Back in June, Brent chatted with Craig Hanks from The Legendarium Podcast. They talked about endings, Tolkien, expectations, Harry Potter, whys and hows, GRRM, and Lightbringer, among other ideas and stories.
Here are a few different ways for you to (hear/see/read) the half-hour talk I gave while on THE BURNING WHITE tour. We’ve uploaded the audio recording here (polished by Craig Hanks from The Legendarium Podcast), as well as a written transcript below. There’s also a video of the talk I gave at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on my YouTube channel. It’s kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure, but the adventure is pretty much the same in each medium.
Without further ado:
On Ending Well
I’ve put you into the heads of a lot of extreme characters over the years: the leaders of magical orders, assassins, emperors, rebels, prisoners, and… chubby ursine turtles.
today I aim to do something far more challenging: today, for the next 29
minutes, I want to make you a mild-mannered, bespectacled… demi-god.
this point, I put on my reading glasses… or spectacles, if you will]
took me from age thirty-one to forty-two to write the Lightbringer Series, and
for a good chunk of these eleven years I’ve been working on how to end it well.
So today I’m going to talk about endings: first an author’s experience of an
ending, then the reader’s, and then what we might learn from those.
you’re an author of epic fantasy, cruising down the story-telling freeway. 85
miles per hour… 95… 110…
push the car to its limiter.
a younger writer, driving a 1993 Acura Legend out on the empty plains of
Eastern Montana, the car starts to get squirrelly at about 120 miles per hour,
but the limiter doesn’t kick in 135.
story. Yes, I was young and stupid once.
I am no longer… young.)
But now with some experience under your belt, you’ve traded up. Learned a few things. Now your narrative daily driver is a new 750 horsepower Porsche Taycan.
you’ve picked up some skills over the years. Beginnings? You can jet off the
starting line better than most. Frankly, you might not be best in the genre at beginnings,
but you’re good enough to enable your middles: Now, many writers hate middles,
hate middle books, despise what they call “the middle muddle”.
tend to get lost. They take wrong turns.
you. This is where you and most epic fantasy writers shine.
you at the wheel the engine roars as it climbs the narrative peaks, growls
through the downshifts as you enter the curves–and it sings as you come flying out of the
twists. You are the master of the road, weaving through plot-complication
traffic with ease, hopping from Point-of-View to Point-of-View like a stuntman
leaping from car to car in those cinematic masterpieces: The Fast and The Very Angry.
then you see it.
always knew it was coming. It shouldn’t be a surprise.
you hadn’t quite realized it would look so… daunting.
after the next mountain pass, straddling the road, stretching from the east to
the west, high enough to blot out the sun:
the wall, emblazoned in fire: two words. THE END.
of your passengers yells, “Woohoo! I can’t wait!”
You have passengers now? Where’d they come from?
that’s right, you picked up your readers’ hopes and expectations somewhere
along the way. Maybe… maybe you made some rash promises about your
you let people assume things: like that a trilogy would have only three books.
they assumed that since you were so good at beginnings and middles that surely
you must be equally good at endings.
at this point, you don’t have a whole lot of choices. You can…
Stop the car in the middle of the road and pretend it’s normal and of no
concern that that black smoke is billowing from the engine.
There’s a choice B: an off-ramp: write more sequels!
uh, I’m gonna take us through those mountains,” you say, “We’ll come
into that ending from a much better direction.”
This not only buys you time, it has the added advantage of maybe even being
I wrote the first draft of Lightbringer 4, it was over 1600 manuscript pages
long–and that WAS the short version.
You don’t want to write the short
version. A mere 1,600 pages? What are you, a writer of Cliff Notes?
You are a successful epic fantasy writer, and you don’t climb molehills, you climb the continental divide, tires squealing on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier Park, drifting around hairpin turns, frightening pedestrians into leaping from the cliffside road at your perilous passage.
to Falling Pedestrian] <Sorry! I was willing to sacrifice you for my art!>
all, if you were happy with leaving rich valleys of conflict unexplored, you’d
have simply taken an airplane to your destination, rather than driving through
the mountain passes five times.
