15 July 2023



I have always said, anytime the discussion turns to the fiction-writing process, that I'm an outliner. Maybe not on paper, but at least in my head. I have to have a roadmap in mind, before I start writing, of where my story's going and how it's going to get there. (I find the "plotting" phase to be the most fun part of writing, anyway.) The few times I've tried to do otherwise I've wound up wasting a lot of time and effort.

Having said that, though, I confess that I often change that predetermined route once the trip gets started, and especially at the end. Even if I've kept the ending I first had in mind, I sometimes add to it, to create a "second ending."

I know how silly that sounds. Here's what I mean.

In an early story I sold to AHMM, called "The Powder Room," the rich owner of an engineering firm is confronted in his office by a robber, but manages to snap a photo of the armed intruder and slips the camera into a safe that has a time-lock, and then tells the robber what he's done. Unable to open the safe and now afraid to kill the owner, the frustrated thief is forced to leave emptyhanded. That was my original ending. But before submitting the story, I had a brainstorm and made the robber attempt to blow up the safe in order to destroy the camera and its evidence--this was, after all, a civil-engineering/construction firm, with dynamite on the premises. This addition to the plot added several pages to the story but made it (I thought) much better. It also gave me an improved title, since the area where the explosives were stored was nicknamed the powder room. And then, in the final paragraphs, I revealed that no photo had been taken after all, which made it sort of a triple ending. Editor Linda Landrigan later told me those extra twists were the reason she bought the story.

Since then, I've found myself doing that a lot. I'll finish a story and then sit back and look it over, and in the process I'll see the possibility for adding another development of some kind, thus creating a story with an "extra" ending. The addition doesn't have to be long or involved--it can be no more than a few paragraphs. But if used, it tacks on another reversal, and sometimes that works well. 

An instance of this technique happened in the movie Die Hard. The unlikely hero has defeated the villain, has rescued the damsel in distress, and has prevented the theft of millions of dollars, among other things. Everyone's celebrating and hugging and slapping him on the back and happy music is playing, and we think the show's over and we're thinking boy that was a good movie--and suddenly one of the terrorists we thought was dead pops up with a machine gun aimed at our already wounded and bedraggled hero. Whoa, Nellie! But, as it turns out, the crazed terrorist is immediately shot dead by a cop who has become a friend of the hero and who (we learned earlier) has been secretly afraid for years to fire his weapon at another person. This add-on scene lasts only a minute or so, but it's shocking and thrilling and hugely satisfying. It's one of the things I remember most about the story. 

NOTE: I realize I've just revealed the ending to those who might not have seen the movie, but I have a feeling anyone who'd want to see Die Hard probably saw it years ago.

Here's an example of a successful short-story add-on. The story "Man from the South," by Roald Dahl, was adapted into several different short films, one of them for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. (Warning: more spoilers ahead.) The story's plot follows a crazy gambling-addicted old man who makes a bet with a young stranger who boasts that his cigarette lighter will never fail. (This is the 50s, remember.) The bet is that if the young man's (McQueen's) lighter will light ten times in a row, the old man (Lorre) will give him his new car. But if it doesn't, Lorre will chop off McQueen's little finger. Near the end of the suspenseful contest, during which McQueen's hand is strapped to a table and Lorre stands ready and wild-eyed with a meat cleaver every time the lighter's flicked, Lorre's wife comes into the room and stops everything, saying her husband has nothing to bet with, and that the car is hers. That appears to be the end of the story. But then two other things happen. First, as McQueen and his girlfriend are standing there dazed, she puts a cigarette in her mouth, he absently raises his lighter to it and flicks the wheel--and it doesn't light. Second, Lorre's wife reaches for the car keys on the table, and the camera reveals that she's missing three fingers off her hand. Those two things were enough to make an already good story great.

Other examples:

- The wonderful summit-meeting-tape scene at the end of Escape from New York, after the escape itself is completed.

- The unexpected death of Tracy (Diana Rigg) at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (I heard someplace that in the novel, Ian Fleming originally didn't plan for her to die--or even for Bond to marry her).

- The second half of the movie A History of Violence, which turned it into an entirely different story.

