The last pages of your book are critical because they determine how the reader will feel when they leave your world — and whether they will buy your next book. As readers, we've all been disappointed by weak story endings, so how can we make sure that we leave our readers satisfied?
James Scott Bell gives some tips in today's interview, as well as talking about what happens when your publisher goes bankrupt and how to generate multiple streams of income as a creative.
In the introduction, I talk about the importance of listening to our physical bodies and my own lessons learned around pain recently.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
James Scott Bell is the bestselling and award-winning author of thrillers, historical fiction, and many excellent books on the craft of writing. He's a professional speaker teaching novel writing and other skills for writers. His latest book for authors is The Last 50 Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.
- Why a book’s ending matters so much
- How genre fits into a book’s ending
- How to deal with book endings when writing a series
- On the five types of endings
- Why knowing your ending before you get to it is important
- On intellectual property rights when a trad publisher goes bankrupt. F&W Media bankruptcy [Forbes], PRH purchasing the assets [The Bookseller]
- The importance of multiple streams of income for authorpreneurs. Patreon.com/jamesscottbell
You can find James Scott Bell at JamesScottBell.com and on Twitter @jamesscottbell
Transcript of Interview with James Scott Bell
Joanna: James Scott Bell is the bestselling and award-winning author of thrillers, historical fiction, and many excellent books on the craft of writing. He's a professional speaker teaching novel writing and other skills for writers. His latest book for authors is The Last 50 Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.
Welcome back to you.
James: Always good to be here.
Joanna: Thank you. It's your fourth time on this show so you're definitely up there with our top guests for always requested.
James: I am honored.
Joanna: We've got lots to talk about but let's start off with the endings.
Why are endings so important for authors?
James: We’ve all had the experience of seeing a movie or reading a book or a TV series that we're really enjoying. And then the ending comes and is a complete disappointment. And that seems to wipe out all of the previous pleasure, even though you may have been caught up into it.
I like the saying that Mickey Spillane, the famous pulp writer, said that “the first chapter sells your book, the last chapter sells your next book.” That's really key because if you're not giving the readers the full satisfactory experience then you're not prompting them to say, I want to read the next one or find something else by the same author. So obviously it's important that way.
I was a trial lawyer for several years and we talked about what's called primacy and recency, meaning that the jury tends to remember most what they hear first and what they hear last, with special emphasis on the last the closing argument. That's where you close the sale and you try to get the verdict.
It's the same way with a book, that you are giving an entertainment value and you want, at the end, for that value to be increased not decreased. So obviously it's crucially important.
There are a lot of books out there about openings, about how to hook a reader. The First Five Pages is a book that's out there. And I looked around and I didn't see anything on endings, or maybe there's something out there I wasn't able to find it. A book about dealing with how to make a satisfactory ending and so that's why I wrote it.
Joanna: It is a great book and you and I both like thrillers and in fact, I should mention we were both up for a thriller awards a couple of years ago which you won.
James: That was that was absolutely fun to be nominated with you.
Joanna: It was. We should say with endings, I think again with thrillers, I read so many thrillers, thousands over the years, and I definitely need a good ending. I feel if I don't get a good ending I'm disappointed with the whole book.
What is the thing about reader satisfaction within a genre for an ending?
James: I do think readers read genres for specific purposes. They want a certain experience.
I once heard Lee Child talk about his preference for Dom Perignon. He loves Dom Perignon champagne and when he opens a bottle and he has a glass he doesn't want it to taste like pink lemonade. He doesn't want a different one, he wants Dom Perignon.
And that's the way he writes his books is that he wants to give the readers the experience that they have come to expect and to love.
There are genre expectations. If you know what they are and you have a purposeful reason for turning them on their head or doing something different then that's fine as long as you know what you're doing.
I wrote a historical novel called Glimpses of Paradise, which is a big historical romance. And I did something at the end which some of my romance writer friends said I shouldn't do. But I felt this is the right ending for this book and it wasn't a pure romance. It was historical as well, so I took that chance and the book did very well and was up for an award and so on.
But I knew what I was doing and that's the key. Know what you're doing. Know what the readers want and usually, you give that to them. The key is to give it to them in an original way. And that's one of the keys to an unforgettable ending.
Joanna: It's funny you mentioned Lee Child, of course, Lee would drink Dom Perignon.
Take romance for example. You'll see HEA, happy ever after, in people's blurbs, so you know what the ending is. So it's not surprising what's going to happen. Or in a crime novel, you expect the death of the villain or the criminal brought to justice. And if that doesn't happen, you'll be upset about that.
