Behind the Scenes with Joel
The most important part of a book is its beginning.
You’ve got to grab the reader in the first sentence, the first page, the first chapter, or risk your book being tossed back onto the bookstore shelf and that discriminating reader moving on to find something else.
Yet as absolutely critical as your intro is to hook your readers and reel them in, a great ending is just as vital for the sale of the next book. Those final few chapters need to blow readers away. They need to be so intense, so exciting, so heart-pounding, and so emotionally satisfying that readers cannot wait for your next book.
Creating a great ending that leaves the reader wanting more is not a science—it’s an art form. Not many can pull it off. That’s why so few aspiring novelists become commercially viable and so few published novels become national bestsellers. So, how do you provide just enough without giving too much? That is, how do you get it just right?
One common type of ending is the “cliffhanger.” This term comes from 1930s Hollywood, when serialized shorts were all the rage. Children and adults would flock to the theaters on a Saturday, pay their eleven cents, then enjoy seven or eight cartoons, a few serialized short films, a news reel, and only then the main feature. Those shorts would typically end with some perilous situation with a gun pointing or a plane crashing or a hero hanging by his fingernails from a very high cliff. Will our hero survive? You’ve got to come back next Saturday to find out!
I’ve been known to occasionally use a cliffhanger. At the end of The Kremlin Conspiracy, for example, Marcus Ryker’s business jet—the one he’s escaping Russia in—is blown out of the sky with a heat-seeking missile from a MiG fighter jet. Marcus and two of his colleagues donned parachutes and jumped out of the planes seconds earlier. But the last we see them, they’re hurtling to earth, and one of them—I won’t say who—is bleeding out and close to death. Will any of them survive? Okay, now you know that there have been four more Ryker books since then, so you can guess. But the question is, how do Marcus and his colleagues survive—and what happens next?
Done correctly, a cliffhanger can be great to bring readers back. However, I’ve also learned that there are certain book lovers who resent not having a story fully wrapped up in one volume. That’s why cliffhangers should be used sparingly. Most of my books are self-contained, meaning you can pick one up without having read any of my previous novels and jump right into the story. That is true of The Libyan Diversion, my most recent release. While I certainly reference the aftereffects of Marcus’s capture and torture in Lebanon in The Beirut Protocol, new readers won’t be lost if they haven’t read that previous novel.
That said, if you’re going to wrap up a book in one volume, then the challenge becomes taking the story to the last word without leaving the reader feeling either short-changed or relieved it’s over. I loved the Lord of the Rings movies. The first two really were cliffhangers. You absolutely had to see the next movie to know what happened to Frodo and Sam and find out if they made it to Mordor and back to the Shire—and what happened every furry step of the way. By the time the last in the trilogy, The Return of the King, was released, I was completely hooked. I was so glad that the last one ran three and a half hours, because I loved—or hated—every single character and wanted to know how each of their lives played out, for better or for worse. I wanted all the action. But I also loved seeing Aragorn crowned and, of course, the wedding. Not everyone loved the ending. Some thought it was way too long. But not me. And given that the film earned more than a billion dollars, most people apparently agreed with me.
Finding the right balance between intense action and an emotionally satisfying denouement is incredibly hard. You want the last third of your thriller to move at breakneck pace. But you also need to give your reader a chance to breathe at the end and not cheat them of slowing down, catching their breath, and seeing their favorite characters savor their victories, lick their wounds, and comfort one another.
I’d love to hear what you think about the ending to The Libyan Diversion. I loved writing it because it may be the fastest-paced and most action-packed set of sequences that I’ve ever written. But, for those of you who haven’t read it, I also added a few final twists. Like a roller coaster that has a surprise final drop after the big one, this book will have you saying, “Wait! What?” But then, I also tried to give readers a chance to process with the main characters what just happened and how it will—and should or shouldn’t—change the way they want to live the rest of their lives. Because great novels are not just about great action. They’re about great characters making hard but critical choices in their lives.
You can’t write a bestselling novel without a great opening. Nor can you write one without a great ending. Think of those incredible Olympic gymnasts who do all those death-defying twists, turns, flips, and crazy dismounts. It can all be spectacular—mesmerizing—but you don’t get the gold unless you stick the landing.
That’s my advice to you. If you want to strike publishing gold, you’ve got to stick the landing!