the ending is nearer than you think

by Toni McGee Causey

I’m going to admit to something.

I will often go read the end of a book waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay before the middle. Sometimes I will read it after I’ve only read a couple of chapters. Many times I have stood in the store, read the opening, flipped to the end and read it, then bought the book.

[Waiting for the flailing and the heart attacks to subside.]

Back with me?

I know, it’s kinda like hearing someone licks the toothpaste tube before they re-cap it, or eats dessert before breakfast.

I know. [You want to watch a bunch of writers’ heads spin around? Admit this at a conference. I have several friends who think I’m nuts.] [Okay, probably most of my friends think I’m nuts, but we aren’t going to talk about that today.]

It never really occurred to me, to be honest, that this might not be the natural way of things until friends’ gaped at me when I mentioned it. I mean, I was the kid who opened her Christmas presents ahead of time, played with them, then re-wrapped them for my parents to see under the tree. Every night. All the way up ’til Christmas morning. The first few years, they thought I had an uncanny ability to guess what was in each gift. Then, once they caught on, my dad tried several tricks to stop me. He once marked every present so that all of the marks lined up with each other a certain way, so that if I unwrapped them and wrapped them back again, the marks would not line up. I saw the marks–he’d actually done it. Then I realized a couple of nights later… after experimenting with a couple of boxes… that he wasn’t going to remember where he put those marks, so I unwrapped them, played with them, re-wrapped and put new marks, all lining up. The next year, they hid the presents at a neighbor’s house. In the neighbor’s attic.

So. Yeah. Reading the end first. Never even gonna feel guilty about that.

The first time I admitted this to someone, they were slightly horrified. [Slightly being defined as a wide-eyed double-take that may have been accompanied by an, "Are you NUTS?"] And they have continued to be horrified. Some of them even outed me to friends [coughAllisoncough] [where, I am gleeful to note, I am not the only one].

One of the big concerns–and something I’ve been teased about–is that all the careful planning I put into a book is totally ruined by people like me, who go read that end first, who don’t take the trip as the author has planned it and therefore, cannot be surprised. And my gut reaction is this: if someone can go read the end of my book and know everything they need to know to understand the story? I didn’t build in enough surprises anyway. They should read that end and think, "Wow, I’m missing something here, who is this guy / gal, why are they important here?" or "Wow, that’s bizarre, I wonder why they’re even there?" or "Holy crap, they just did what? Why?"

The truth is, the ending of a book sells the reader on the next book. But it also–if it’s done its job–makes the reader feel vindicated for having plunked down their money on this book. They should leave the story feeling immensely satisfied and surprised, feel as if the story couldn’t have turned out any other way, that it was organic, and yet, they did not see it happening like that.

The other truth is, you, as a writer, have no control over the crazy people like me, who will read the end first. I think the most difficult thing I had to accept as a writer was that sometimes, people weren’t going to read my book all in one sitting. [gasp] [real life, how dare it get in the way?] I write the book to be read as this mounting tension, the intense build of crosses and double crosses and humor which builds on other layers of humor, and if someone stops and starts a few times, that rhythm is broken. It’s like listening to a song a few lines at a time over several days: it just does not have the same impact like that as was originally intended.

So, what I take from this — and from crazy people like me — is that the ending has got to have that wow factor. If someone reads the first chapter and then reads the end, they’ve got to be confused and, at the same time, feel a sense of confidence in me… they’ve got to sense that I have confidence in where I’m taking them, and that it’s not predictable. And it’s got to be satisfying.

My analogy is the roller coaster ride. I know how the ride ends before I get on the thing. I want to see where those little cars roll in so that I know those people lived. I once was literally flying out of one the cars as a teenager on a roller coaster ride when our high school group went to Astroworld. Had the boy next to me not realized it and grabbed my ankles as they went past the safety bar… I was airborne… I’d have been out of the ride. I learned to hold on. [Didn’t stop me from riding.]

So, how about you?  Read the end before the rest of the book? Wouldn’t dream of it?  What other reading pet peeves do you have?

~*~

I have the absolute THRILL to announce that, starting next Sunday, Allison Brennan will be alternating Sundays with me. She’s not only a terrific friend, she’s one of the stellar bloggers around and I’m honored that she’s going to be here. Plus, she’s just a damned fine writer, so she’s always got great insights.

