Writing the last few chapters of a novel is a really weird feeling. You sit there with your characters, and the trick is not to think ahead too much. The trap you can get into is, “If he does this now, then that means this will have to happen later and then that and then the other . . .” and you overthink it, and you become paralyzed. The closer you get to the end of the novel, the more focused your thinking has to be.
The trick to overcoming paralysis is to stay right in the moment with the character, asking: realistically, what would he do to get out of this particular situation. Don’t think past the moment, just ask, if you were him, what would you do? (Because, ultimately, just like in Freud’s interpretation of dreams, your characters are all you.)
That’s when the revelations come. That’s when you realize that this character finally admits to something he’s been thinking all along, that you hadn’t realized until this moment. That’s when the character decides to do something that seems out of character, but when you think about it, it only seems that way because you hadn’t given him credit for enough depth and complexity to begin with.
That’s when an honest character lies, or a liar is finally honest. That’s when a self-serving character shows a hint of compassion– not enough to turn the ending into a Hallmark card, but just enough to make the reader feel better about the human race. Or, the other way.
Perhaps a character you thought was the good guy turns out to be bad. Or, someone whom you always thought was weak, shows moral fiber in the face of stress. His or her totally undramatic lack of weakness in that moment becomes the surprising little twist at the end.
A twist at the end doesn’t have to be about someone doing something. It can be a more subtle moment, where someone refrains from doing something, and that shows a bit of what the character is made of. You see a depth there that you hadn’t seen before.
Talking about this recently with a friend, she asked, “But don’t writers outline their stories first?” Excellent question. Speaking for myself, yes, I do, especially when I’m ghostwriting for a client, but while I’m writing, I usually think of something that’s much better than what I outlined. As the characters come alive, they tend to take the story in a different direction from what’s expected, so, either sooner or later, I go off the reservation, and the outline becomes irrelevant.
Endings, for me, are usually about relationships between people, and it’s hard to know how the relationship will evolve until you get there. That’s why the ending is a very delicate place, where the author or ghostwriter is called upon to really see herself in the characters.
That’s one of the things I like best about ghostwriting memoirs, really. I do see myself in all the characters, which enables me, I think, to employ a mixture of compassion and criticism in writing all of them.