It’s amazing how some (wonderful!) writers are able to keep the end to a story going. Black moment after black moment, more twists than a maze, they thrust their characters together and yank them apart … it’s riveting!
On the other hand, you get the occasional finale that fizzles rather than sizzles and it spoils what’s been a great read.
I try and write the first kind of ending and avoid the second. I believe the right ending for my book already exists in my imagination. It’s just a case of recognising it.
Words such as resolution and conclusion are associated with endings for good reason. I look back at the story’s beginning. What did I want my hero and heroine to learn/find/resolve/defend and what did they have to overcome to do it? How can I answer questions and tie in threads, giving the reader the feeling that they are leaving by the same door by which they came in?
What I don’t want:
My characters to resolve the conflicts over a cup of tea i.e. make the conflicts that have driven the book suddenly trivial. I guess that in real life we learn to live with things but that’s not gripping.
Someone else to come along and solve everything. I want my central characters to be instrumental in their own ending.
The action to occur off stage and some lesser character come on to explain what happened.
To cheat readers with hasty contrivances, previously undisclosed facts or hitherto secret characters.
Like an airliner, a story needs a lot of space for its final flightpath. I like everything to go wrong, so completely wrong that it seems irretrievable. Then I make my central characters fight to retrieve it. I plumb the depths of their courage and fortitude, winkle out what they’re prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve a goal. That, to me, is the end of the story.
But … maybe an Epilogue?
Some people dislike prologues and epilogues. I don’t have one in every book or feel that if I have one I must have the other but I don’t shy away from them either.
I try and wind up the final chapter in exactly the right place – after the big resolution – but I’m also mindful of the advice of a past editor not to leave readers too soon. An epilogue is a great opportunity to glimpse my characters enjoying their happy ending, satisfying subplots and maybe including the readers in a joke they’ve shared.
I leave open or ambiguous endings to others. I want readers to put my books down reluctantly, smiling or sighing … but satisfied. I want to give everyone time to say goodbye.
I doubt the collective noun for book bloggers is ‘an appreciation of’ but I feel as if it ought to be. How can I fail to be appreciative of a body of people who like books enough to make reviewing them a big part of their lives? In the book blogging community I’ve made friends with people who don’t glaze over no matter how much I talk about books. (Any book, not just mine.) Through following their blogs I’ve found new authors to read.
And oh, to return to blogger-author meet-ups in crowded pubs, usually on a Saturday afternoon, or meeting book bloggers at book shop and library events!
To make up, even if in a small way, I decided to ask some book bloggers to tell me about what they do.
Mark says: As Sue likes to say about it, my blog is fairly eclectic in what it covers and I think it does a good job of encompassing what I find interesting – books, films, behind the scenes stuff and nostalgia. I started the current incarnation on Blogger back in 2009 and am now zipping along to 900 posts on a weekly posting schedule. I enjoy researching the articles for it and it’s always nice when I have occasion to discuss my own writing and it’s been a constant pleasure – especially in the Avon years – to feature Sue on it so consistently. I’m not sure where blogging has led me but I have met some nice people along the way and I enjoy writing the posts, so I’ll take those two as wins.
Anne Williams describes herself as ‘happily retired’ and her blog has a considerable following. She’s a member of Team Sue Moorcroft.
Anne says: I started blogging in 2013 – nearly eight years ago now – but I’d been reviewing books on-line from the time I first had a computer. It just seemed a nice idea to save my reviews in one place – and it rather surprised me when people enjoyed reading them and started to follow me. At first, it was just a spare time hobby – but by 2016 the blog had been viewed 220,000 times.
As I was then retired, I decided to step things up a little. I moved everything to a different platform (and learned a whole new skill set, along with a few new swear words!) and posted more frequently – still reviewing the books I enjoyed, but also chatting with and running features from guest authors.
The blog now has over 10,000 followers, there’s a linked Facebook page – and I also spend a lot of time on Twitter, supporting fellow bloggers and sharing book-related news. For three years in a row I won the Best Pal award at the annual Bloggers’ Bash – and last year I was really delighted to receive the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Media Star of the Year award.