~*~

Gustav: as I write this, all hatches have been battened, supplies laid in, stores with empty shelves gape vacantly into the night, and people are evacuating. I’m keeping tabs on friends trying to fly out right now from N.O. International, including our own Alex and friend of Murderati Nancie–hopefully, by the time this posts in the morning, they will be safely on a plane. Thank you for all the kind emails–much appreciated.

23 thoughts on “the ending is nearer than you think

  1. Nancie aka Gun Tart

    Great post Toni. I don’t read the end of the book myself, but whatever works for ya.

    Gustav update from the NO Airport. Alex and I, along with Heather Graham and her family spent the night in the airport. Alex should be in the air right now and the rest of us depart in the next 2 hours.

    Reply
  2. ArkansasCyndi

    You are my long lost twin! Yes, if I’m reading and HAVE to go to sleep, I’ll read the ending. I swear, it DOESN”T ruin the book for me. Same thing with movies…just because I know how it ends (or what happens in it) doesn’t spoil the fun.

    Shhh- I was the one who unwrapped my Christmas presents, then rewrapped and put them back under the tree. An author (Betina Kahn) wrote on her blog that her sister did that. I’m thinking the sisterhood of unwrapping presents.

    Reading pet peeves – my husband (whom I love and adore) cracks the spine on every paperback! ARGH

    Reply
  3. Becky Lejeune

    I absolutely never read the end of the book first. I just can’t do it. I usually like to go in knowing as little as possible so that the whole thing is a surprise. I don’t have many pet peeves – I take good care of my books so it does bothers me if someone borrowing one of mine cracks the spine or something.

    On Gustav, my thoughts are with everyone in the path. Our families have evacuated to Texas, and even though I personally am out of it here in CO, I still have great reason for concern iregarding a good many people back home.

    Reply
  4. Tamar

    I’m another reads-the-end-early reader. In fact, that’s my only e-book peeve. Harder to flip through. Maybe it’ll break me of my habit? (Nah.)

    I come by it honestly. Genetically, even. And as a writer, I see it through a different lens than most, I suspect. One of the biggest compliments I’ve gotten so far on my new WIP was from my mother, who told me she just had to peek at the end to see who dunnit. I was so proud of myself. I’d created that itch, that GOTTA KNOW RIGHT NOW urgency in her!

    Gustav: I’m worried, a friend isn’t heading out of NOLA till this afternoon. I can only imagine the hella traffic jam he’ll face.

    Thinking of you guys, and of three years ago.

    Reply
  5. Dana King

    I don’t read the end first (I don’t even read the plot notes on the flap before I read the book), but I also don’t think the ending is the be-all and end-all of a book. If the rest of the book is dreck, I don’t care if the ending invoked the Second Coming; it’s too late. For me, reading is a zen kind of thing. It’s the journey I care about. Not that the ending can stink, but I am much more forgiving of a weak ending to a strong book than to a strong ending to a weak book.

    Of course I realize I’m in a minority small enough to hold club meetings in an airplane restroom, so I know I can’t do that when I write.

    Reply
  6. R.J. Mangahas

    Interesting post Toni. A great quote I read on a MySpace page said, “I always read the end first. If I don’t and I die tomorrow, I’ll never know how it ends.

    I personally try not to read the end first, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

    Reply
  7. Allison Brennan

    Yes, I outed Toni, and I’m always shocked when I encounter people who read the end of the book first. But I STILL encounter them! I think one-third of the readers in this world read the end first. I couldn’t do it. But I didn’t open my Christmas presents early. The one time I went searching for presents I was 9 or so and I found one present and I felt so guilty about it, I confessed . . . and I never did it again. In fact, I remember so vividly how disappointed I was in me that even if I accidentally find out what present I’m getting because my husband left the browser window open after ordering, or a recognizable logo bag in the garbage, I feel guilty and it’s not even my fault!!!

    It’s actually not that I expect my readers to trust me to keep my h/h alive and together by the end of the book. It’s that for me, I can’t read a book twice. If I know who did it, or how so-and-so got together, or who dies, the book is boring. I know some readers like the journey of reading–and I do!–but I like the unexpected.

    Thanks, Toni, for your compliments, but seriously, when Toni first broached blogging here, I freaked out. I’m not worthy. But I’ll try.

    Reply
  8. spyscribbler

    I read the ending first, too. Not always. Sometimes, when I start a book, I get the feeling that I know exactly how it’s going to end. If it ends that way, I don’t bother reading the book.

