance the plot without sticking to their formula. Info-dumps and setting description littered each chapter, but without any character engagement to make it meaningful to the reader. And the relationships were all cookie-cutter clichés, put together with throwaway lines like, “At that moment, they knew they would be friends for life.”

I stuck with it, though, because the hook was so good. I genuinely thought it would wrap up in a way that would make me feel rewarded for following through.

Nope. Seven hundred pages later, I reached a conclusion so far out of left field that I won’t read another one of that author’s books. Ever. Not a single one. I gave that person two chances (because it was a duology), and they failed to fulfill in either book.

So what is a solid conclusion? As I’ve said before, it’s an ending that fulfills the promise of the book. With the exception of certain book series (not all, mind you) a book needs to wrap up the obvious loose ends. Sure, a few books can get away with leaving a question or two unanswered, but they’re the exception. As a general rule, every story question and promise set up in the narrative must be answered and fulfilled. It doesn’t have to happen specifically the way the reader expects. In fact, that can be almost as disappointing as failing to follow through.

Now think of your favorite book. How did it end? How did it begin? Follow the plot in your mind, all the way through. Does the ending have anything to do with why you love that book? Or did you hate the ending? If it had ended differently, would that ruin the story for you?

If you want readers to stick with you and pick up more of your books, you can’t forget to make your ending fantastic. After all, if it’s your first novel, or the first one a reader picked up, it’s not really the end, is it? If it’s done masterfully, that’s just the first beginning.

Since this week's podcast episode is all about endings, Giles decided to post this. It summarizes his thoughts perfectly.

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