One of the most disappointing things as a reader is getting completely engrossed in a story and then it ends. You were completely into the story and following the characters and the plot finally resolves itself and it was amazing.
But then it’s over.
The elation of reading such a thrilling story is now countered by the disappointment that it’s over. So one of the greatest things an author can do is slowly pull you back out of the engrossing world of the story.
Sometimes it doesn’t require much. But the longer your story, the more it’s necessary. My all-time favorite example is the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rings. After following Frodo for 900 pages of walking, ring whining and orc gutting, the story can’t just end. And Tolkien gives his readers one last adventure. You know the story is over, the tension that carried you through those 900 pages is over, but you still want more. And Tolkien delivers with one last hurrah.
Ashfall by Mike Mullin delivers a more common example. It took 400 pages to reunite Alex with his family after a volcano erupts in Yellowstone and the story could have ended there. But instead we get another 50 pages that wind the story down, giving us closure (and nicely leaving room for the sequel).
These closing scenes let us emotionally process the story. After the climax, you need things to wind down a bit, to know where these characters are going to go. It doesn’t have to be long, but one last glimpse of where they’re going is gold.
PS, an epilogue is a cheap and rushed way to do it. Especially if your epilogue leaps forward in time to conveniently tie off questions like who marries who (J.K. Rowling, I’m looking at you).
I’ve shared a few lessons from readers and it struck me that it would also be helpful to include some positive ideas. Complaining about every book I read makes me sound like quite the jackass.
One thing I love to see in books I read is expertise. When you can tell that somebody knows what they’re talking about, when they can describe something with such detail that they’ve clearly become an expert—that rocks. It doesn’t matter if they’re actually an expert or they’re just really good at faking it. However they do it, I love it.
One example is in Ashfall by Mike Mullin. And it happens several times throughout the book. I may not believe him about the weight of ash, but he shows his expertise in other areas. The main character, Alex, knows his taekwondo. He knows how to handle a bo staff and knows how to take down a much larger opponent. And it’s presented in a realistic, I-learned-in-a-safe-class type way. He’s horrified when he accidentally kills an opponent and compares striking someone in the face to hitting the punching bag. Not only does the writing describe these skills in a way only an expert could, but he works in those details in a realistic way that’s authentic to the character (Note: Don’t work in details just to show off your research).
Later Alex encounters Darla and she knows her way around the farm. When she skins a rabbit, jury rigs a toilet, or makes a homemade smoke house, it’s completely believable.
I remember another example from Open Heart by Frederick Buechner that I read an excerpt of in college. It so perfectly captured a high school classroom that years later I had to track down the book and read it. I first read that passage more than a decade ago and I still remember it. Expertise doesn’t necessarily have to be skills, it’s the experiences that make your writing completely believable.
I could read good expertise writing all day long. It doesn’t matter if the skill is accounting or unloading a truck, if you do it right it can be mesmerizing.
The greatest sin in science fiction is when your science isn’t believable. Yes, it’s science fiction, so it doesn’t have to be true, but you should at least make it believable. It doesn’t have to be possible, but your job is to make me think it’s possible.
My current example for this is Ashfall by Mike Mullen. A super volcano has erupted, covering Iowa in a foot or two of ash. It’s also been raining, turning the ash into a wet slurry. But suddenly that wet ash is causing buildings to collapse. Not one or two, but almost every building collapsing under the weight of a few feet of ash.
Huh? Is ash really that heavy? We easily had two feet of accumulated snow last year and roofs weren’t collapsing. I have a hard time believing that ash is that much heavier than snow.
Now I’m just a dumb reader, what do I know? I didn’t do the research: Apparently ash is heavier than snow. But you have to make it convincing. Give me reasons to believe the science (especially if your science is indeed fiction). In this case it could have been a simple comment comparing ash and snow. Or a little more variation on which buildings collapsed (my take on the research suggests that in an area with heavy snowfall like Iowa, more of the buildings would have survived).
In the end you want your reader thinking about your characters, in this case worrying how he’s going to make it and if he’ll be reunited with his family. You don’t want your reader focusing on something silly, like whether or not ash could collapse roofs.