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Monday, April 15, 2019

Story Structure Explained: Climax, Denouement, Epilogues, and Endings





Endings tend to be a bit easier to write, because you've already set everything up and now you're resolving conflict after conflict, but the story can still blow up in your face if you don't handle it right. Or maybe you are one of the more uncommon writers that really struggles with endings. In either case, this article will help you structure the last portion of your story right.

Here is the (hybrid) structure I'm following, with the pieces we've talked about over the last few weeks now filled in:

Beginning ("Orphan" State)
(Prologue)--primary function is to make promises to the reader
Hook--draws the audience in by getting them to look forward (in openings, contrasts work well in particular)
Setup--establishes the current sense of "normal" while introducing key story elements
Plot Point 1 (or "Inciting Incident")--disrupts the normal and sends protagonist in a new direction.

Character arc and theme are introduced. Usually at this state, the protagonist believes in (or illustrates) a "false" thematic statement.


Middle ("Wanderer" State)
After Plot Point 1--the protagonist is reacting and responding to what's happening, while perhaps accumulating friends, mentors, love interests, etc.
Pinch Point--The antagonist applies pressure to the protagonist and is shown to be a formidable foe
Midpoint--Something new enters the story or the context shifts and the protagonist moves from reacting to acting. She becomes more proactive.

The theme is questioned, explored, and tested, usually through multiple characters. The character is confronted with and illustrates his weakness.

Costs and stakes escalate by either getting bigger or more personal or both.


Middle ("Warrior" State)
After the Midpoint--Now empowered, the character is more proactive in trying to defeat the antagonist
Pinch Point 2--The antagonist applies pressure to the protagonist and is shown to be an even stronger, formidable foe
Plot Point 2--Made up of two parts: "The Darkest Hour" and "The Final Puzzle Piece." Protagonist moves into a "martyr" state.

The characters struggle with their inner demons, testing the thematic statement.

Costs and stakes continue to escalate.

Ending ("Martyr" State)
Climax
Denouement/
Resolution 
(Epilogue)

These parts belong in the ending, which is what I'm talking about today. 

Ending

We've grabbed the audience and setup the story in the beginning; disrupted the protagonist's sense of normal with the inciting incident; hiked up stakes and costs; questioned, explored, and tested the thematic threads; applied pressure through pinch points; and moved our hero from a warrior to a martyr as they experienced the "Darkest Hour" and put together the "Final Puzzle Piece."

To be fair, that last bit sometimes happens during the climax. During the final battle, the protagonist may experience the darkest hour and put together the final puzzle piece, completing their character arc, and finally reaching the "martyr" state.

Nothing in writing is purely black and white. And there are always variations and exceptions. And when it comes to story structure, some of it depends on how and where you decide to slice and dice it.

Climax



In the climax, the protagonist faces the antagonistic forces head-on, ready for the final battle that determines who (or what) wins the established conflicts.

Remember all those conflicts, stakes, costs, arcs, and themes you setup?

Now it's time to test, prove, and resolve them in the showdown.

It's hard to be exact on what needs to happen in the climax, because a lot of it will depend on what came before.

There might be a twist, surprise, or devastating cost.

But to be most effective and most successful, whatever is in there, needs to have been at least foreshadowed prior to this moment in some degree. It can be twisted. It can be shifted. It can be bigger or worse than expected. But it usually needs to be at least alluded to prior. If not, the audience may feel cheated; if it's something that helps the hero win, it's likely a deus ex machina.

Promises made (almost always) need to be kept. So if you promised a battle with a dragon, it better be there.

If promises aren't kept, whatever happens needs to be just as significant or more significant than what was promised. For example, maybe the monster is actually something worse, more terrifying, more formidable than the promised dragon.

In great climaxes, the story exceeds the expectations.

Stakes and costs will be escalated yet again. This is it. Everything is on the line.

Additionally, the climax is a great place to cross opposites--cross the broadest conflicts with the most personal conflicts for maximum impact. Character arcs are usually finished by the end of the climax, proving the thematic statement.