    Have you ever read a book backwards? I always feel the end should mirror the beginning, in that there are hooks to various middle parts everywhere. My theory was that it should be as enjoyable to read a book backwards as forwards, if the ending is done well.

    I’ve been right, so far. At least with those authors who are good at endings.

    Reply
  9. Louise Ure

    I’m not a “read the ending first” person, but I don’t discriminate against those who are. I just make the endings of my own books so vague that if you’re only reading the last page or so, you’ll never get it.

    Thanks to both you and Nancie for the NO update. I’ve been worried about you guys.

    Reply
  10. Lorraine.

    I skip to the back often to make sure the characters I like have survived. A couple of books ago, book I was reading had a cute little girl get kidnapped. I had to skip to the back to make sure she was rescued unharmed. On the last page, she was boarding a plane with her mother, so I returned to the point I’d left off & finished the book. If she’d been killed, the book would have been immediately discarded and the author put on my s list.I really don’t like a lot of what writers call tension, which eliminates most thriller type books for me. I have to search long & hard for good traditional mysteries, police procedurals and cozies that aren’t chick lit.

    Reply
  11. pari

    First of all, Thanks to Nancie for the Alex, Heather and HER update.

    Okay, back to the beginning . . . I mean, er, the ending.

    Yep, I’ll read the ending early. I tend to study most mysteries and don’t have the time to read them twice.

    Sometimes I do what spyscibbler does — go to the end to see if I’ve already figured out the mystery. If I have, I don’t bother reading it more.

    Other times I just want to see how the author builds to the end and have a better way of understanding it if I can track what she or he is doing.

    The one major exception is comedic novels — such as the Dortmunder series by Donald Westlake. I tried to read the ending but gave up because there are so many hilarious twists and turns, I really do just want to go for the ride.

    Reply
  12. toni mcgee causey

    You guys are making my day. I’m not the only weirdo! yay.

    Spy, I read backward often, too. For the same reason. I know that would probably drive me nuts if I thought about it as an author too much, but I do.

    Pari, I do the same thing–read the last so that I can study how the author gets there, on one pass through, because I don’t have time to re-read, but want to learn.

    Reply
  13. gayle

    I used to always read just the last page of a book first. Sometimes that would only be a couple of lines or an entire page. I don’t do that anymore. However, I have read the ending of a book when the story is so exciting that I find myself reading faster and not really paying as close attention to the writing as I would want. That way, I know the ending, and I can slow down and enjoy the writing as I no longer need to race to the ending.

    And I don’t eat dessert before breakfast, I eat it for breakfast sometimes. The joys of being an adult!

    Reply
  14. Terri Molina

    I always have to catch myself from reading the ending because I prefer to get there in the order of things…even if it takes one sitting! (which a lot of times it does!). My friend Jennifer ALWAYS reads the ending after the first couple of pages because she wants to make sure the hero and heroine end up together….uh..hello? Romance?….always an HEA!

    Glad to hear you’re safe from Gustav. I’m keeping an eye on SETX and the phone on speed dial to make sure everyone is okay. Btw…did you get my text? 😉

    Reply
  15. Jake Nantz

    Toni,

    Yep, I’ll say it. I think it’s weird as hell to check the end first. Sorry, I just do. I like the surprise, and the confidence I get when I’ve figured out the plot twists ahead of time, especially when it’s a great writer I really admire. If I catch a master twister like Deaver, I’m ready to treat myself to a steak dinner.

    At the same time, I can at least see doing it from a writer’s POV. You can then stop and analyze the writing and the plotting rather than leaning forward as you ride, trying to be the first to see the next turn. Of course, with all the restraint technology on coasters these days, books are the only place I have left to lean out and look for the next corkscrew or loop. I still haven’t gotten to the stage where I can take a book, an adventure, and analyze it. I get so few chances to lose myself in anything for any real length of time that I stubbornly refuse to give up a book to be dissected and studied rather than falling into it.

    Maybe someday.

    Everyone down there be safe. Prayers with all in the path of Gustav and those that love them and are worried.

    Reply
  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Yup, knowing how it ends doesn’t spoil it for me at all. I not only read the end of a book ahead of time, I often write it ahead of time as well. I don’t write whodunnit-type books, I write ‘I know whodunnit, but how the hell are they going to get out of this’-type books.

