Monday 5 October 2015

Here be Sarah Mussi - How to End a Story

Candy Gourlay interviews Sarah Mussi on the final stop of the Here Be Dragons Blog Tour

Candy Gourlay: I keep banging on about how the book industry is putting too much emphasis on pitch and opening hooks to the detriment of the rest of the work. What about the middle? I find myself complaining. What about the ending?  As it happens, my lovely pal Sarah Mussi has been stomping through a blog tour to promote her new book Here Be Dragons. In the course of the tour, Sarah's blogged about the way she structured her novel along the lines of the three-act structure. Viz:

So far, she's talked about The Hook, The Inciting Incident, The First Turning Point, The Point of No Return, The Darkest Hour, and Act 3 and The Climax. Notes from the Slushpile is her seventh and final stop. Lucky us, she's offered to discuss:

Welcome, Sarah and congrats on the launch of Here Be Dragons (which is the first of the The Snowdonia Chronicles trilogy).

Sarah Mussi: Hi there! Thanks so much for having me on Notes from the Slushpile.

Ellie Morgan wants a boy who’s all hers. Just for once, it would be nice to meet someone that Sheila (the cow) hadn’t got her claws in to. A remote farmhouse on Mount Snowdon is hardly the ideal setting for meeting anyone. But when a boy, glimpsed through the mist and snow, lures her up to the Devil’s Bridge, Ellie realises the place she knows so well, still has its secrets ...
The stronger her feelings for this strange boy become, the more she is in danger: a battle as old as Snowdon itself has been raging for centuries and now Ellie’s caught in the middle.
Something has left its lair.
It’s out there stalking her.
Who ever said true love was easy?
Candy: So. Tell us what goes into a satisfactory denouement (how do you even spell that?) and ending? Should our characters just live happily ever after?

Sarah: Aha! To get the ending absolutely right you need to look back to the beginning! Weird or what? The reason you have to look back to the beginning, is because, the reader needs to get a sense of how far they have moved in terms of character development and story from the very first opening scene.

As one writer, K M Weiland, puts it:

The ending of your story is a loooong way away from the beginning. Three hundred pages or 100,000 words is an extraordinary journey. Contemplating the ending from the vantage point of the beginning is like looking up at the top of Mt. Everest and imagining yourself, in all your windblown, frostbitten glory, standing there with your hands on your hips and your foot propped on a rock. It’s all a bit hard to grasp.

And by the time you do make it to the top of the mountain, it’s going to be almost as difficult to peer down the rocky slopes and try to remember the base camp you left way back at the beginning of your trek.  Read the full article

Ummmm…. I seem to remember using that analogy to climbing Mt Everest myself!

Candy: And where would we be on this metaphorical Everest expedition?

Sarah: We are nearly there. The summit of the story is within our grasp: just a few more pages – the hardest steps – when everything must come together and make sense. If we were on Everest we would be arriving and standing on the summit; here’s an actual description:

Finally, the hour is come. It’s completely silent. Nobody talks. If you do, you whisper. It is absolutely terrifying and you climb and climb, awaiting the first ray of dawn. It’s desperately cold. It's steep and at parts very icy. The ice axe and the crampons cut skin-deep into the ice.

A cold, white moon rises from below, but you hardly glance at it or even the bright twinkle of Universe above. The adrenaline keeps your body moving. And then, suddenly, after hours and hours of despair, you notice a thin blue beam of light at the horizon. Sunrise! Beneath lies the world in all its glory, glowing in the rising sun. You feel the warmth and all hope returning. You kick your feet to beat the oncoming frostbite. You begin to enjoy the view, and the possibility of success. Finally, you step up onto the small plateau of the South Summit, and there - just around the corner - is the Everest summit itself!

Candy: But that's just the summit. How are you going to make it down now? And should we expect a happy ending from Here Be Dragons?

Sarah: Orson Welles once said “ Happy endings depend on where you stop.”

Happy endings depend on where you stop.

In my last blog post we looked at Act 3 & The Climax of The Story, the high-octane, shootout scene filled with WHAM and BAM and not leaving the reader a lot of time for reflection about the finer story points or plot events.