But, whether you add two books or eleven, The End
you’ve written “the end” before–after each mountain peak. But an
ending, and The Ending are categorically different. An ending aims
at only partial reader satisfaction. An end of an epic fantasy book in the
middle of its series is working perfectly if the reader says, “That
was great… but I still really wanna know…”
The End is different.
if you do add more books, you shouldn’t be too surprised when your passengers
start asking, “Are we there yet? You aren’t lost, are you?”
seems now your Porsche Taycan has morphed: into the still-sporty Tesla Model X.
How’d that happen?
you did keep picking up quirky hitchhikers, then let them navigate for a
chapter or two, and eventually they became Point of View characters.
well, you added so many subplots, you had to make that stuntman’s leap over
into one of those 15-passenger Mercedes Benz vans they call a Sprinter.
(A name that proves, contrary to popular belief, that the Germans do appreciate
with your expertise and sheer guts, you get some surprising handling out of
that sucker, but the margin for error shrinks.
to get off to a quick start with a novel late in the series? Not so fast,
bucko. Some fans have just read (or re-read) the previous book. They’re
ready to go! But other fans haven’t read that book in two or three years!
They’re gonna need an on-ramp to get them up to speed.
if you start slow to let those kids find their seats and buckle up, you just
know the other kids are gonna get bored–and you do not want bored kids on a
school trip, flinging Cheez-its at each other’s heads and making fun of the
somehow now you’re now driving a souped-up school bus down the last mountain
pass. This is one bad-A bus, but it’s still a bus: A bus crammed full of readers bouncing up and
down, kicking the seats, some of them staring in completely the wrong
direction, as if you promised to drive them to the moon rather than the verdant
plains of the ending.
and now that you look around, you’re not just driving a bus: Now you’re leading
an entire race team. You need to get them all to the finish line at the same
time. Every subplot has to matter to the main plot, every character you
introduced with such reckless joy in the last 1.4 million words needs to show
that they were there for a purpose. Everything needs to be addressed–not
necessarily tied up in a neat bow, but acknowledged, and done so in a manner
that makes sense chronologically, relationally, logically, emotionally,
thematically–and also puts the right characters in the lead when you finally
cross the line.
intellectual effort of weaving everything together in the final book is like
taking the SAT.
days a week. For three years.
as you get the team in order, making sure everyone’s in their places–you may
also see that your readers have somehow blurred themselves into your
we read a good book, first, we’re drawn into a scene. By degrees, we trade our
reality for the book’s reality: the feel of the chair under us, the
slightly-too-cold air of the room we’re sitting in, the weight of the pages in
hand or the pixels on the screen–they all disappear as we come to stand in a
new world, surrounded by new people.
just by itself is a marvel.
with certain books, the ego dissolves further still: the reader doesn’t simply float like a ghost
observing a wonderful cast playing make-believe together; instead, the world
becomes real, and the reader becomes friends with the characters. Their
thoughts and emotions blend with each other’s. In a way, they become the
characters, maybe identifying more with this one or that, but the reader’s soul
expands to hold new personalities, new ways of thinking, new ways to grow.
now you’re driving a bus filled with readers’ hopes and with their very souls.