    This is why I can happily re-read my old favourites and re-watch old movies.

    A book’s a journey. You should enjoy the ride as much as the destination.

    But, on the other hand, I never want to know what’s in my Christmas presents ahead of time. That’s just weird ;-]

    Glad you guys are safe – we’re thinking of you.

    Reply
  17. toni mcgee causey

    Jake, I am cracking up. Thank you. I figured there were going to be a whole lot more “you weirdo!” comments. 😉

    Terri — I didn’t yet. I don’t know what’s going on with my txt stuff. I got a text from my daughter in law that they were stranded on the tarmac on their last trip (last month) and would be delayed… and it showed up two days later when they were asleep in the other room. Geez, that was handy. If you can re-send to the gmail acct., I’ll catch you there.

    [I think.]

    Reply
  18. Emilie

    Yer weird. I could never, never read the ending first. And I didn’t want to know what my Christmas presents were. I pretended to, but I’d be terribly disappointed if someone gave in and told me. It’s all about the anticipation! That’s “I gotta know” feeling propels me through the book and I’ve *earned* knowing what happens when I get there, with the characters. Weirdo… 🙂

    Reply
  19. Nancie aka Gun Tart

    Thanks everyone! I am home! I’m sure Alex is also home at this point. Heather’s flight was 30 minutes behind mine, and most of the conference people got out late Saturday or early this morning, so I think everyone should be home or on their way at this point.

    I do hope everyone else gets out safely as well, but from what I saw, the city is very prepared this time around. FEMA, Red Cross, National Guard, police officers from cities all over the country and numerous other emergency personnel were still arriving and many have been there since Thursday.

    Reply
  20. Catherine

    Toni,

    I sometimes read the end first. There’s sort of a rhyme and reason…on one hand I love the suspense and tension to build, and yet every now and then there is a character, that I really want to survive,(maybe because they’re the only bright spot in the main characters life) and I get attached…totally sucked in on an emotional level. I don’t skip ahead to see who the villain is, I check to make sure that a character I like stays alive.

    Ah, self discovery through Murderati…lol just realised that any time I do this it’s a total safety valve. If the suspense has hit some emotional buttons of my own quirks, I do skip about a bit…In my defence I’ve come a long way from the child who couldn’t handle the emotional twang that the Wonderful World of Disney would bring in the last ten minutes, with the minor key music (I’d sidle out into the kitchen when I could feel a wrenching moment build and take my cue from the music and come back when it went back to a major key)..If I find that someone doesn’t make it I’ll still go back and read to see how they met their demise, however knowing they’re not going to make it , takes the emotional sting out it.

    I almost feel like there needs to be a meeting somewhere where I can stand and go, ‘Hi my name is Catherine, I skip to the ending…sometimes, totally subverting any attempts the author has to lead me there at their pace. I over engage occasionally, and wilfully run rampant through the pages however I please.’

    Allison,I really look forward to your posts. No pressure, but I’ve really enjoyed your perspectives you’ve shared in the comments here…so to me even though I occasionally sneak ahead in a book (so have the whiff of crazy hanging about) I think you’ll do a sterling job.

    Reply
  21. Naomi

    Good to hear all the N.O. reports. Thanks, Toni and Nancie, and hope you all get to rest and recover in the days to come.

    And a big welcome to Allison!

    Reply
  22. Kaye Barley

    Glad for these updates on everyone – and Toni, thinking about you! Hoping you all remain safe, but that won’t stop me from agreeing with everyone here who has had the nerve to tell you they think you’re weird. But oh so cute! But still weird. I have this guilt monster who follows me around and one of the things that really sets him off is my occasional sneak peek (oh all right – I admit it!!) at that last page. big sigh – I guess I’m a tad weird too.And a huge welcome to Allison!!

    Reply
  23. CaraCara

    I’m definitely one of those who has to flip to the back of the book. I just want to know who to root for. When I admitted this to my girlfriends about two years ago, I was immediately required to promise that the next book I picked up would be read from front to back with no diversions. This of course was a big mistake as it was the “Wedding Season” where the 30-something heroin ended up single and alone at a wedding. If I had been allowed to flip, I wouldn’t have finished the blasted book as I have no wish to read about MY life, I wanted the girl to get the guy and be happy. I will assure you that there are a few books I refused to flip for (i.e. Harry Potter… I hung in there to the end from front to back). See LCM, it can be done.

    Reply

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