Reading the books and writing the reviews is still what I enjoy the most – and I always love it when someone tells me they’ve bought a book because of my review. Being a blogger gave me a social life I could never have imagined in retirement, and I’ve made so many friends across the blogging and writing community. The blogging itself? It can sometimes become a bit pressurised, but I’m enjoying it every bit as much as when I started – and have no plans to abandon my keyboard for a good while yet…
Mick says: During the first Romantic Novelists’ Association conference I attended – seems so long ago now! – I was so overwhelmed by everything, barely knowing where to look, or who to talk to. During this, I got talking to Laura Parish and when the subject of her blog came up, I asked, quite unprepared, whether she would consider my contributing? Somewhat to my surprise, she agreed.
Initially, and for about the first year and a half, I’d contribute a quartely update on where my writing had got to/what I’d done. This was fun, but at the time, I hadn’t acknowledged my own poor health and gradually, these posts tailed off. I still contributed book reviews, which I love writing, but the posts about my own writing pretty much ceased.
Despite this, Laura and I have remained good friends and she has been supportive of my writing as things gradually came back together. To this day, she has poked and prodded me, as I’ve tried to do for her, though my blog posts for her, blog, does seem to have fallen by the wayside. I believe she understands my not continuing with this, though it also helped me start taking my writing much more seriously.
Karen Byromhas quite a history with stories – including publishing mine in My Weekly.
Karen says: I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and had the ideal job, working as a fiction editor on one of the UK’s oldest women’s magazines, My Weekly. When I retired last year, I knew I still wanted to be involved in the world of books – I’d made so many friends among the writers, publishers and publicists, but, most importantly, I’d enjoyed sharing my news and views on my favourite books with readers, and wanted to continue that. Running my bookblog at www.karensbookbag.co.uk makes me feel I have my own personal bookclub. Though I only review books I enjoy, my reading tastes are eclectic so you’ll find all sorts of genres there from romance to thrillers to sagas to family drama, and even the occasional non-fiction read. Since I retired, I’m busier than ever reading and writing reviews, but I love what I do, and really enjoy the feedback I get from my fellow readers.
My recent blog activity included posts on Prologues and Chapter One. I’m not going to try and post about every possible chapter in one of my books but do think it’s worth saying something about Chapter Two and beyond.
Although I find Chapter Two more flexible than the Prologue and/or Chapter One, it can still have certain characteristics:
Chapter Two can almost be another Chapter One, just as hooky and demanding, introducing a whole new character and/or situation. This is particularly useful if I introduced one viewpoint character in the first chapter and now want to bring on another viewpoint character with just as much room for her/his story. NB I’d probably include the character introduced in Chapter One as well so as not to completely interrupt flow but I’ve seen other authors successfully bring on a new character and situation almost as if beginning a different book. I think this latter approach takes a bit of confidence that the readers won’t feel disconnected and go and read something else instead, though.
Or Chapter Two can be a continuance of, or reaction to, the dramatic situation contained in Chapter One.
Or it can contain the background stuff I need to rationalise what’s grabbed the readers’ attention in Chapter One but I thought would interrupt flow at the time. I could allow myself a flashback at this point … if I was certain I needed one. Instead, I usually choose to bring the same information out in conversation/confrontation/introspection because it keeps the story flowing forward. I feel as if flashbacks put the action in reverse. NB This may be a personal prejudice.
Chapter Two can also be a place for readers to take a breather by introducing a complete change of pace. This can provide a sense of settling into the story. NB I wouldn’t want the pace to drop too far or for too long.
I try and make every chapter open at a point of significance, exactly like a short story – bounce into the action or have somebody say something hookily surprising or intriguing.
I aim to exit at least some chapters with drama, emotion, twists and surprises. As I’ve said before, the last page of a chapter is a good place for people to end a reading session and I like to try and stop them even if they’re reading in bed, shattered, and knowing they have to get up in the morning. I don’t want them to resist reading on. When I receive a message on social media or via my website and a reader says, ‘I was up until two reading your book!’ or ‘I just couldn’t put it down’ I feel as if I’ve succeeded!
I’m thrilled a bit to have not one but two paperback releases in America this winter! Let it Snow has just been published and The Christmas Promise follows on October 27th, both published by HarperCollins under the Avon imprint.
In The Christmas Promise Ava is struggling for money and petrified her ex will carry out revenge porn threats. Sam’s mother is in between surgery and chemotherapy and he wants to give her a special Christmas, which involves Ava in a promise. Can she keep it?
