Why I keep failing

Recently I created a catalogue of stories I’ve written in Excel to find out approximately how many words of fiction I have written. In one column I put the title, in the next the approximate number of words I’d written on that story, including all drafts, alternate scenes and so on. I split this by original fiction and fanfic and used formulae to show total number of words written – not far shy of half a million words.

But that’s a half a million words of unfinished stories. Half a million words of stories which, at the most, never got further than a wide margin, double-spaced print out with some notes in my handwriting in red biro. A handful of stories that topped 30,000 words and a little over a dozen more under that figure. And I had to ask: why did none of them (except Ailith’s Gift at 3,300 words long) reach completion? What was wrong with them?

An examination of my stories revealed the answer: endings. Not the final scene wrapping everything up, but the third act of the three act structure: the climax, the big conclusion, the bit where the protagonist achieves or re-evaluates their goals, or is utterly defeated. Not a single story I have written has had a strong ending (again, bar Ailith’s Gift, arguably, and that’s a short story, and the first draft of it wasn’t particularly great either).

Now, I’ve mentioned Ailith’s Gift there and stated that the first draft’s ending wasn’t especially strong. So why couldn’t I just finish the other stories and sort the ending in the rewrite, like I did with Ailith’s Gift? Fair question. To begin with, I think the original ending of Ailith’s Gift wasn’t as weak as I have for other stories; it was literally the strongest ending I’ve got. Also it was a short story, and thus has different requirements to a novel or novella. And it took an outside observer to help me strengthen it.

The problem with the other stories is that the weakness of the endings reflected back along the stories right to the start. Knowing the ending is important because it will affect the tone of what goes before and determines which pieces of the puzzle are required – which elements of plot I need to include in order to get from the beginning to the end. With Ailith’s Gift I always knew what I needed from the ending, because it was never, originally, meant to be stand-alone. It was meant to be the start of a story centred on the dragon.

With my other stories, though, the endings were never so concrete. I just sort of went along with things. I started from the start and see where things took me, and only ever had the vaguest of endings in mind.

Case in point: Perenke is the working title for a story I was developing in autumn and winter 2012. The idea was that Perenke was a city state where all the men had been killed in war, so they invited men, including someone to act as steward until the young heir had grown to adulthood, from a larger allied city state. The story was about the conflicts between the existing citizens and the newcomers, and in particular between an elite women, Anse, who remarried one of the newcomers as part of the alliance, only for her first husband to return long after the war, alive and mostly well.

She is left torn between her first and second husbands – having had children with each – and caught up in the political situation surrounding her. Neither side of the conflict – the rather overbearing new steward and his supporters, and the resentful women, older men and youths that, along with Anse’s first husband, form a resistance.

Sounds interesting enough, and at the time I was really deep into it. I had family trees, detailed character sheets, maps, detailed outlines. What I lacked was a strong idea of how it would end. In one version, Anse and her new husband and family ended up returning with the exiled steward to his home city, before said city sends an army out to Perenke to crush the resistance, and Anse sets out ahead to warn them. Another version kept the action in Perenke, with Anse leaving the palace complex to join the resistance following disgust at something the steward does that finally crosses the line. The resistance shortly afterwards moves in to attack.

The problem was I never quite made a decision, and I never planned each option out in detail. I didn’t have a target to work towards, just a vague, nebulous idea of which direction it would lean in.

Another story: one of my more recent stories, which I mentioned at the start of the year in another post, was called the Shopkeeper’s Daughter. A woman sets out, with her teenage son, in search of the illegitimate daughter she had as a teen, starting by finding said daughter’s father, who had brought her up. But the ending is weak: my protagonist, after a long journey and being blocked by her former lover and told to stop searching, finds her daughter, explains the situation, and everything ends relatively happily. It doesn’t feel right.

There’s no big revelation, no final conflict (at least, nothing big enough to matter), no spark to it. Oh, there was emotion, denials, confusion, hurt, but come the end it was all talked through and my protagonist and her daughter part in good terms. But it’s not exciting. It doesn’t feel worth the effort. She’s travelled for weeks, run away from bandits, argued with her former lover, asked stranger after stranger if they know anything, and in the end, it’s just sort of “okay.”

And the problem? I realised something was wrong with each of these, and all the others I never got anywhere on, and never really got started. The lack of a strong ending, or the fact that I’d failed to really work out what the ending would be in detail, undermined the story and left me with nothing to really work towards. I was taking too much of a “discovery” writing attitude – working it out as I go along – while telling myself I was an outline writer and producing outlines and worldbuilding notes and character sheets to convince myself of this, while never actually outlining the ending in enough detail to be able to tell if it worked.

Not having good – or well planned – endings has stopped me from starting.

The next step, then, is to identify how to fix this. What makes a good ending? Well, as far as I can tell, an ending needs to follow on naturally from what goes before, it needs to be the peak of tension towards which preceding chapters were building, and it needs to conclude the main storyline in a satisfying way. Satisfying doesn’t necessarily mean the protagonist gets what they want – they might re-evaluate their goal, or they might outright fail – but it does mean that the core conflict is resolved in a manner which is natural and inevitable in the context of what has gone before.

So how do I go about writing endings that fulfil these elements? Therein lies the challenge. For now, I’m going to try to consider the ending prominently in the planning stages, along with character, goals, obstacles and overall plot – and outline it in greater detail, earlier in the process, than for example the beginning. I will focus on establishing and exploring the core conflict in my notes, and work out how that will be resolved by the ending. And I’ll see how that goes.

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2 thoughts on “Why I keep failing

  1. This obviously comes from what I, myself, do in your situation but I think it is still good advice for everyone.

    At some point you just have to pick the best option in front of you, and write it out. There is something cathartic about finishing the story that changes the entire way you look at it. You start to recognize it more as the sum (or hopefully, more than the sum) of its parts, rather than a jumble of ideas you once had. This in turn helps to clarify what the end result needs to improve, and that is where the true revision begins. But until you jot that final word, until you close the file and tell yourself “I finished the story” it is so very hard to see it that way. You’re looking at all the little interconnections between the _parts_ of the story rather than looking at the story itself.

    In other words, you’re missing the forest for the trees.

    At least, that’s how it is with me. It took years and some major discipline-building to learn to just sit down, pick an idea, and finish the damn thing, knowing that in the end the old writer’s adage is true: “A story is never finished. It is merely abandoned.”

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