But as you say there has to be something that's surprising but also inevitable.
James: That's exactly right. It's well put. The ending has to seem inevitable but also in a surprising way, in a way that the reader isn't predicting, because predictability is what makes for boring. That's really the key.
And I think one of the secrets to doing that is to make sure that you have an inner journey, a character journey, as well as a plot journey something that is transforming in the character.
I wrote a book called Write Your Novel From the Middle, which is all about that. It's about what the book is really about. Is this character transformation. But I'm not saying that the plot isn't important, because I'm a plot guy. The plot is crucially important, but you elevate it by having a character go through a transformation process or a process where they're becoming stronger because of what they're going through.
That's always the fodder for the most interesting part of a book or the most original part. The human condition is so infinite that we have a lot of room to play with it there.
And that's one of the things that is key to a series like the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly is the inner turmoil and growth and drive and obsession of the character carries through the series. You see Harry's struggles and growth and reaching certain levels and then falling back. You see that within the parameters of each book which are self-contained cases.
Joanna: And that becomes a question about series. I think people do get confused with how do you have a satisfying ending in each book but still hook people to another book. I feel like you can open too many loops and annoy people if you don't please some of them.
Is it just a character in the series that people want to come back to? Or are there any other tips for an ending?
James: That's true. As a general rule if you're unless you're writing a true say trilogy like the Hunger Games, for example, where you have an arc about the meta-narrative, which is about the whole oppressive government thing and the uprising and so forth that is isn't solved until the end of the third book. But within each of those books, there is something that is solved.
For instance, in the first one, she survives the Hunger Games. It would have been terrible if you got to the end of that book and you still didn’t know what the outcome of the Hunger Games was going to be.
But if you're writing a series character, then obviously one of the keys is the character themselves. What makes them interesting? Why do we want to keep reading about this particular character? You've got to do all the character work to make that particular character worth following.
And then you do something like what Michael Connelly does and another writer who did something similar is a Lawrence Block, who is grandmaster crime writer and has a series about an investigator named Matthew Scudder. The first couple of his books were really plot-heavy and by the numbers procedurals.
And then he wrote a book called 8 Million Ways to Die in which he took it up a level and was dealing with not just the case that Scudder was on but the milieu, which was late 70s New York, which was a lot different than it is today. And also alcoholism. The alcoholic ex-cop is kind of a cliche now, but when Lawrence Block was doing it, it was new. He really delved into that aspect of the character, so the books after that all dealt with that personal inner aspect of the character.
And yet each book has a case that was solved within the confines of that particular plot. But then you had the character ongoing and you want to know what's happening now.
There's one little addition to that; I call it the ending where you do solve the plot but there's a little something happens at the end that's an indicator of, Oh this may happen again. And my favorite example of that is the film version of The Silence Of The Lambs. You remember where Hannibal Lecter calls Clarice and he's still there and then he says, “I have to go now, I'm having an old friend for dinner.” That's just a perfect ending that could make for a sequel.
Joanna: I just finished watching Stranger Things series three. Do you watch Stranger Things?
James: No I haven't seen that. But I've heard good things about it.
Joanna: We’re very lucky these days we have amazing TV storytelling.
In the book, you talk about the difference between climax, and Stranger Things Season 3, if anyone's going to watch it, has a very good example of that, which is ‘three months later’. And then they also have a moment, which I won't talk about.
People often think the ending is the climax, like a big explosion or whatever in a thriller.
What's the difference between scene climax and denouement?
James: I think in using the literary terms the climax is the height, the point of greatest conflict where the two battling sides come together in that one final climactic battle and then there's going to be a win or a loss.
The denouement is the aftermath of that. What are the consequences of that final battle? I use in my books the term of ‘final battle’ for climax and then ‘proving the transformation’ as the denouement or the last thing we see.
In my view, the lead character is either going to be transformed in a fundamental way in their own life. What kind of human being they are? Or the other side of it is if someone is a fundamentally decent person, like Dr. Richard Kimball in The Fugitive, that they're not going to be transformed into another kind of person they need to stay the same.
But what Kimball does by going through what he does is he becomes stronger. He has to find new resources. He has to find a way to survive. And so at the end, I advocate having a scene that proves the transformation. One that shows the new equilibrium or the new character and that becomes then the proof of everything that's come before it.
And then the very last thing I talk about this in my book is resonance. The great final image, final line whatever it is that just seems so perfect for that book that you leave the reader going, “Oh, that's fantastic.”
