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Monday, May 14, 2018

How to Write Exceptional Endings

In some ways, endings can be the easiest part of a story to write because they simply connect and resolve one conflict after another after another until all the loose ends are tied up. Often the writer has thought about the ending for months. But other times, coming up with a satisfying ending is dreadful. Not all endings are equal. Here are six key points that will help you write a satisfying and exceptional ending.

"Always Keep Your Promises if You Want to Keep Your Friends"

In the Christmas movie Jingle all the Way, Turboman, a fictional superhero has a maxim: Always keep your promises if you want to keep your friends. Since this movie is sort of a ongoing joke between me and one of my siblings, we say this to the other to get a laugh. But it's true for writing great endings: Always keep your promises if you want to keep your readers.

When we start our story, we make promises about what kind of story this is going to be. If there is a meet cute in the opening (where a potentially romantic couple meet in a cute way), you are promising that there will be a level of romance in the story. If you open with a character called on a quest to defeat a dragon, you are promising a dragon by the end. If you open with an unsolved murder, you are promising it will be solved. Promises not only happen at the beginning of a story, but they happen throughout too, and they can happen on a small scale.

Some people in the industry advise that you should never break a promise--I actually think you can, but you have to do it right (sorry Turboman), but as a rule in general, it works fine. Unless you absolutely know what you are doing and know how to break promises right, to write a great ending, you need to keep your promises to the audience. The meet cute couple confesses they love each other. The dragon is confronted. The murder mystery is solved. If you promised there was going to be magic in this story, we need to see it present in the end.

As I said in the very beginning, the ending is where you really start connecting loose ends and resolving the story's conflicts. So in order to write a good ending, those things need to be addressed, not bypassed. Bonus points if some of them are seemingly unresolvable and can be resolved in a surprising/unforeseen way.

Deliver MORE than You Promised (Exceed Expectations)

Keeping promises is vital to writing a satisfying ending. But if you want to write an exceptional ending, you really need to deliver more than what you promise and exceed expectations. You've set up expectations as you've made promises throughout the story, now you need to push beyond those. Maybe the protagonist prepared and planned for fighting a dragon during the entire book, but when he arrives, he discovers there are actually two. Maybe your heroine confesses her love to the hero--and finds out he's actually a prince in disguise. The detective solves the murder--and it turns out the murderer is her husband.

You can exceed expectations a little bit, or you can exceed them by a lot. Just remember that it needs to fit the story and the story's context. For some surprises, this means you need to foreshadow. For example, in the prince scenario, chances are you need to foreshadow something about a prince during the story (but you don't want to foreshadow too much, otherwise it will be expected). For the dragon example, I don't think you need to foreshadow that there are two.

When you exceed expectations, you include an element of surprise. Keep in mind this very important point: If you deliver something different than expected, it needs to be just as good as what is expected or better. Ideally, you deliver some of what is expected and some that is unexpected, but whatever the case, you don't want to deliver anything anti-climactic or anything that undercuts what you've been building throughout the story.

Twists also relate to surprises and exceeding expectations. A lot of great stories shift the context of what we and the characters know at the end so that there is a twist.

Learn about the five different kinds of surprises (including exceeding expectations and twists) and how they work in this post on them.

Escalate Risks (aka Stakes) and Costs

Any decent ending has risks and costs. After all, this is the moment the whole book has been building toward. There should be more at risk now than there has been through the entire book. Costs should probably also be at their highest point.

Risks are what are "at stake" in the story. In The Hunger Games, Katniss's life is what is at stake, and the emotional (and physical) health of her sister. If Katniss doesn't win The Hunger Games, she'll die and Prim will be devastated. The costs are what the character has to do or give up to reach a goal and/or save those stakes. So in The Hunger Games, it cost Katniss some of her identity. At the very end of the book, she grows more and more confused over what part of her is real and what part was her just trying to survive. (Not to mention the physical costs of everything she went through)

Sometimes in some stories, stakes and costs seem to overlap or be the same, depending on what angle you are looking at. But the point is, they need to be there. And to really take your ending to the next level, you need to escalate them.

So at the starting of the story, we thought we just needed to defeat a dragon. But by the climax we learn that this is no ordinary dragon, but essentially a god of the dragons who has the capacity to not only take over the country as it has, but bring destruction to all of civilization, and it will if threatened. So now all human civilization is at stake.

Our protagonist was training to defeat one ordinary dragon--he's done it before. But now that there are two, and both of them are basically "gods" of the dragon race, there's a good chance it will cost him his life to save all of humanity.

See how those stakes and costs were escalated?

To escalate costs and risks, you either add more, deepen what you already have, or vastly change the odds against your character. (And ideally, you do all three if you can)

These examples are a bit epic and extreme, but in a more personal story, risks and costs will be more personal. In a typical 90's movie, a workaholic dad is at risk of losing his family relationships, but to save those relationships, it costs giving up his job. That's a more personal set-up.

Whatever kind of story you are telling, escalate risks and costs so that they are the highest they have ever been. This also means you are greatly increasing the protagonist's struggle.