But as we move closer towards those final lines and the inevitable closing of the covers of the book, the writer’s job is now to tie everything up. To make sure there are no loose ends, and no reader is going to put the book down and say: ‘Are you really sure about that? Did I miss something? Surely, we were never told about THAT! And what happened to so-and-so?

As well as all that, we must make sure that each of the characters gets their just deserts. This is very important; whether they are good or bad. Otherwise there is no moral real reader satisfaction at the very end. Then to compound the problem – just a little more - when you’re writing a trilogy, unless you intend to leave volume one on a total cliff-hanger; you need to have left some threads open to be picked up again in the sequel: and yet have a stand-alone self-contained book, that ends satisfactorily for all concerned, when you write down the final words THE END (for now).

Here are some warning tips I learned from the web…

  • “The ending of a story or novel forms readers' final impression of what they have read.”
  • “An effective ending seals the readers' satisfaction with your piece. It leaves them thinking and maybe talking about it long after they have finished reading.”
  • “A story end must make sure everyone gets what they deserve Sometimes you have to forget what you want
  • “A story ending can be either happy or sad; it can leave the reader uplifted or pensive or heartbroken. But it has to feel "right."”
  • “While the opening sells the book, the ending sells the next one.”

Candy: So how did you execute all these tips?

Sarah: Well, in all my self-taught studies, on how to be a famous and bestselling novelist! I seem to remember there were two major types of endings. I bet you are thinking they were, of course, happy or sad? Well, No, not really. Those two endings are emotional types of endings – btw they are equally as important, because they leave the reader with the all import ‘feeling’ which (hopefully) lingers long after they have finished reading the book. But structurally there are two other kinds of endings. And they are either linear, or circular.

A linear ending is really a story in a straight line that ends up at a different place from the starting point. So it resembles a journey from A to be B in which B is a very different place from A. There maybe some juxtaposition of themes between A and B and they may even be similar, but different, types of settings, but essentially the story is one straight-line.

A circular ending, on the other hand, brings the protagonist home again to the point at which the story started and the contrast between the opening lines/story beat and the closing lines/or story beat is evident.

And as we all know: A TRUE LOVE STORY NEVER ENDS…

Candy: Which ending did you choose?

Sarah: Well, obviously I didn’t choose very clearly (!) because at the end of Here Be Dragons it is partially linear and partially circular! This is probably because I never really mastered some of these techniques terribly well!

Here Be Dragons is linear in the sense that Ellie and George and Henry come to an end of this adventure and there cannot be any more progression at the moment, ie: events between them are resolved and the crisis of the climax is passed.

Insofar as Here Be Dragons is circular, however, it brings Ellie home and ends on the mountain in the same way that it began, only this time differences are apparent. Ellie is no longer going up the mountain, young, na├»ve and looking for love, life and meaning. She is now coming down the mountain after experience and adventure – ie: sadder but wiser.

This pleased me, because it echoed the picture of the story mountain and meant that my protagonist had summited (is that a verb?) the peak and was now returning home after the end of her ‘climb’. I also gave the story some elements of happiness and some elements of tragedy. So I probably broke quite a number of rules in structuring my ending of Here Be Dragons. But it seems to work. Also it is a way of leaving the story open to Book 2 of the Snowdonia Chronicles. Which was part of my cunning plan! Anyway, perhaps, you would like to see how I did it? If so - read on.

Here’s an excerpt (NOT a spoiler):

OUTSIDE THE FULL MOON was sinking towards the horizon. George supported me down the mountain, wrapped me in his coat. Far away hidden by the turn of a mountain spur was the Range Rover.

‘The mountain decided,’ said George. ‘We did our best. Nobody can interfere with the will of Snowdon.’

I said nothing.

‘Elles?’ said George. He turned the engine on. Hot air started to fill the car. I was shivering.


I put my head on his shoulder.

‘You owe me a snog, you know.’

I sighed.

‘And an axe.’

I didn’t even hear him.

‘I’ll take you home.’

And there you have it, not entirely the very very end (I did promise you it was not a spoiler), but the return home! The circular ending type thing implied. (Though what has happened – I am not going to give away!!)

Begin with the end in mind

Candy: Hmmp. It's still a spoiler because now we know George and Elles survive ... but then they would, wouldn't they since it's a trilogy? Okay, I'll let it go this time. Were there other things that you had to consider when writing the very, very last lines?