Often during the climax the protagonist will ultimately have to face the antagonistic force alone. The hero should ultimately be the savior, or in rare cases, if she can't literally, makes a final sacrifice that allows the others to deal the death blow.

For a more in depth look at some of these mentioned elements, see my article "How to Write Exceptional Endings."

In Spider-verse



The climax begins when the heroes confront the villains at the collider in the final fight. The heroes hope to return to their dimensions and Miles hopes to save Brooklyn. The antagonist, Kingpin, is set on seizing his wife and son from another dimension no matter the cost. He's willing to kill heroes, civilians, and destroy his own dimension. Those conflicts must now be resolved.

Stakes and costs are escalated. This is the moment where the protagonist could die, something he is reminded of when Kingpin taunts, "Not even the real Spider-man could defeat me. Why do you think you'd be any different?" The cost is the real deal.

The stakes are escalated in that multiple dimensions are coming into Miles's dimension.

Character arcs. Usually by the end of the climax, character arcs have been completed. The most personal, internal conflicts cross paths with the broadest conflicts. And the ugly inner demons may raise their heads one last time in the final fight. Peter B. Parker reveals he wants to stay in this dimension and die so that he doesn't have to go home to face his failures with Mary Jane. When attacking Kingpin alone, Miles gets brutally beaten and struggles to get up. Gwen comes to terms with making friends again.

Themes. After having been explored and questioned through the middle, the themes are finally tested and proven. Miles does get back up after getting knocked down. Peter B. Parker does return to his dimension to face his personal problems. Gwen Stacy does make friends with each of them. But the theme is also refined. Is there really any garantee that if you always want to get back up that everything will work out? Not necessarily. After all, the Peter Parker from the beginning, who was the epitome of the thematic statement, died despite having it all. Prowler, who at one point says, "You know me, sir. I never quit," didn't follow through when he realized the person he was trying to kill was his nephew, and Prowler died from that choice. Even Peter B. Parker remarks at one point, "Not everything works out." Which is why the sub themes of choice and faith come in.

Peter: How do I know I won't mess it up again?

Miles: You won't.

Peter: . . . It's a leap of faith.

So Peter chooses to go back and take that leap of faith.

However, as the ending continues it's shown that not quitting will get you further than you ever thought possible, as is exemplified when Miles says, "I'm doing all sorts of things I never thought I'd be able to. Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask," which finally extends the theme to the audience. YOU can do all sorts of things you never thought you could do, as long as you always get back up.

Everything in the final showdown is foreshadowed in some way prior. 

Promises are kept. Miles and the other Spider people face off Kingpin and the villains in a battle over the collider that could destroy Brooklyn.

Expectations are Exceeded. In this story, other, seemingly insignificant elements are brought back in during the final battle to help exceed our expectations. That ridiculous shoulder touch thing Aaron teaches Miles? Miles uses it defeat Kingpin. The stupid cartoony stuff about the pig? He's literally using cartoon elements to fight, dropping anvils and pulling out items that are way to big to fit in his pockets. Everywhere during this fight scene, elements that have been present elsewhere are coming back into play for a stronger impact.

Protagonist faces antagonist alone. After sending everyone to their proper dimensions, Miles faces Kingpin alone for one final fight, where his character arc and newfound abilities are proven. Some of the best elements of this moment come from the writers playing the concept of the "orphan" state. Remember how most heroes start in a literal or figurative orphan state? This whole time, Kingpin has been trying to get his family back--he's in an "orphan" state too! What does he say in the final fight to Miles? "I'm going to make sure you never see your family again!" What does Miles say? "I'll always have my family." And to top it off, the person Miles was most "orphaned" from, his father, is there watching and now supporting him ("Get up Spider-man! Get up!"). Miles is no longer alone. He has friends and family. And he gets back up and defeats Kingpin.

