The Ten Commandments of Writing #3: Thou Shalt Not End With “It Was All A Dream…”

(Cross-posted on the Write Club blog) How many of you remember getting assignments to write stories in school? My heart always leapt with joy when that happened. Generally some people were always asked to read their stories aloud to the class. And there was always that one person who’d written some fantastic and implausible adventure, only to finish with, “and then I woke up and realised it was all a dream.”

This is another of those tropes that was probably once perfectly acceptable, but it has been done so often that it has become too predictable. A similarly over-used trope is that one where the characters are actually dead and don’t realise it until the end of the story. In spite of these two tired old tropes being over-used, there are nevertheless recent examples of both of them being used in TV shows (*cough* ‘Lost’ *cough*).

An author might decide to end their story this way to provide a twist to the tale. The problem is that it’s been used so often that this revelation no longer comes as a surprise. To me, it rather smacks of the author writing themselves into a corner and not being able to think of another way of getting out of it.

Plot twists and turns make a thrilling read, but avoid getting into a situation where you get your character into such a sticky situation you can’t work out how to extricate them from it.

For fear of sounding like a broken record, this is why plotting is important. I have read more than one novel where strange things happen to the character, and I turned the pages eagerly, wanting to know why these things are happening, only to come across the “it was all a dream” ending. I interpret this to mean the author couldn’t be bothered to think of a more original ending. I accept that much of this is personal opinion, but I have heard similar view expressed by agents, and ending in such a way puts a lot of agents and editors off any further negotiations with the author.

So here we have the Second Commandment of Writing: thou shalt come up with a better ending than “it was all a dream”.

Join me next week, when I shall be exploring the difference between “showing” and “telling”.

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