Saturday, October 16, 2010

And they all lived happily ever after

Or did they? And is that really what readers want to hear these days?
The trick is to craft that ever-elusive ESE - the Emotionally Satisfying Ending, and have it fit in with the four of five hundred pages that came before.

Recently my editor voiced her discouragement over manuscripts with strong beginnings and compelling middles that faltered at the end. After spending hours at home reading the most recent one (9-to-5 is a myth in the publishing world) the ending failed to fulfill the promise of the start and she was forced to reject the book.

Which left me thinking: what are the ingredients that make for a compelling ESE? The kind of ending that makes readers seek out an author’s backlist and yearn for his or her next release. An ending that sends them gushing to share their new favorite author with friends?

Act 1 begins with the all-important Hook. Writers spend long hours crafting that perfect first line. We take classes to make us better at hooking the reader, work with critique partners and use feedback from contests to make the opening pages zing as we lead our protagonists from their ordinary world into the end of Act 1 Crisis.

Then we roll up our sleeves and tackle the vast wasteland of Act 2. We devote time and energy to keeping those hundreds of pages from sagging and loosing the reader’s interest. With nose to the grindstone (I do love my cliché’s) we check plot points and sub-plots, speed up the pace, vary the setting, and make the disasters our protagonists have to face gut-wrenching. We verify goals and motivations and ensure there's enough high level and micro-conflict to keep readers turning pages.

Finally we, and our characters, reach the final lap, Act 3. At this point we sometimes sigh with relief and mission accomplished. We can relax, whip off a happy ending and we’re ready to send the manuscript off.

The problem is, sometimes we relax too soon.

Act 3 is usually the shortest act, but it contains a major story checkpoint, the moment of emotional release the Greeks called Catharsis. This is the moment when the protagonists, and by extension the reader, exhales. The emotions should reach from the page and grab the reader’s heart, providing him or her with a reward for following along the difficult road. This checkpoint, that may take a single paragraph or several pages, can make he difference between a good story and a great read.

All my favorite books have that moment  of emotional release. Whether it’s a romantic comedy or romantic suspense, paranormal or historical; no matter what happens in the plot, my favorite are defined by the end of the inner journey. They all give me endings that makes me laugh or cry or just a warm glow of triumph.

How do we as authors give our readers that sometimes elusive ESE. Those strong endings result from the build-up of emotion through every step of the Inner Journey, until the protagonists realize and overcome the character flaws that have kept them in turmoil. The writer’s final job is to provide the moment of release the reader has been waiting for. Done right, a writer leaves readers wanting more–begging and dying for more. And that frequently results in an agent or editor giving you a CALL.

My questions to writers — How do you bring your readers to the point where they feel it’s safe to relax and bring their heart rate back under control? How do you make them yearn for another book just like the one in their hands? How do you keep the reader haunting bookstores looking for more books with your name attached?

My questions to readers — Are there books that give you that exhale moment? What are your favorite books where the ending just won’t let you go?

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