Martyr State 



During the ending of the story, the protagonist is in a "martyr" state, which I talked about last time.  Like all the other states, it can be literal or figurative. But at this point in the story, the heroine has sacrificed or is willing to sacrifice her "life." In some cases, this is literal. Frodo in Lord of the Rings and Harry in Harry Potter, are literally willing to sacrifice their lives in order to defeat the antagonist. In many cases, it is figurative. Christopher Robin in Christopher Robin is willing to sacrifice his lifestyle. Hamilton is willing to sacrifice his most extreme characteristic: his resolve to never throw away his shot.

In the ending, we must see that the protagonist is truly ready to sacrifice or give up whatever has been holding him back from success.

This change will then be validated in the denouement.

In Spider-verse

Miles enters the marytr state when he truly commits to give up giving up. It turns out that's what has been holding him back this entire time, even in his personal life, and in school. He doesn't want to work hard. He doesn't want to be amazing. He doesn't want to deal with expectations. He wants to quit. Quitting is easy. Getting up over and over and over again is hard. But when he truly sacrifices his natural tendency, he starts being successful. And the ending proves that it works.

Denouement



The antagonist has been defeated, so now that means we need to hurry and end the story right? Wrong. Partially. Denouements are another element in storytelling that I feel are often misunderstood. It's not just about ending the story quickly. It about validating everything that has changed.

Remember all the crazy things we've just dragged the audience through? Well, we need to validate that all those things actually happened and that the sacrifices paid off (in some rare endings, you may be validating that those sacrifices didn't pay off, but let's stick with the general for today). In a romance, you need to validate that the couple are actually together and in a great relationship--this might be done with a marriage or marriage proposal. If anyone died, we need that validated--we may need to see the protagonist attend a funeral. If the antagonist has really been defeated, we need to see that their power is gone from this world.

What we do not want to do is end the story by undercutting the entire experience we just created. This is just another reason why a story that ends with "it was all a dream" is so horrific. It undermines everything. Another example of this is Lost, where audiences found out at the end that the characters had just been dead the entire time. This doesn't mean you can't ever have loose ends, but you should not undermine everything you just slaved so hard to make.

The denouement also complements and foils the setup. While the setup works to establish a current normal, the denouement works to establish a new normal. So often in a lot of stories (and this relates to the Hero's Journey story structure), you'll see direct similarities between the setup and the denouement. At the beginning and end of (almost) every Harry Potter book, Harry starts at his aunt and uncle's and ends there, and yet things have changed.

If there are any loose ends or unresolved conflicts, they will typically be addressed and handled in the denouement. 

In a series, the denouement may function a little differently. You will be validating the major changes of the story, but may leave or suggest loose threads that will play a part in the next story.

Never forget Mickey Spillane's sound advice: "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.

In some stories, the denouement may actually be one of the most powerful parts, because you are validating one change after another after another in a short amount of space, so it has a profound emotional impact. (Almost) Never skimp out on it.

However, like the setup, you don't want it to be too long either. Remember, they complement each other. Just like you don't want to give a play by play of "normal" in the setup (super boring), you don't want to give a play by play of the new normal in the denouement. Validate and convey what you need to and then move on. Keep it short enough to stay interesting but long enough to cover the important parts. 

In Spider-verse



The denouement succeeds in all these ways. It validates all the changes. Kingpin is officially caught (Miles shows him stuck in a web). The relationship between Miles's dad and himself (even as Spider-man) is repaired and at least tolerated. This is further validated by Miles saying, "I love you," when in the setup he refused to say it unless he had no choice. Now he means it and wants to say it.

Peni is shown safe in her own dimension repairing her robot. Spider-man noir is shown safe solving the Rubik's cube (one of his struggles). The pig is back in his dimension. Gwen Stacy is staring at a picture of her new friend. And Peter B. Parker, despite the fact he at one point would literally rather die, brings flowers to Mary Jane, in an attempt to repair their relationship.