And you’re driving… At a wall.
characters are staring at you. They know.
you hit the ending, some of them may die. And all of them are going to be put
on ice. Maybe you’ll revive some of them someday in a sequel–but, what
are the odds? They know, no matter what, for them things will never be the
ending is their end.
are part of you, and your adventures together are almost over.
readers understand what’s coming, and don’t want it: You get emails
saying, “Can’t you just write these books forever?” or “How
about seven books, or nine! That’d fit the colors, Brent!”
not wrong. There are ten thousand ways to write a finale, and maybe twenty that
could be satisfying. Some of those satisfying ways would require seven
books, or nine–but if you change the plan, you’ll have to make the trade-off
that some subplots will have to get padded or even ignored for a book or so.
you’ve seen this: the main character shows up in the first scene, and then
disappears until the last scene? Or a book gets split into half of the Points
of View, with the other half not coming until years later?
sounds like I’m throwing shade. I’m not. When a series grows in length and
complexity past a certain point, it gets to where certain things are impossible
because of the structures of fiction and human psychology itself. You don’t
blame a bus driver for not being able to pull wheelies or split lanes or park
in a space six feet wide.
some point, there are simply trade-offs that must be made–and those get
exponentially more difficult after you pass a million words and seven or so
fully-developed point of view characters.
reader may have a different perfect potential ending in mind. Many of those are
literally impossible–but even out of all the possible satisfying endings, you
can only deliver one.
a Domino’s delivery driver, you’re going to race up to the party, and someone’s
going to open the pizza box and grunt: “When I told you on the phone to
surprise me, I didn’t mean add olives!”
else will say, “I know I never mentioned I needed it, but this is gluten
Someone else: “Ugh. Cheese? On a pizza? This is Portland, man!”
you, writer, are fearless. You will not pad your novel. You will make the
tradeoffs that you judge to be the best, even knowing some backseat drivers
will criticize them no matter what.
So you swerve past the stopped busses of those authors whose nerve or art has failed them, you roar past the burned-out wrecks of series that ended poorly, and with everything in you shouting defiance, you ram into that wall: The End.
an explosion here, and not everyone survives.
no longer, “Maybe this extraneous detail will make all the
difference” there’s no more, “Maybe this bloated section is actually
the lynchpin to the whole thing!” there’s no more, “I hope we get
lots of pages with this character, they’re the best!”
no more “I really think the author ought to–“
more “This character really ought to–“
is no more ought. There is only is.
hands are off the wheel.
characters are finished. Alive or dead, well-served or ill-used, their time is
away from imagining you’re the author now, and imagine your future self reading
the end of this series or some other.
the reader, are thrown clear in the blast, your soul ripped away from the
temporary fictional minds and bodies you inhabited for so many hours.
people call this the book hangover. I think it’s worse than that.
I think it hits particularly hard in a series that’s being written as we read:
As we read an ongoing series, we see the characters change, and as the years go
by, we’re changing, too.
In a very literal way, many of us grew up with Harry Potter.
this is a kind of bereavement: The characters STOP, and reader has to go
on without them. What consolation is there in this:
[dumb voice] “Your make-believe friends aren’t dead, you can re-read! Cherish your memories!”
don’t want to cherish old memories of my friends; I want to make new ones with
is why we mourn the end.
soul rises from this dead paper on the operating room table, and in the burning
white light of the book afterlife…
the burning white–who wrote this?!
the plain old regular white light of our book afterlife, we can at last see the
whole story revealed, and therefore judge the whole.
our first questions after we finish reading might be technical and trivial:
“Did we ever learn what the one woman did?”
that one guy get here?”
this line mean that these two are going to get together someday?”
at some point, most of us give ourselves permission to feel.
we enter a mystery.
for a few precious moments, we stand on holy ground as we grieve, grapple, and
things come together here: the author’s skill, the reader’s skill, and Truth.
criticism engages only one leg of a tripod: how well did the author write? It’s
a worthy question, if a limited and simplistic one–I say we have to add at
very least “for whom” to that question. T.S. Eliot is going to fare
poorly if you judge it as children’s literature–oddly, most kids just can’t
make head or tail of the sections written in Sanskrit. Similarly, you’re really
going to have to stretch it to write a dissertation on Dr. Seuss–though now that
I say it, I’m just sure some sad sap out there has written a paper casting HOP
ON POP as a post-structuralist attack on the patriarchy.
as a professional, I spend the bulk of my time worrying about writing well–for
all sorts of different audiences, simultaneously.
there’s a second leg: how well did the reader read? And this isn’t always a
question of intelligence or education. A critic who has to review a hundred
books a year can easily get bored working through ninety-nine Grim-dark Gore
Festivals, or ninety-nine Dystopian Young Adult Novels with a love triangle and
a bland heroine—thus it can be easy for that critic to fall into valuing
novelty above all else–even if the one novel novel out of a 100 kind of
stinks in many respects.
