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On Endings and Non-Endings

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When I first decided to write a series — in this case, the matriarchal fantasy series The Five Queendoms — it was an easy choice. I wanted to create a rich world too complex to fully explore in just one book, and I wanted to follow the course of characters’ intertwining lives over many years, so a series was the most logical option. Genre, too, factored in. When I was writing historical fiction, standalone novels made the most sense, but fantasy readers love a big juicy series. I decided I was ready, and leapt in.

And for two novels, it all went according to plan. But as most of us know, writing and publishing are overlapping pursuits that don’t always line up perfectly. And I have a contract that only accounts for three novels, even if I feel like I could write novels set in this world I’ve created for years and years and years.

So my third book will be the end of a trilogy… while leaving a number of doors open for following these characters and others through an ongoing series of events, and hopefully, books.

Let’s just call that a bit of a challenge.

After writing a 90K-word draft that treated the third book as a continuation and not a completion, I had to step back and reconsider my options. I could submit a book that didn’t end a trilogy, and almost certainly have it rejected by the publisher, which would lead to a whole other set of ramifications and decisions. I could rewrite it completely to tie up all the loose ends and close out the trilogy in a final sort of way, which definitely flew in the face of what I wanted artistically. After considering both of those options thoroughly, I did what I so often do: I chose the middle path.

(The hard one, let’s be clear.)

Here’s what finally helped me figure out how to do it: I put myself in the shoes of a TV writer. I imagined my task as writing the season finale of a series that might or might not be renewed. It happens on TV all the time, right?

So: no cliffhangers. (Books one and two, though each resolved the main conflict of a self-contained story, also introduced the main conflict that the next book in the series would address.) Book three had to have a satisfying ending that followed naturally from books one and two, in addition to resolving its own self-contained story. My rule for standalone and series writing alike is this: the beginning of any book makes a promise that the end of the book must keep.

But there are ways to end without ending. Books one and two both planted seeds that haven’t yet grown to full fruition, and the trick of the “season finale” approach is to avoid disappointing readers with what you choose to leave unresolved. You can’t make every reader happy with every decision. But I’m hoping that the way I’ve chosen to resolve book three will thread that needle.

How would you solve the dilemma of ending a story for now without ending it forever?

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