Home for the Holidays is the story of Alexia, a bit of a reluctant heroine because she’s trying to leave the village and take up an exciting new life … until a project she’s working on goes wrong. It would have been a great farewell to Middledip to project-lead the restoration of a derelict pub and conversion to a community café. But then someone runs away with all the money. Alexa stays to help but her situation is now beyond tricky.
Home for the Holidays is published by HarperCollins under the Avon imprint. I can’t wait for one of those glossy paperbacks to make it across the pond to me!
I view Chapter One as an access corridor to the rest of my book and I want it to be interesting and uncluttered, regardless of whether it’s the opening to my book or a prologue has already had that honour.
I do want:
Something to hook readers into the story. An interesting situation or a point of change. A startling fact. A puzzle. Something that makes the readers want to know what happens next.
To set the tone. I remember beginning a book where, unusually for that author, corpses littered the landscape – and I don’t enjoy reading about death. It was several pages before the author revealed that she was describing a training exercise and the ‘corpses’ were actually personnel playing dead. The rest of the novel was just my cup of tea but I’d almost deleted it from my e-reader halfway through Chapter One because the tone wasn’t what I expected. It was scary and chilling – and slow – whereas I wanted warmth and to be hooked into the story.
To jump into the story. I like to hit the ground running and draw the readers in.
To keep the momentum up with action.
To introduce one of the viewpoint characters straight away. Readers are a bit like ducklings and instinctively follow the first person they see. If the scene’s about my heroine receiving a parcel I want the reader to see the heroine first, not the delivery person.
At least one character to like, to want to be with.
A sense of place.
Dialogue to ensure that characters act out the story and interact with each other.
To keep it all one scene, if possible, so I don’t break the connection with the reader.
I don’t want:
To clutter the pages with masses of description. Description’s static. I weave it in with action and dialogue rather than pausing for a long stare around at the scenery.
Flashbacks. A flashback takes a story back rather than forward. I don’t have many flashbacks in my books anyway, choosing to show backstory in other ways, but I definitely keep them out of Chapter One. I want the action to be smooth and a flashback chops it up. NB Maybe this is why I sometimes have a prologue. I want the readers to have certain information from the past but don’t want to let it interrupt the present.
Too much introspection (thoughts). I feel dialogue conveys information in a way that keeps things moving. ‘How dare you talk to my child like that?‘ feels more immediate than: She had no right to talk to his child like that, he thought. Introspection can be a bit one-paced. NB This isn’t an unbreakable rule because there might be a reason he doesn’t want her to know his feelings. It’s just a ‘where possible’. NB2 I would often cut he thought from the sentence in reality but used it here for the sake of clarity.
An unsympathetic character (i.e. one the readers are probably not going to like) taking up too much space. To expect readers to spend time with someone they don’t like right at the beginning is a big ask. NB An exception is if the unsympathetic character’s not showing her/his true colours yet and I don’t want the readers to know s/he’s going to be unlikeable in the end.
If I can, I end the chapter with drama or high note, which encourages the readers into Chapter Two. Readers think a chapter end is a good place to put a book down.
But I think it’s an opportunity to keep them reading!
Thanks so much to the book bloggers and eager readers who like to get advance reading copies of my books in order to give early reviews (especially the good ones, obvs 🙂 ). These early reviews are valuable marketing tools. Like this one, for instance.
I’m always surprised when someone tells me editors, agents and readers don’t like prologues. Many of my books have a prologue. No editor has asked me to remove one and I’ve even been specifically asked to include one. As a reader, I love them. I find them intriguing.
What do I think a prologue is? Typically, three to five pages of introductory material. Its importance often doesn’t become clear until it shows itself as a catalyst or significant background to the main story. It’s often characterised by being distanced from the opening of Chapter One in time or location so wouldn’t flow easily into Chapter One.
Are prologues necessary? I think the easiest litmus test is to take out the prologue and see if a book still makes sense. If it does then I guess it was written to “set the mood”. But if it later proves crucial to the backstory and/or will impact the main plot, it’s earning its place. In The Little Village Christmas the prologue is made up of a conversation between Ben and his mother. It’s about what he’s just lived through and why he’s in such a rocky emotional state. There were reasons for me deciding to write the scene as the prologue rather than include the information elsewhere in the book:
I wanted the reader to know this about Ben but I didn’t want the heroine, Alexia, to. Her not knowing creates conflict between them that lasts for most of the first part of the book.
Knowing his backstory would allow the reader to forgive his inconsistent behaviour towards Alexia in the first couple of chapters.