Sarah: Well, in short, yes. Because as you said rather snarkily, I am writing a trilogy!

So I not only had to finish Book One: Here Be Dragons but I had to leave way for the opening for Book Two, Here Be Witches. I think I managed that okay. But I will leave you to be the judge of that. Because here is an excerpt from the Prologue of Here Be Witches. (It has never been read even by my publishers yet!):

The moment strikes midnight.

The Supreme One cries out, ‘As Above--So Below, So Mote it Be!’

The mountain slope shudders. The cauldron boils over. The face of the full moon darkens. There is a roaring and far away the sound of many stones cracking

Then the mountain splits wide.

An appalling shriek rents the air. Yellow eyes glint through the darkness, teeth crash, talons scrape. A fetid stench slams into the night. And under their feet a ravine opens. A yawning cliff, dropping sheer, smooth, treacherous. And from the lip of this abyss a fearsome creature crawls out.

‘Welcome Back O White Worm of Wessex,’ breathes out the Supreme One.

The dragon blinks at the girls. It unfolds its huge wings and stretches them out, like some nightmarish butterfly emerging from a hideous chrysalis, then it shakes its spiny neck. Its hooded eye settles on the petite, pretty girl.

In an instant she slips. The earth beneath her gives way. A booming, a shrieking tears at her ears. The ground over the old Dragons’s Lair caves in all around her.

The girl skids out of control. She falls. She screams. She stretches out her arms.

‘Help,’ she cries, ‘Somebody help me!’ But none dare, as heart bursting, body falling, twisting, turning, she plummets down over the cliff edge. ‘SO MOTE IT BE,’ roars the dragon.

Down plunges the girl. Down into the dark cavern.

Down onto the sharp crystals.


What may appear to be the end may only be a new beginning.

The witches have cast their spell (thanks Will Shakespeare and Macbeth for that idea) and the Dragons’ Den is rent open (thanks Mabinogion for that idea). Wicked old Oswald is back and things are about to hot up for Ellie! Hopefully a good way to start the next adventures of Ellie Morgan, moutain girl and hero of Here Be Dragons.

Thank you all so much for following my Book Blog Tour!

Thank you so much, Notes from The Slush Pile, for having me

Thank you, Vertebrate, my fabulous publishers

Candy: ... and thank YOU, Sarah. All the best of luck with getting to The End for Here Be Witches. Dear reader, if you're already a fan of Here be Dragons, how about voting for it on the People's Book Prize?

You can find out more about Sarah Mussi on her website, and you can also follow her on Twitter. Candy Gourlay also blogs on - you might want to check out her recent posts Dismaland takes the 'escape' out of 'escapist' and Francesca Simon: things I wish I'd known

The Here Be Dragons Blog Tour

In which Sarah discusses the inspiration behind HBD)

 Motivation and writing method

 Turning points and how to foreshadow them

 The point of no return

 The darkest hour

The final act, where each character gets their just deserts

How to End a Story


  1. Summiting analogy very apt. Then there's the deep breath, the sense of achievement, the reflection on the journey, the last look round and the descent. And then, the cup of tea, the itchy feet, the surveying of another distant peak. Interesting match between you and your publisher. Have you blogged about it?

  2. I love the linear and circular endings - hadn't heard that theory before!

  3. Good luck with the new book Sarah - it sounds great!

  4. Wonderful, clear advice. Thanks, Sarah. Your books looks great!

  5. Reading this again, I had a thought: the opening chapters of a book will sell the book, but the final chapters will sell the author.

    1. Having said that, just read this terrific interview with Sam Shepard in which he says :

      " I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster...The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius. Somebody told me once that fugue means to flee, so that Bach’s melody lines are like he’s running away. "

    2. Having said that, just read this terrific interview with Sam Shepard in which he says :

      " I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster...The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius. Somebody told me once that fugue means to flee, so that Bach’s melody lines are like he’s running away. "

    3. That's a juicy interview, Candy. Has made me reconsider endings; also very good on dialogue and attention shifts. Thanks for that.

  6. Very helpful, Sarah. That's my weekend's reading list sorted! Thanks for being on the slushpile.


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