STICKING THE LANDING — WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO FINISH A SERIES WELL?
Sticking the landing … what does that mean for a reader, or an author? What is satisfying or frustrating, and why? As with most questions related to writing (and publishing), the answer is it depends. Some readers are not fussed about the tone of the ending, but just want everything tied up neatly. Others want an ending that matters, which pays tribute to the characters and their journey, and the sacrifices they have made. Some are all right with any ending, as long as there’s no deus ex machina! Every reader looks for something different.
Which means endings are where any differences between an author’s vision and a reader’s collide. If a reader has imagined a story that isn’t quite rooted in the text, then they’re in for a rough time. Quite possibly, they’re going to be upset, even angry, and that’s not good — although it’s quite unintentional. As an author, the people who have made it this far are your biggest fans, which is what makes upsetting them so hard, especially as you don’t mean to. They’ve lasted through the series so far, possibly first-book syndrome, and middle-book syndrome, to the final instalment. They have expectations, and their own take on the story, and that means you won’t be able to keep everyone happy … You are walking a knife edge at this stage of a series. Elements that you as an author believe are personal victories are going to be complained about, even ridiculed. But that’s the thing with writing — you can’t please everyone. If you try to, you’re probably going to disappoint them all, for varying reasons.
Here are a few thoughts on what an author needs to do to finish a series well:
Everything has to make sense in the universe you have created — you should resolve threats and conflicts in a way that doesn’t challenge a reader’s suspension of disbelief. Don’t have an unfailingly moral character do something unequivocally evil! Or a character who has been altruistic all the way through the series suddenly become an ass. Or forget a character has a certain ability which would have easily resolved an issue had they remembered …
It’s important the ending is thematically appropriate. An epic series is usually many stories from different character POVs all wrapped up into one. The tales are different: some tragic, some humorous, some heroic. All of them have a different tone, each ending has to gel thematically, and has to fit with the tone of the story as a whole. If a dark, gritty story finishes with rainbow unicorns and fluffy kittens, then the ending clashes with the tenor of the story and readers are probably not going to be happy. Or maybe they will be … with enough foreshadowing …
Closure needs to be felt by the reader, a sense of achievement, and perhaps a sense of peace. Characters need to earn what they’ve achieved, and their experiences and sacrifices have to mean something. Sacrifice is an important component to endings, especially if it’s at a time when the reader thinks there’s no way out of a situation. Although a character sacrificing another might not bring cheers …!
For my series, I like to leave a few threads hanging and let readers imagine what happens after. I believe if there are still questions in the reader’s mind, it adds to the sense of realism. And it’s fun to be left wondering … a little bit anyway! Fantasy series tend to get so big there are too many threads to resolve, but don’t leave big questions unanswered — wrap up the major promises you’ve made as an author. Conclude this particular arc, but leave enough to promise more to come. The end of the beginning, so to speak. I like to think my fantasy worlds are complex and rich enough to support many more novels, so I never want to finish a story so conclusively there’s no going back. Some readers may feel empty or sad when the series is complete, so if you do plan a continuation let them know. Of course, then you’ll receive the inevitable questions on when it will be published!