- The Shawshank Redemption's ending changed from ambiguous to happy (with escapee Morgan Freeman on a Mexican beach on the way to his reunion with Tim Robbins).

- The movie Layer Cake (also known as a James Bond audition tape) had its ending changed from happy to sad, when Daniel Craig is shot dead.

- The death (by shark) of the female scientist was added to the end of Deep Blue Sea.

- Instead of Hitchcock's original ending (featuring a bird-covered Golden Gate Bridge), The Birds ends with a weird scene where Rod Taylor and the others escape in a car while a bunch of suddenly lazy and disinterested birds watch them go.

- The long mother-alien-stowaway scene at the end of Aliens, after the survivors are supposedly safe. 

The point is, I have learned to look for the opportunity to do this kind of thing in my own stories. And it's truly surprising how often it turns out to be possible. Matter of fact, it happened with a story I just completed this past week. I wrote the story I had planned, ended it as planned--I was pleased with the outcome--and then I mulled over it awhile and thought "what if . . ." and wound up adding another section to the plot, which almost doubled the size of the story and created a different (and better, I think) ending. I don't know yet whether the story'll sell, but I'm a lot more satisfied with it now, and ready to send it off to a market.

Oddly enough, this kid of technique did NOT happen with my story "The Deacon's Game," which appears in the current (July/August) issue of EQMM. That story was written exactly as I'd planned it, ended as I'd planned it, and stayed that way. It was, however, unusual in other ways: (1) it involved no detectives or detection at all and (2) I included more than two pages of expositional "wrap-up" after the point of highest tension--which can be taboo and is something I seldom do. But I guess it worked in this case, showing that sometimes a simple and straightforward ending is best.

I will continue, though, to look for those opportunities, for the aforementioned reasons. Who doesn't want to try to make a good story into an outstanding story? 

So, how about you? Do you ever find, in looking back over one of your stories or novels before submitting it, the need to add a bit more to the ending? Maybe to radically change it? Has that usually worked? Can you give some examples? How about spotting that add-on approach in stories or novels you've read or movies you've watched?

Anyhow, that's it for today. Don't worry, I'm not adding anything to the end of this post.

See you in two weeks.


  1. Great post, John. Hey, maybe we can all send you our completed stories, and you can tack on one or two additional endings. We’ll all get rich and be famous. Just a thought.
    Edward Lodi

    1. Hi Edward -- I appreciate the thought. Since I'm neither rich nor famous, though, I have a feeling you'd be better off sticking with your own endings.

      Thanks as always for stopping in here, and congrats on your recent successes!

  2. Short answer: a guarded yes! I can do it for a short story. Start with one story in mind and have it morph into a better one on reread. The trouble with a novel is you can work for 6 months and get to the midpoint, and hit a wall. I did that with my first novel. So I need to know that I have an ending, and a path to that ending, before I devote many weeks to it.

    1. Makes sense, Melodie. The few novels I've written were certainly done that way. And most of the time, even with short stories, I plan them such that I have a workable and satisfying ending (to me, at least). It's only occasionally that I'm able to play around with the ending and come up with something I think'll be better. But when it does happen, I feel extra good about it.

      Don't you wish there was a formula for all this??

  3. Interesting article.I'm a pantser, not an outliner. I start with a basic idea, build chraracters and plot from that as I start to write and move on. Needless to say, the ending changes often. It's not the most efficient process, but it works for me.

    1. Bob, I admire pantsers, and I wish I could work that way. I need to have as much as possible planned before I start, BUT . . . that also doesn't cut down at all the thrill or fun of writing the story (for me). I've always said the outling/no-outlining process isn't a decision at all--I think it's part of the way we're wired, just as some folks squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom and some don't, some unroll the toilet paper from the front and some from the back, some always arrive early and some late, etc. Whatever works best is different for everyone. (And yes, I can see how a pantser's endings might change more often than an outliner's!)

      I think this whole discussion is part of what makes writing these stories so interesting. All of them are different and unique, like chess games, and require different things to make them successful.

      Keep doing what you're doing--it's obviously working!


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