Then we have the protagonist, Miles. What is he doing? He's attending school and applying himself. He's putting up his art with his dad. (See how these things directly complement the setup?) Which, in the process, validates the death of his uncle. He's being Spider-man. And he's no longer an orphan. "Whenever I feel alone, I remember my friends out there who get it." And best of all, he's overcome his internal weaknesses and embodied the true thematic statement: "I'm doing all sorts of things I never thought I'd be able to. Anyone can wear the mask. YOU can wear the mask."

All of us can do things we never thought we could do, as long as we get back up.

Do you see how powerful a properly crafted denouement can drive home the point?

Then at the very last second, we see that somehow Gwen Stacy is talking to Miles from her dimension. This creates a thread of a loose end. In other words, Spider-verse is one of those magic things that agents love to hear: a standalone story with series potential.

From another perspective, this moment simply shows the audience that all these characters may somehow be able to communicate with each other despite being in different dimensions. They aren't alone.

(Epilogue)




Like a prologue, your story may or may not need an epilogue, and some stories can work in either case. Epilogues function mainly in two different ways.

1. They offer additional needed closure. In some stories you may not be able to tie everything up in the denouement. You may need an epilogue to finish it out. This can be especially true if it seems "too soon" to close some unresolved components in the denouement. 

2. They start more loose threads. If you have another installment planned after this one, an epilogue can promise that there is more to the story. This works well when you want a lot of closure for the current installment, but want to signal to the audience that there is more. You tie up everything in the denouement, but then start some new threads in an epilogue.

In a lot of ways, the epilogue complements the prologue in type and structure. It may be a bit theatrical. It may be a short teaser. It may close out the story in two different ways (one component is dealt with in the denouement and another is dealt with in the epilogue). It may provide an alternate viewpoint that didn't belong in the main story. It may be displaced in time. Or it may give additional information. Check out my article on the different types of prologues, and you'll see that it is so. 

In Spider-verse

Whether or not the after credits scene functions as a true epilogue is debatable. In some ways it does, and in some ways it's just a fun after credit scene to make people laugh. I'm leaning more toward the latter. But let's talk about it.

Of the two purposes above, it mostly fits into the second. It starts something new. We're introduced to another spider character who now has the ability to intentionally travel to other dimensions, successfully. What does that mean? Perhaps it's similar to Gwen talking to Miles at the end. These spider characters will interact with each other again. There is more to the story.

But as the scene plays out, it ends more as another opportunity to get one last laugh out of the audience. That's fine, for a superhero movie.

Or maybe that ending is intentionally ambiguous. One interpretation works better for a series, and the other works better for a standalone. Maybe the writers intentionally wanted to have it fit for either, as they wait and see if they can get funding and support for another film to happen.

Whatever the case, you can watch or read other epilogues and see how they either add more closure or add more loose threads.




And that's story structure explained.

Now what? Do you need to follow all these components to write a good story? Not necessarily. Heaven knows there are plenty of writers who are successful without knowing about these things at all. However, I will argue that whether it's intentional or not, most writers who write successful stories will hit the majority of these components in some way, even if it's completely done subconsciously. We've seen and been fed this story structure so much, from such young ages, that if we don't follow it to some degree, something will feel off or wrong, even if we can't pinpoint or communicate what it is exactly. In fact, we may even misdiagnose the problem. But if this has been helpful to you, go ahead and use it. If you feel like it's paralyzing you, don't worry about it so much. This is meant to help, not hinder. Do what works for you. And there are other sliced and diced forms of story structure you can look into.

In the future I want to grab some other stories and break down how they fit these elements, briefly, so you guys have examples of how it works for vastly different narratives.


Resources:

This article series was influenced by Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, the Seven Point Story Structure, Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, The Hero's Journey, and even the basics of Freytag's Pyramid.



2 comments:

  1. Thanks for all the effort you put in these entries, they helped me a lot designing my characters' arcs ^^

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    Replies
    1. Glad to hear it! Honestly, I think the character arcs and the thematic stuff are the most interesting parts in the structure.

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