I didn’t want to tell the reader everything about Ben’s past. I wanted them to know there was still lots to uncover.
I write from at least two points of view and I like the first and last chapters to be through the eyes of the heroine, not the hero. Giving Ben the Prologue was like an aside.
I like my prologues to be:
short, so readers aren’t wrong-footed when Chapter One begins
self-contained, to some degree so they’re not dissatisfied by the transition to Chapter One
comprehensible but intriguing.
The reader knows full well while reading a prologue that the real story is waiting and some people think it makes the readers start the book twice. Is this a bad thing? In The Little Village Christmas it meant readers had to first immerse themselves in Ben’s past, his old world in his old house near Swindon and then immerse themselves in Alexia’s present world in Middledip, but this could just as easily have happened in Chapters One and Two. I tried to make sure it was worth the readers’ mental energy by treating both the prologue and Chapter One like the opening of a novel in terms of energy and impact. Each were emotional and gave the readers plenty to think about.
Having a prologue gives me the chance to hook the readers in twice in other words.
My favourite prologue was in Starting Over. It was only one page and took the form of an email from Tess’s fiancé, telling her their relationship was over. A lot of readers said, ‘I just had to read on to find out what happened next!’ I counted that a success.
Occasionally, I can see there’s no life in a scene. My characters aren’t acting the story out in a natural and logical way. It’s down to me to make them and I do this by making sure they act, react and interact.
React. I check that this will make my character do this or say this or feel like that. Then I check those reactions are in character because different characters react differently to the same incident.
React emotionally. Let’s take Charlie and Darren. Darren gives Charlie the bad news that Charlie’s wife has left. She’s taken the children. She’s asked Darren to tell Charlie that Charlie will never see any of them again.
Charlie should react to every blow that Darren deals with:
his inner feelings/emotions
his physical manifestations of those inner feelings/emotions
Perhaps Charlie’s a decent bloke and literally has no idea why his wife has done these things. How does he feel? Shocked? Horrified? Hurt? Desperate? What are his inner feelings? Does his heart sink? His guts twist? NB These are terms I use literally but they’re similes. People feel as if their hearts are sinking and their guts twisting but actually the organs remain in place. However, humans do have physical manifestation of emotion so I make Charlie break out in a sweat or his hands begin to shake, too.
Or maybe Charlie’s a drunken abuser. He knows exactly why his wife has taken refuge – she’s protecting herself and the kids from his fists and feet, from his vicious tongue, from a life of fear. Is he glad she’s gone so he doesn’t have to listen to her whining about him spending the family income on beer? Or is he furious and vengeful that she thinks she has the right to live her own life and abandon him to his? Do his shoulders relax in relief? Or his hands curl into fists as red edges his vision?
React via action. What action does Charlie take next? Does he cry on Darren’s shoulder? Biff him on the nose? Sit down with pen and paper to list all the places his wife might have gone? Cancel all the credit cards? A lot depends on who Charlie is and Darren’s real role in the story (because I’m wondering about Darren, to be honest). But Charlie will do something.
Interact. If Charlie knows Darren’s in some way responsible for the disaster he might just give him that biff on the nose and storm out in silence but it’s more likely that his actions and reactions will include dialogue. Use of dialogue’s one of the best ways I know of creating interaction. If Darren says, ‘Sorry, mate. Your wife and kids are on their way to a new life in another country,’ no matter how many inner feelings and physical manifestations I give Charlie, it’s going to be natural for him to say something. ‘She can’t have!’ or ‘But … why?’ or ‘Don’t be stupid,’ or ‘You liar!’ or ‘That bitch!’ are all starting points for Charlie’s verbal reaction. He might take action first by piling into Darren with a biff, biff, biff but this is likely to be followed by, ‘And what the hell do you know about it?’ Combining Charlie’s words with his emotions, inner feelings, physical responses, actions in reaction to whatever Darren says or does causesinteraction and rescues the scene for me.
NB All of the above is based on me writing the scene from Charlie’s viewpoint. If I wrote it from Darren’s perspective then we’d get his thoughts and emotions and see Charlie’s reactions through his eyes – Charlie’s skin draining with colour or reddening with rage, tears boiling from his eyes or teeth gritting with rage. Maybe Darren would read Charlie’s clenched fists in time and avoid the biff on the nose.