I work on the final page of my books probably more than any other aspect to try to get just the right sound because when that happens, man, it just makes for an unforgettable reading experience and that's what we try to deliver.
Joanna: We've talked a lot about genre fiction, which I feel has more tropes around endings and ends. What about literary fiction? Because I guess that's got a lot to do with character transformation.
If a book is more literary in nature what are your thoughts on endings there?
James: In the book, I talk about the five types of endings. I talk about how the lead can win, the lead can lose, the lead can sacrifice, the lead can seemingly win but really lose.
The example I use there is The Godfather. Michael Corleone wins the plot issue, the mafia war issue, but loses his soul.
And then they talk about open-ended. That's more for the literary genre, where you're leaving the aftermath of the ending in the mind of the reader and they are left to contemplate what is the trajectory of this ending.
With genre fiction, as we spoke about, your readers want a certain satisfactory type of ending that isn't ambiguous. But a literary ending is more about letting the reader participate in the final contemplation of what's happened.
The two examples I use are The Catcher In The Rye, which as we know is the famous coming of age/adolescent struggle, where it begins in a sanitarium and it ends in a sanitarium. And you really don't know if the narrator is going to ever get out or not or commit suicide. And that's again left to the reader.
The other example is Gone With The Wind. I'll get Rhett back. I'll think about it tomorrow is another day. But does she. Well, that was left open and then for some odd reason, the estate gave permission to write a sequel to Gone With The Wind.
Joanna: No one knows about that.
James: I have two rules: Don't write a sequel to Gone With The Wind and don't try to remake Casablanca.
Joanna: I've seen Robert McKee, I've been to his Story seminar. I'm sure you know it.
James: I took it back in the day as well.
Joanna: It's still exactly the same. He just performs the same thing over and over again. He does a breakdown of Casablanca and it is very, very good.
Any other examples of bad or unsatisfying endings and anything we can learn?
James: There’s a couple of things that are common that people need to be aware of. And this is especially true for those so-called pantsers, as we like to call those who write without any kind of outline or knowing what's going to happen. I'm perfectly fine with that as long as you understand the challenges of that.
I also say to people who like to outline you've got to know how to be organic as well so there is an art and a craft to it both ways. But you can write yourself into a corner and try to solve it with what's called deus ex machina, the God in the machine, where all of a sudden some big coincidence or something out of the blue happens to solve the main problem.
I'm not specifically aware of the book you mentioned earlier, I didn't read that, but that may have been what you're talking about is that there's something big that happens that seems to come out of the blue.
Joanna: That's basically it and from a total other genre so you go, “What? What just happened?”
James: I've read books that seem to be realistic and then all of a sudden in the middle switched to some sort of sci-fi universe and that really annoys me because it's a cheat. You're investing yourself into the realism of it. And then all of a sudden the rules change.
Something that happens at the end that the lead character, the protagonist, hasn't earned or hasn't in some way been set up to have happen. If someone is going to come let's say to the rescue of the lead character who is in a seemingly impossible situation at the end then that relationship needs to have been set up earlier and the protagonist needs to have participated in some way in his rescue. So having a coincidence happen at the end to get the lead character out of trouble is deus ex machina.
Another danger is when you have a cop, if you have a complicated plot, to have the talkative villain at the end who explains everything while keeping the lead alive just long enough for the lead to figure out how to get know get him or somebody else to break in and kill him. Most villains are not going to sit there and yak. You've got to put that explanation either all the way at the end and in some other character’s mouth or drop in bits of information beforehand.
The example I talk about is in Psycho. There's that shocking ending. And why do we see that? Why was that there and then it cuts to a scene where there's a psychiatrist explaining to the people who survived everything that that happened to make it so. That worked in that context because it was not too long and it did allow for that shock that comes at the end to happen but you don't want to have the bad guy sitting there explaining everything.
And then maybe one other thing is often there will be some little plot loose ends that need to be resolved. You've finished the novel, you finished the big plot point and then, oh wait a minute. There was that accountant who disappeared in Chapter 10. How do you resolve that? One of the easiest ways to do that is to create a minor character to provide that information at the end and then you can go back and plant that minor character earlier in the book so that the character doesn't just come out of the blue there's just a couple of the issues that they deal with in the book.
Joanna: I think it's interesting because the “explaining everything” idea is why I didn't enjoy Agatha Christie and that type of books. Obviously, things have moved on and coming back to Stranger Things, we just binged that in two nights. The sophistication of the story consuming audience now is so far beyond what it would've been when Agatha Christie was still a bestselling author, still amazing. People still love Agatha Christie.