Or a certain literary style may simply not be in vogue: The highly intelligent and learned members of Nobel Prize committee rejected Tolkien in the early 60’s, saying that the Lord of the Rings quote, “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.”
that kind of tragic cephalorectal insertion isn’t the only reason one can read
When I was a child, I hated the ending of The Lord of The Rings.
don’t get me wrong: I read those books over and over. I loved them.
as a child, I could tell it was by design that Frodo couldn’t go really back to
the Shire. Ultimately, he couldn’t even stay in Middle Earth! He’d won the war
but was scarred forever by it, even crippled; the end felt tragic rather than
I DIDN’T LIKE IT ONE BIT.
fantasy was telling me truths about war and suffering and sacrifice, and
I rejected it–because I didn’t like the truth.
why did I re-read?
of the third leg of the tripod: there actually are fair criticisms to be made
of Tolkien’s narrative choices, and my own reading skills had a lot of maturing
to do, but his story resonated.
calls unto deep. Something in those pages was true and beautiful.
this saying that if you want to teach someone how to spot counterfeit $100 bills,
you don’t show them a bunch of different counterfeits to study all the little
errors possible; you have them study the real thing closely. Then when you show
them the counterfeit, they’ll just be able to sense that something’s not quite
was me with Tolkien. Tolkien was the real deal. I would read him, then go to
some other fantasy author, often get that sense of encountering an imitation
rather than the thing itself–and then I’d go back to Tolkien, bummer ending
when you judge a book or a series, I’d encourage you to listen to your intuitions.
They’ll tell you if you’ve encountered a counterfeit, even if your mind can’t
quite tell what’s wrong.
you finish a story, what do you want for these characters you love? Maybe
justice? Or perhaps justice mixed with mercy. Maybe a lot of mercy. But not too
much–it’s gotta feel like those characters did their part, like what they did mattered.
it’s too tidy, too easy, we reject it. It doesn’t feel real.
someone might point out that that’s kind of a funny objection: A make-believe
character doesn’t feel real?
just because it’s make-believe doesn’t mean it’s not True.
listen to your whole self when you close a book. Listen to what happens inside:
you were pleasantly surprised by that twist, or maybe you saw it coming from
miles away–but either way, after you think about it for two seconds, you can’t
imagine the characters would have been surprised. The author’s skills
failed–or maybe they just got lazy.
maybe the ending is clever, or edgy, or original but it infuriates you. It
satisfies your head, but not your heart. The author didn’t give you what you really
wanted deep down, or maybe what they had to tell you isn’t true.
maybe the ending was happy, but the characters didn’t really earn it.
The author gave you what you wanted, but not the way you wanted it. Maybe
what you wanted for these characters doesn’t ring true with what they’ve done
or who they’ve been.
maybe–as happened to me with Tolkien–an author will tell you an unwelcome
truth. You might have to make peace with it. You might come to say, “I
hate that this thing happened to this character because I love her, but it
really is the only way it could’ve worked out.”
you’ll nod your head even as you purse your lips. “Yeah. This character suffered
cruelly all the way through, but in the end…”
it interesting how much value we place on how a story ends? How the ending shapes
our judgment of the entire work?
tells his best friend, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
rough hew them how we will.”
whether we believe there’s a divinity or not, most of us would like it
to be true that someone out there cares about our story as much as we care
about the stories we read.
does it mean that we seem to structure our own messy lives into stories?