NB2 If I’m really not ‘getting’ Charlie to the extent that I have trouble making him act, react and interact I write the scene first person, to burrow deeper under his skin. Then I convert it to third person (because that’s how I write my novels) but make sure I keep every thought, word, sinking feeling, sweaty palm and biff on the nose.
I consider myself exceedingly lucky to have a ‘plotty head’. What is it? It’s a part of my mind – subconscious, muse, imagination, a combination or whatever – that makes me a storyteller.
It works in two ways:
Someone tells me an anecdote and I have a reaction. It’s physical. It’s as if something just clunked into place above my eyes. I fall into a daze as I work out how I can use what I’ve just been told.
My plotty head untangles knots in my storyline or tells me when there’s a hole in my plot. It’s one of the most precious things I own.
I didn’t used to know the best way to use my plotty head. I thought it would remember whatever it had been telling me and supply the same idea or solution at a more convenient time. I was wrong. My plotty head doesn’t care for being ignored. If I don’t capture its latest workings, it jettisons the thoughts and ideas like someone with a thirty-second memory. I’ve learned to take out my phone and make a note at the earliest opportunity. I have an iPhone and a Macbook so the Notes app syncs between the two, meaning that a note I made on my phone lying in bed last night is on my computer this morning and can be copied and pasted into my WIP. (Talking of thirty-second memories, that’s exactly what the dictation facility on Notes has. If I don’t exceed thirty-second segments I don’t even have to type my thoughts into Notes, I can dictate them.) My plotty head utilises my Notes app a lot. I currently have notes headed: Winter 2021 book; Marketing meeting; Newsletter; Summer 2021 book (my WIP); Blog ideas; Brighton and Chichester research; and Short story ideas.
My plotty head is activated by things like cooking, walking or trying to go to sleep but perhaps the most common is reading. It’s nothing to do with what I’m reading – it’s the act of entering Fiction Land that does it. I’m reading about a Regency heroine falling off a horse and my plotty head interrupts with a better way to handle the passport conundrum in my summer 2021 book. It works with audiobooks, too. I’m listening to a romantic suspense novel about arson and I realise I haven’t heard any of the last chapter – my plotty head’s analysing the relationship between my heroine and her mother and how that provides my heroine’s motivation for finding her great aunt. Honestly, I’ve gone back to the beginning of the chapter to listen again and there is literally nothing about great aunts and mothers or even familial relationships. It seems as if my plotty head arrives in Fiction Land, wakes up, stretches and says, ‘I have work to do!’
Unfortunately, my plotty head has got me into trouble. I hold it responsible for the elaborate lies I used to construct as a kid. When we lived in Malta, one day the school bus delivered me home late from after-school recorder class. Instead of telling my parents that several routes had been combined, which is what had happened, I had used the journey to dream up a complex set of reasons for my late appearance, including a horrible bus driver who stopped to play cards with friends while the poor little school kids waited on the bus. I was proud of my story and told it to my dad. The mistake I made was not telling him that my plotty head and I had been in Fiction Land. Dad went to the authorities and complained. Now, this was an army bus from an army school so he complained to the army. Because he was in the army. And the poor bus driver was a civilian. My story was bitterly refuted by the bus driver and his version – the truth – upheld by other parents. Dad stormed home ranting about being made to look ‘a bloody fool’ and I got in trouble for telling lies.
Lies? Surely it was a story? It had hung together so well he’d believed it, right? Ergo, it was a story.
Sadly, Dad didn’t live long enough to see me make money out of my plotty head. I’m sure he would have forgiven me for making him look a bloody fool about the bus driver and the pack of cards. In fact, knowing Dad, he would have claimed I got my plotty head from him. Why not? It has to come from somewhere.
ARTE UMBRIA WRITING RETREAT – Monday, 28th June 2021 – Monday, 5th July 2021
On the Arte Umbria writing retreat, you’ll find all kinds of lovely places in which to write whether you favour sun or shade, outdoors or indoors, a quiet nook or a gorgeous view to gaze at.
Award-winning author Sue Moorcroft heads up our writing retreat. Sue’s a Sunday Times bestseller, an international bestseller and UK Kindle #1 bestseller. At the end of each day and included in the cost of the retreat, she will offer a one-hour chatty group session where you can ask her about writing, big publishers, small publishers, magazines, competitions and distance-learning organisations or ask for group feedback on your work. Sue has been coming to Arte Umbria for 7 years now and it’s always a pleasure to welcome her back on our very popular retreats.