Loose Ends and Razor Cuts
I just finished a book (writing one, not reading one, that would be less impressive) and while on the scrounge for anything to do except start my new one, I asked for blog post ideas. This one is from Lis Paice, who always brings the good questions.
How do you approach tying up loose ends at the end of a book?
Let’s talk about loose ends!
Just to get it out of the way: Sometimes we leave things unresolved on purpose. In a romance series, a major secondary character’s problems may well just have to fester through two or three novels until it’s their turn to be the MC. I left a whacking great unsolved mystery at the end of Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen because it’s a plot driver for the second book of the duology. However, I did so with a big neon signpost indicating FUTURE MYSTERY-INVESTIGATION HERE, giving the reader the clear nod that it isn’t forgotten about. And, crucially, the lack of resolution there doesn’t impact the MCs’ happy ending at all. Those things are dangling threads left for future works rather than loose ends.
What constitutes an actual loose end? I would say it’s a character whose fate the reader feels they have been set up to expect (someone we like left without resolution, someone we hate left unpunished), or a mystery that will be forever unexplained, or a problem that’s been set up with no solution offered. It is something that makes us say, ‘Hang on, what about…?’ It’s unsatisfactory because the author has brought something to our attention, and not dealt with it.
So what to do about loose ends?
First, identify them. I will here deploy one of the two big weapons in the editing arsenal: Chekhov’s Gun. Chekhov’s Gun is the law of loose ends, and it says, basically, if you dress your set with a gun hanging over the mantelpiece, someone had better bloody fire it.
But KJ, you say, some houses just have decorative firearms! Is every gun hanging over a fireplace fired in reality? Of course not. This is why fiction is more satisfying than life: it’s not full of unnecessary clutter. Of course, novels can afford more stage dressing than, er, stages, but even so, if you specifically draw the reader’s attention to a gun over the fireplace—well, you don’t actually have to fire it. You can hide the missing will in the muzzle, have a massive row over who’s going to inherit it, use it as the springboard for a really good joke / violent row, or stab someone with the dagger hanging below it that you slipped in to the description in a casual manner so the reader thinks, Ha, you totally got me there, I thought he’d be shot!
You can do any of those or much more. But if you’ve specifically drawn the reader’s attention to something (gun on wall, secondary character in need of help, stolen ring, heroine’s uncanny ability to memorise long strings of numbers, the hero’s father’s mysterious death) you need to use it in some way, or the reader will think Hang on, what about…?
Let’s talk about how!
Stop here. Go back three paragraphs to ‘First identify them.’ Reread. Tell me what I’m going to discuss next.
Seriously, imagine that I didn’t move on to the second big weapon in the editing arsenal. How annoying would that be? If you set it up, knock it down.
The second weapon is of course Occam’s Razor. This is the principle of parsimony: do not put in more elements than you can help. It can be phrased as, Find the simplest solution that works. If you require a minor character who does X thing, and later you need a character to dispense Y information, see if the same guy can do both X and Y. If Q is the solution to one problem, see if you can make it solve another problem as well. That saves the reader’s brain space and, if well executed, makes you look like a genius with your cunningly converging plotlines.
As I said in the first paragraph (did you really think it would be irrelevant?) I’ve just finished a novel. I struggled with this one because it’s a road-trip romance, which made my first draft feel very much like a sequence of stuff happening (because it, er, was). The hero, a duke travelling incognito because of a bet, meets the other hero, a disgraced layabout. They get in a fight. They meet a runaway and help them. They go somewhere else. The plot was a series of event, event, event, each of them satisfactory in itself and propelling the romance along, but not actually contributing to an overall story shape. Believe it or not, this was intentional (I did the synopsis while in Covid recovery, apparently I wasn’t entirely well yet), and I planned to tie it all up with one hero helping the other win his bet. Wooop. The romance actually developed very nicely in the first draft, but the plot…was not.
So I looked for my loose ends/Chekhov’s guns.
- Minor characters for whom the reader would want resolution (people in need of help or love, villains in need of comeuppance)
- Events that just happened and had no further significance
I specifically looked at the unresolved problems that had to be dealt with to get my MCs to a HEA.
- They are a duke and a disgraced layabout and thus cannot associate
- They need a way to be together safely in 1820ish
And I sharpened Occam’s razor.
- I took an early plot event that just happened, and brought our heroes back to face the consequences of their actions then, provoking a key turning point in the relationship, and also dealing with a minor character who had previously got away with things.
- I wove the story of the runaway and the disgraced layabout together so they had the same villain. Then I realised the villain could also be the motivator of the Duke’s plotline. Suddenly, instead of three separate storylines, I had three interweaving ones with a common external factor, which could then all work together to a single mutually satisfactory conclusion. And because they were interweaving, that led me to a far better climax, not just winning the bet, but also dealing with the villain–in a way that fixed one of the couple’s problems while they were at it. Motherlode.
- I took a character who desperately needed an ending, and made him into the solution for the MCs’ other problem. I had originally envisaged him as a completely different person who would have his ending in his own book, so this change required some substantial rewriting. But once I saw the shape of the hole that had to be filled, I could see what shape the character should be. It meant jettisoning a future (theoretical) book for the sake of the current one, but sometimes Occam’s razor is cut-throat.
The process of identifying my loose ends and applying Occam’s razor to them allowed me to pull the book together to be a much tighter, cohesive whole. Check your draft for them, weave them in, and make them work for you.
As it happens, I have just tied up some other loose ends. In my The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting (to be re-released by Orion next year!) the hero Robin mentions his long lost brother Toby. I doubt anybody was surprised by Toby getting his own book (A Thief in the Night, out in e and audio now). It was absolutely necessary, loose end-wise, that the brothers should be reunited, but there was nowhere to do that in either book.
Luckily, we have the internet. ‘A Rose By Any Name’ is the epilogue to both Robin and Toby’s stories with their reunion. It will be available in my newsletter and in my Facebook group tomorrow (that’s Wednesday 18th April if you’re reading this in the future). For people who are allergic to both newsletters and Facebook, I’ll put it in the Free Reads section in due course but not immediately because marketing, sorry.
“the shape of the hole that had to be filled”
That’s what I look for now when I’ve got a first draft but I know it’s not quite done. 🙂
I find that a really useful way to solve a problem: once you work out what shape the answer has to be, you’re half way there.
It’s interesting to read this right now, because I just read a book — Kate Hardy by D.E. Stevenson — that staggered me with the number of loose ends it left. It’s like someone told the author, “okay, you’re running out of pages, make them kiss and that’s it.” I’m deeply frustrated!
Perhaps even worse, Stevenson did write another book in which one loose end from this one was tied up in the most… causal, dismissive, disappointing way possible. It felt downright mean.