On Writing: What Separates the Artist-Writer from the Amateur

a Palette of Story

“Who determined which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end…? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony.” Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver.” -Robert McKee, STORY

a Palette of Story
a Story Palette

For the past many months, I’ve been working and re-working my way through a great book on story aptly titled STORY, by Robert McKee. Writers and publishing types are often familiar with Mr. McKee for his enduring legacy of writing and teaching within the Hollywood film industry. And though his book STORY is admittedly geared toward screenwriting, I believe the concepts of what makes a powerful story discussed within the pages of STORY apply to novel-writing as well.

One of the essentials for a good story is the ending. No matter how well a story unfolds and how much we love the characters, if we get to the end and feel a sense of loss or disappointment, that is what we remember … how the story didn’t live up to its promise. Since this month and next, I’m first-drafting my next novel, I’ve been reading writing craft books with vigor. It always fuels the creative process for me. And one thing that struck me recently in reading STORY is the concept of what makes a good ending.

What makes a good ending?

Some people say they need a happy ending to feel good about the book. Others prefer a dark story with perpetuating bleakness, and want the down-ending. I prefer an ending that simply lives up to its promises. So, to me, Mr. McKee’s statement about endings (above) holds well.

Whatever the writer whispers into the story, all the way from the beginning, then that is how the story must end to have satisfied readers.

The ironic ending is my personal favorite, in its complexity and higher level of satisfaction. Life never has easy answers. Though harder to write, I like the twist at the end. “There’s nothing ambiguous about irony; it’s a clear, double declaration of what’s gained and what’s lost, side by side,” says McKee.

As Aristotle said, endings must be both “inevitable and unexpected.” Which means at the beginning, everything seems possible, but at the end looking back, the path the story took is the perfect one. McKee says, “An artist gives us the emotion he’s promised.”

So what separates the Artist-Writer from the Amateur-Writer?

In the words of Robert McKee, continued from the first quote: “So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects. This is what separates artist from amateur.”

The amateur gives the cardboard cutout ending, the formulaic answer to the story he has told. But the Artist-Writer can weave a delicate story that breathes near-silent truths, and delivers on those at the end.

What do you think? What kind of an ending do you like on a story? How do you know if your ending lives up to its promise?

Published by Jennifer Lyn Art

About Jennifer Writer Author Photographer Artist Corporate Marketer Happy Wife & Mom World Traveler Grateful.

8 thoughts on “On Writing: What Separates the Artist-Writer from the Amateur

  1. Excellent post. Although I’m not an author, I am an avid reader. I can attest to the truthfulness of your statements. That quote really fits. Some authors with their books have such a predictable ending. Others really don’t make sense, or they arrive at it too quickly, with too little character development. Other are just right, they ‘catch’ you in the beginning of the book,take you on a journey, making you reluctant to put the book down through all its twists, turns, surprises, and by the end you are delighted with the way it ended. Yes sometimes you didn’t see the end coming, but as you said, when you look back, that path was there. 🙂 Praying for continued blessings as you craft your current novel.

    1. Hi Novice Artist,

      So beautifully said! Thank you for leaving your thoughts — I love hearing what readers have to add, because you’re the reason why we write.

      I, too, love the journey books that have a delightful and sometimes unanticipated ending. Any favorites lately?

      Thank you! -Jennifer

  2. Wise words on endings, indeed.

    I love emotionally evocative endings–happy or sad. Happy, obviously gives me satisfaction, but sad often stays with me longer and gives me more to think about.

    To me, the bittersweet ending is perfection–recognition of what could have been with a healthy dose of reality.

    1. Thanks, Erika–

      I enjoy the statement you made about the bittersweet ending. So well said … there is a balance in reality and the ending.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!


  3. Genre sometimes has a lot to do with what emotion an novel ends on. Romance can only happily. Crime can only end with the criminal being caught (and thus usually happy but occasionaly bittersweet). I like happy endings which is why I read and write romance. Fiction is my escape from reality.

    1. Hi Asrai,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s true– a romance MUST end with a happily-ever-after. And, if you think about it, a romance done well is one that gives the reader subtle hints about where the story is going. Not only does the reader know it will end happily because of the shelf she bought it from, but also because of the way the story speaks as it unfolds.

      Thank you for leaving a comment!


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