But it's interesting because I think our expectations have changed as well. Even if people haven't read thousands of books the tropes of these things come through in popular culture and they’re almost laughing at it, which is why Stranger Things is very good in so many ways. But the tropes that you were talking about, they're almost laughing at some of them. And that in itself is quite clever.
The other is there are so many layers to this kind of ending idea, which is fantastic.
Anything else on endings or we're going to move on?
I just simply advocate that that is that part of the book should get the attention that it deserves and I believe the best way to go about it is to know your ending before you get to it.
Some people want to write all the way to the end and try to figure it out. I think that's too late. If you're an outlier and you're used to saying OK I know what the outcome is going to be.
For instance, if you're writing a thriller or a mystery and you know what the bad guy is doing and why he's doing it and the steps that he's taking, it makes it a little easier to drop in red herrings or surprising twists that you wouldn't have thought about if you didn't know the ending.
But at some point, as you're writing, even if you're writing as discovery I think understanding what that midpoint is, that mirror moment that I call it in Write Your Novel From the Middle will then give you an idea of where the ending should go and you can always change it when you get there. But having that idea empowers your writing and it avoids some of these things that we just talked about like deus ex machina and it enables you to be creative within the right parameters.
So that's all I would say is, don't be afraid of giving the ending thought before you get there. It will pay off for you.
Joanna: I want to talk to you about publishing things because you are are a hybrid writer. You've been published by lots of traditional publishers but many of your books are indie as well. And you've been published by Writer’s Digest for many of your books for writers.
And as we speak and F&W Media, who owned that imprint, went bankrupt and those books have been acquired by Penguin Random House or PRH.
You’ve been a lawyer and you understand intellectual property rights. But many authors don't really understand what can happen to their rights once they license them to a publisher. So I wondered if you could talk a bit about the situation and what it means when you don't have any choice.
You didn't have any choice who the books went to, although it turned out quite well. Maybe can you just talk a bit about that?
James: When you contract with a publishing company or licensing the right to publish those books your books, your intellectual property, and you have a contract in a situation like this where the publishing company that you've got the contract with files for bankruptcy and then seeks to have a buyer take over their assets, your contract goes with it your contract goes into the bankruptcy system as an asset and therefore it's being disposed of or transferred by a bankruptcy court.
In this particular case what happened is that those of us who are Writer’s Digest authors there was a halt in all of the royalties that were owing, because that's how you do it in a bankruptcy. Everything is frozen and then it's sorted out.
Now in this case, Penguin Random House, which happens to be the biggest publisher in the world and has the assets to make this go, is going to take over this brand and these books which have a great reputation and a great following. So that sale has already been approved.
As we speak now it's being finalized, the details are being worked out and when the sale closes Penguin Random House has indicated that they are going to continue the enterprise just as it was before and that they are going to pay the royalties that were pre-bankruptcy-related and move on. And that's I think the best outcome that could have happened for Writer's Digest.
In other cases, that may not be as good.
There have been cases where a company goes bankrupt and there is no sale of the assets and therefore royalties aren't paid. And the writers have to get their rights back, which is usually not contested when there is a bankruptcy and a final dissolution. But at some point, there may come a time when if the publishing ceases to publish the books that you've made a contract for. Then you have the right to seek the reversion of rights so it can get complicated.
But I think in this case the indications are good and hopefully by the time this podcast is broadcast we will have better news.
Joanna: I wanted to mention it because I've been in this industry now for over 10 years and over the years we've seen a lot of different publishing houses either go bankrupt or just fold. I mean sometimes they say, “Okay, we're done. We are stopping publishing.” I know many authors who have struggled with this type of situation.
And obviously, when you sign a contract there is a clause in the contract that says if the company goes bankrupt this is what will happen. And I feel like so many authors might not read the contract in detail but may ignore that clause, thinking that it's uncommon.
But we've seen reasonable amounts of this and buying and selling of publishing companies and imprints are quite normal business practice.
James: Yes, we have. And, of course, in the last 10 years with the rise of digital publishing, there have been small companies that are oftentimes an author who is publishing his or her own books and then decides they’ll publish other people's books as well. And becomes an enterprise.
But we've seen a number of those also go belly up and then usually the author is not going to get the royalties that they had hoped but at least they then have the book back and can publish it themselves.
But, of course, that brings up the whole issue of authors who are wanting to go into having a certain amount of business acumen or understanding, which you and I both teach and I tell authors that it's not that complicated. There are certain fundamentals, but I find a lot of writers and creatives just resist thinking that way. Don't you find that?