Choose the Right Ending Model

I've been taught that there are really three ways a story can end in a satisfying way:

- Happily Ever After: Everything is tied up nicely and everyone is happy and whole. Risks and costs were escalated, but in the end, everything panned out, the costs won't hurt for long, and the future looks great. Example: think of Disney's movies aimed at children.

- Much is Lost, but Much is Gained: Some of those costs? They really happened. People died. Relationships were lost. A central character may be scarred for life. But it was worth it. Loved ones and important people were saved, maybe even all of humanity. Even though it took a lot of sacrifice and heartache, ultimately, it was worth it. (Usually on a personal scale, there are a lot of sacrifices, but on the large scale, much is won) Example: think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and many epics and blockbuster movies.

- Sadder but Wiser: A lot of the big things were lost, maybe even the protagonist's goals weren't met. But oh my word, they learned so much from the process and they are a changed person because of it. They are a better person because of the course of the story. They may be wiser, or love more deeply, or gained knowledge. (Usually the large scale things aren't won, but something internal and personal is gained) Example: think The Fault in Our Stars, and many literary works.

Usually certain genres lean toward one type of ending, as you can see from my examples. There might be some that sort of waver. For example, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas the Grinch doesn't meet his planned goals (he couldn't stop Christmas), but the journey leaves him wiser and a changed person. However, ultimately the story ends on a Happily Ever After note.

Choose the ending that fits your story best, and work with it to make it powerful, not against it. This will make the ending more satisfying. 

Cross Opposites

Essentially no one talks about this in the writing world (I'm the only one I know of), but crossing opposites and using contrast is really powerful in writing. When it comes to the ending, this is often done by crossing the biggest, broadest conflict with the deepest, most personal one (which usually relates to the theme). You've seen it before, but might not realize it.

There is an overarching story plot, but then there is a personal one. The personal one often relates to an internal struggle the protagonist is having to try to overcome something, which is almost always the character arc. To write a great ending, try to get the broad conflict to cross with the personal conflict. Sometimes you can get these resolutions right on top of one another, so that the broad conflict and the personal conflict are dealt with in the exact same moment--which is so cool! But most often, the personal conflict is overcome, which then enables the protagonist to face and deal with the big one. Other times, it can go the other way.

Here, let me write this out:

- The broadest conflict and most intimate conflict are overcome at the same time.

- The most intimate conflict is overcome, which leads to the broadest conflict being overcome (probably the most common structure)

- The broadest conflict is overcome, which leads to the most intimate conflict being resolved.

But whatever the case, often the closer you can get these to relate and coincide, the more powerful the ending. Because overcoming and resolving something big, and also something personal, are both significant in and of themselves.

But crossing opposites doesn't have to start and stop there. See if you can cross other opposites in powerful ways.

The movie Interstellar is pro at this. If you look at the movie, it's crossing opposites everywhere. The biggest, broadest, most unknowable possible problem (being thrown into a black hole in the process of trying to save all of humanity) directly crosses with the deepest, most personal, most relatable problem (struggling in a parent-child relationship). Even the settings are opposites. The black hole literally crosses with a child's room. At the end, each conflict works off the other--reaching through time and space--to be solved.

It's the breadth, of being pulled from end of the spectrum to the other that infuses the story with high, sharp, power.

So, see where you can cross opposites and where you can cross conflicts (most stories have more than one conflict after all, see if you can cross two or more of them at the end)

Validate, Validate, Validate

You may have heard the three rules for writing middles: Escalate! Escalate! Escalate! For endings, there are also three important rule: Validate! Validate! Validate!

This is more of the denouement than the climax (though validation can happen in the climax). Validate what has been lost, defeated, gained, or won, by showing the audience. With a romance conflict, validate that love was found. Depending on the story and if this is a primary, secondary, tertiary or lower plot line, this might mean the couple gets married, gets engaged, is shown spending time together, kissing, or finally confessing they love each other. In my dragon example, this might mean showing that civilization is at peace, maybe even celebrating, and if the process did cost the hero's life, showing how he will be honored and remembered for centuries to come, and how grateful people are for his sacrifice. In the murder mystery, this might mean showing the murderer locked up or being sentenced. If it was the protagonist's husband, it might show her coping with now living alone. If the Grinch's heart grew by two sizes, we see him celebrating Christmas more than anyone.

Powerful validation, especially one after another, is what can often bring an audience to tears. It can also cement the story into their hearts.

Keep in mind, however, that if you are writing a series, your denouement may be a little different. For example, not everything will be resolved, and not everything may be validated if there are more books still. Instead, it may be important to build anticipation in the audience for what is to come. However, for most series books, there should be at least some validation for the characters' arcs and major conflicts that were resolved in the book.

There is a saying in the writing community, that comes from crime novelist Mickey Spillane: "The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book."

This is true for any book, series or not. If it's a series, it sells the next installment. If it's not, it leaves people wanting to buy the next book you write.

For more on climaxes and denouements (and all the other basic story parts), check out this post on outlining.  


1 comment:

  1. I found this article rewarding on multiple levels. Validation is something I could definitely give some more thought. Thanks for posting. Really enjoyed it!


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