Mom, tell me the story again about how you met Dad.”
will you tell us one of your war stories?”
man, tell me that one again about the chihuahua and the sleeping pills.”
tell other people stories about ourselves, and we even tell God stories about
like twenty-eight hundred years ago, a guy named Nehemiah wrote out part of his
own life’s story, probably with his own hand, and he stops the narrative to
throw in this aside to God. He says, “Remember me… my God, and do not
blot out what I have so faithfully done…” He’s got his quill, writing,
and he uses the term ‘blot out’ as if there’s an ink blob on the page.
understanding his own story as if there’s an Author, and he’s saying, “Hey!
God! Look, even if I’m a minor character in this drama, can you please tell me
that what I’ve done matters?”
Tell me I’m not a redshirt.
even tell ourselves stories about ourselves.
of you might have one that goes like this:
that terrible thing happened to me when I was a kid. It wasn’t my fault, but it
screwed me up for ten years. Even after I knew better as an adult, it still
screwed me up in year fifteen and sixteen and eighteen, but in year twenty, I
finally kicked that thing to the curb. Now I’m starting a new story, and things
will be different for my kids.”
incident, setbacks, climax, resolution. The end.
your story goes like that–good job! Congratulations. That’s a great
its ending matters. I wouldn’t want anyone to judge you before they get
to that resolution.
we want in our fiction: what we want for these characters we love, what we hope
the Author/demigod gives them is nothing less than what we hope for ourselves,
in real life: Will the universe notice that I made good? Will God blot me out,
and delete my meandering little subplot? Or is He shaping my end, despite all
this rough hewing I’m doing?
a series ends, our egos that were dissolved in the narrative will float
back to our own lives. We will put ourselves back together; we will go on.
a story isn’t written well, if we don’t read it well, if it doesn’t feel true, then
it isn’t going to become part of us.
there’s nothing there to wrestle with, nothing that pushes us or pulls us away
from where we’re standing right now, then it won’t move us.
won’t change us.
We’ll happily close a second-rate beach read and say, “Ah! I’m so happy that Frump Girl ended up with that hot young billionaire! Wouldn’t that be nice if things really happened like that? [*sigh*]
Okay, what’s for dinner?”
Lightbringer, I have dared more.
isn’t worthy of the name unless the tightrope is suspended, netless, over a
chasm of possible failures.
admit, here at the end, that what I brought to the pages of the Lightbringer
Series may well have been more Ford Taurus wagon than Porsche Taycan, but I’ve
taken my jalopy and put the pedal to the floor.
haven’t only pushed my characters past breaking; I’ve stretched my own skills
to their limit, and I’ve come to the end of myself.
to bring you light, at times in writing these last two books, I have literally locked
myself in my office, lights out, with blackout curtains drawn and only a
computer monitor to illuminate the room to help me focus for sometimes fourteen
hours a day, sometimes seven days a week.
healthy. Don’t recommend it.)
times, I wondered if these books were going to cost me my marriage. I’ve lain
awake at three am with chest pains radiating down my arm, trying to convince
myself this was just a panic attack–but wondering if writing this book was
literally going to kill me.
have given everything I have to write a series that, to be frank, has many
imperfections–but it also carries all my skill, all my courage, all my passion,
and all my joy.
story has been part of me for many years now, but now my time with it is
with fear and trembling, but also with faith and excitement, I hand it over to you.
will come to this story’s end in a few weeks, or perhaps only days or…
if I have wrought well and you read well, this story won’t die.
In mysterious ways, it may live on, integrated
into your story in the way you Turtle-Bear your way through a season of
suffering, in the way Karris’s fierce faith inspires you to keep fighting, in
the way you get back up one more time after you’ve failed again and again, in
the way you take one courageous step toward reconciliation with someone you
has been a terror and also the highest privilege I can imagine to be given the chance
to make something beautiful and true for you.