Joanna; Absolutely. I was going to come back to business with you.
I noticed you have a new website as well, which is very swish!
James: It was about time. I had an old clunky one and it was time to update it. So I did.
Joanna: I was poking around. I was like ‘Oh, this is nice.' And I noticed that you do have multiple streams of income, plus you have the books; you have your teaching and you have a great book called How to Make a Living as a Writer and you've also added Patreon/JamesScottBell, which I'm fascinated by.
Can you tell us a bit about your different streams of income at the moment and how does Patreon fit in?
James: For those like you and myself and others who are authorpreneurs we have to think in multiple streams of income.
In the old days, pre-Kindle, you had one way to be published effectively and that was to contract with a traditional publishing house and you were at the mercy of whatever forces were at work there. But now with all of the things available to us, the multiple streams of income we're talking about, it's just a fantastic time to be able to do these various things.
Now I primarily think of myself as a writer who happens to teach. So my focus is always on how can I write more fiction.
You mentioned Patreon. You have a nice Patreon presence for your podcast and so forth. And I wasn't comfortable when I first learned about Patreon; asking people to support me monthly in writing fiction. I felt like I do well writing fiction. I write something. I put it out there. They can buy it or not.
But then I found out that Patreon also has a per creation model where your patrons are charged only for when you put something out there as a creation for them to consume. And I thought wow this would be great if it could work for my shorter fiction because I love short stories. I love novellas and novellettes.
But the market for that outside the indie world is not great. There are few places but you know the pay isn’t great and the ROI, return on investment. So I thought maybe I could do more of these shorter works of fiction for people who are fans of my work and then also give them premiums for higher pledges such as video chats and so on.
I did a lot of research. I went to a Patreon presentation here in Los Angeles and asked a lot of questions and I launched it and it's been great. I am writing short thriller fiction and mystery fiction and flash fiction and all of this and it is becoming a nice stream of income. So far it's worked very well and I would encourage some of your listeners to check it out check out the Patreon page for James Scott Bell.
Joanna: Absolutely and I think there are some really good models. I support a few creators on the “per thing” model. I'm surprised myself over the years how Patreon grows. Like everything. You start out and it's tiny and you wonder whether it's worth it. And then over the years, the more people hear about it. It's kind of gone mainstream now so people are used to the model now.
Also, one of the other things you've just done is you have narrated Write Your Novel From the Middle in audio. That was your first one that you've self-narrated.
James: That's right. Yes.
Joanna: What did you learn from that experience?
James: It's been a long time coming and people kept asking me when's this coming out on audio. I have done a couple of my books through ACX, which is the Amazon / Audible self-publishing platform for audiobooks with a narrator, where I've contracted with a narrator and done a share of the profits and so on, which is a perfectly legitimate way to go.
But people said look you used to be an actor, you used to do commercials, why don't you narrate your own books? For a long time, it was just a matter of me thinking, oh gosh, where am I going to find the time to do that? I'm writing this and I'm writing that and I'm teaching.
And then one day I just said I've got to give this a try. I did some research. I figured out how to set up a little mini studio and I had the software and I said OK I'm going to give it a try. And I started with Write Your Novel from the Middle, which is not a long book and it would be a good experiment for me. And I followed the process.
It took me about a week to narrate the whole thing and then I prepared the materials that go with it. And I published it to ACX. It takes a couple of weeks for them to check the quality and it went through.
I'm pleased as punch about that because I've got a lot of these books I can put on audio now and I know that it works and there is another stream of income because you have an asset sitting there that that's been selling well as a book and you just turn it into an audio that's another stream of income.
Joanna: Absolutely and on the IP rights there.
Is that an indie book or did you keep the audio rights?
James: No that isn't an indie book but that's a good point. If you're going to negotiate a contract for a traditional publication you might want to consider if you are able to reserve the audio rights. That's a good matter for negotiation.
Joanna: Absolutely. I love that you said just go and do some research and give it a try.
I feel like that you've done that over and over again in your career and you do so much and I really want people to go check out your web site and check out everything you do online.
Tell us where that is.
James: You can go to JamesScottBell.com and that will give you a hub for everything that I do from my video online teaching to the books to my appearances and so forth and even I offer a free book for people who want to sign up for my email updates. So it's all there at JamesScottBell.com.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Jim. That was great.
James: It's always great to chat with you, Joanna. You are doing so much for authors and authorpreneurs and we all think it's marvelous. So thanks a lot.