Great Story Endings
In finishing your story, you are trying to do two basic things:
1. Make the ending seem like the consequence of everything that has happened so far - in other words, not suddenly resolve everything by have it ‘all be a dream’ or have events occur which make no sense in the context of what the reader has come to see as the story’s world
2. Surprise the reader.
This can be a tricky act to pull off, especially with audiences and readers growing more and more sophisticated as they are exposed to far more fiction than was the case, say, fifty years ago.
Details of how this is done are given in How Stories Really Work, but here’s a summary.
You have (or should have) created a series of questions as the basic outline of your plot: these need to come to a close in a fairly logical way so that the reader feels comfortable knowing ‘what happened next’.
You have (or should have) created a series of mysteries as the ‘glue’ to hold your reader’s attention: these need to be explained to some degree (in an Epic or Comedy) so that the reader feels ‘released’ from any further mystery, or left unexplained in a satisfying way (in a Tragedy or Irony) so that the reader feels intrigued and captivated beyond the confines of the story.
If the ending isn’t an inevitable result of earlier events, the reader can feel cheated; conversely, if the ending is plainly obvious, the reader can also feel cheated.
As author William Goldman said, ‘The key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not in the way it expects.’
Conventional creative writing guides and courses will talk a lot about ‘conflict’ in fiction. Conflicts in a novel, internal and external, converge at the climax, they will say, with the protagonist fighting for a prize and either winning it (perhaps at great cost) or losing it (perhaps with consolation). This victory (or defeat) delivers emotional and physical consequences for the characters.
After studying How Stories Really Work, this looks a little different: the climax is when the issue that has been driving your central character and the issue which has been driving your plot merge - the protagonist has his or her issue resolved or not; most of what we are used to calling ‘characters' are either fulfilled or intentionally left empty at the end.
Let’s run a few examples through these requirements.
Needless to say, there will be plenty of spoilers ahead!
At the conclusion of the original Star Wars trilogy, in the film Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader takes Luke Skywalker to the new Death Star to meet the Emperor, who is intent on turning him to the dark side. Luke’s major internal question, the thing which has stuck our attention to him the most throughout the trilogy, is his loss of his father whom he discovers is Darth Vader and his hope that he has a correct perception of the man behind the mask and can therefore recover Vader as a father to be loved.
The Emperor reveals to Luke that the Death Star is fully operational and the Rebel fleet will fall into a trap. He tempts Luke to give in to his anger and join him, in effect rejecting Luke’s innermost need (as antagonist’s do) and promoting an ongoing inner emptiness. In the film’s terminology, this is captured by the expression ‘If you only knew the power of the Dark Side’: what that means is the power of an ongoing, deep psychological loss for that character. Luke, partly falling prey to this temptation, engages Vader in a lightsaber duel, during which Vader senses that Luke has a sister and suggests turning her to the dark side. This pushes Luke to the limit and he manages to overpower his father, severing his prosthetic right hand. However, the sight of the severed artificial hand triggers in Luke an awareness that he might become like his father, a walking void. Luke rejects that void, and refuses to kill Vader. He answers his own internal question by saying ‘I am a Jedi, like my father before me’.
Vader, observing the Emperor’s consequent attack on his son, has an internal struggle with his own dormant internal issues and ‘finds himself’ in a similar fashion to Luke, turning on the Emperor and destroying him.
The Rebels celebrate their victory over the Empire, and Luke, now whole, smiles as he sees the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and his father Anakin, all of whom have no remaining character issues, watching over them.
The ending of the trilogy seems like the consequence of everything that has happened. The ‘surprise’ for the reader comes in two parts: Luke’s decision to reject the Emperor’s perspective and instead become a Jedi, and Vader’s consequent rejection of the Emperor too. Knowledge of how stories work might have led an audience to suspect that at least one of these was coming, but the odds against either of them happening seem overwhelming and therefore they sneak up on the viewer. This is no accident: the odds are overwhelming at the end of Epics like this precisely in order to make the resolution moment as revelatory as possible.
Dynamic questions, the mechanics of which are covered in How Stories Really Work, have driven the Star Wars plot along at a fast pace: in Return of the Jedi alone, we have had the dramatic rescue of Hans Solo (‘Will they be caught?’ ‘How will they escape?’ ‘Can they all survive the execution?’ and so forth) forming almost a secondary film as the first act, followed by the breathless attack on the second Death Star with two plot strands keeping us guessing right to the last moment. These are resolved in typical Epic fashion: the Death Star is destroyed, Luke saves his father, everyone is at peace (including the ‘villain’ Darth Vader at the end).
The mystery created by Yoda’s enigmatic statement ’There is another’ in the preceding film The Empire Strikes Back is answered; the question as to whether or not there is actually any good in Vader is also resolved. The brilliant compression of Luke’s internal character question, the moral choice between good and evil, and the core issue of the plot in that final scene before the Emperor makes those last minutes of the film resonate powerfully, and gives them enough depth to be watched again and again.
Yes, conflict has converged at the climax, the protagonist fighting for a prize (his father’s soul and the triumph of the Rebellion) and winning it (at the cost of much pain and his father’s life). Victory delivers emotional and physical consequences for the characters. But in fact the climax is a merging of character and plot issues. The successful interweaving of all of this is why Star Wars is not only a successful film franchise but a cultural phenomenon.