The Resolution caps character arcs like the cherry on top of a banana split. In some respects, it almost seems to be an extraneous piece of the story. After all, your character’s arc is already complete. He irrevocably proved his devotion to the truth in the Climax. He turned his back on the Lie so completely that he’ll never again be able to surrender to its thrall.
This important ending scene(s) is there to bookend the opening scene. In the beginning of your story, you showed your character living his Normal World, as shaped by the Lie. In the Resolution, you get to show readers the new Normal World that has been built by the character’s hard-won Truth.
I like to think of this final scene as a reward. Readers laughed, cried, ached, and triumphed right alongside your character. Don’t you think they deserve even just a glimpse of the new and improved life your character is going to live after he rides off into the sunset?
- The Resolution gives readers a chance to say goodbye.
- The Resolution ties off loose ends.
- The Resolution guides readers to a final emotion.
- The Resolution relaxes readers after the Climax.
- The Resolution shows how your protagonist has changed.
- The Resolution gives a preview of the characters’ new life.
- The Resolution begins after the Climax and continues until the last page (approximately the last 2% of the book).
The Resolution needs to fulfil two primary duties in finishing off your character’s arc. The first of those duties is providing an answer to the thematic question that was raised in the story’s beginning. The second duty is giving readers a preview of the character’s new Lie-free life.
The Thematic Question
In essence, these two duties are two sides of the same coin. Your story’s thematic question will have been based upon the character’s inner battle between the Lie and the Truth. For example, in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the thematic question is famously summed up in the question: Will Peter learn to wield his great power with equally great responsibility?
By the end of the film, that question has been definitively answered by Peter’s actions in the Climax. It is then hammered home one final time in the closing scenes, in which we see how he has been so changed by his new Truth that he is willing to sacrifice the one thing he wants most—the love of Mary Jane Watson—in order to be responsible and protect her.
Find a way to state the answer to this question in an obvious way—if not through the characters’ interactions with each other and the setting, then at least briefly in dialogue. You never want to slap readers in the face with “the moral of the story,” but you do want the answer to your thematic question to be perfectly clear.
The Character’s New Normal
The answer to the thematic question will already be obvious. Readers already know your character has completely changed. But the Resolution is also the time to back up their knowledge with visual proof. Now that the main conflict has been resolved, what will the character do now? How will he act now that he’s a changed person?
These changes are often best demonstrated by creating a deliberate contrast between the Normal World in the beginning of the story and the new normal that now exists in the wake of the conflict. Returning the character to the actual physical setting from the beginning of the story, while not absolutely necessary, allows you to dramatically contrast (and therefore highlight) the character’s new self with his old world. In Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, when Amy Dorrit returns to the Marshalsea Prison after her father’s death in Venice, she is a different person, from top to toe, which is visually obvious in the contrast between the dreary prison and the rich clothing she now wears.
But this physical contrast won’t work in every story. Sometimes the Normal World from the beginning of the story will have been destroyed, or the character will have no ability or reason to return to it. In these instances, you must prove the difference solely through the character’s actions in the Resolution. In Plot vs. Character, Jeff Gerke suggests symbolically demonstrating the character’s emotion, not subtly, but “times ten”:
If he feels free here at the end, for instance, find a way to express that freedom: jumping out of an airplane, singing from a housetop, running naked through the forest.
In a positive change arc, this final scene should be a fun one—or at least a joyful one. Your character has just been through hell. Hope is rising. The new day is dawning. Play that up for all it’s worth!
How Does the Resolution Manifest in Character Arcs
Your character’s arc in the Resolution could manifest as:
- An apology from the previously arrogant Thor to his father, in which he blatantly answers the thematic question: “I have much to learn. I know that now.” (Thor)
- An epilogue, in which Jane’s vastly different new life demonstrates how she is now able to live as Rochester’s beloved wife while still maintaining absolute spiritual freedom. (Jane Eyre)
- A closing scene, in which the previously child-phobic Dr. Grant holds the sleeping children he’s come to love, as the helicopter flies them all to safety. (Jurassic Park)
- A scene that closely mirrors the opening one, in which a newly empowered Walter marches down the road, greets the dogs and the pig, and tells his uncles they have to stay alive long enough to see him through college. (Secondhand Lions)
- A literal new Normal World (Andy’s new home) that acts as the backdrop for a Christmas scene that mirrors the early birthday scene that triggered Woody’s arc. Here, Woody is happily friends with Buzz, willing to share his top place in Andy’s heart. (Toy Story)
- An ending montage that is both ironic and hopeful, in which the three main characters are shown in their happy post-prison careers—which, it turns out, was funded by just a smidge of that Iraqi bullion after all. (Three Kings)
- A final scene, in which Matt, back in the States, proves his new willingness to fight for himself when needed (tempered by his new wisdom about avoiding a fight when possible) by facing down the fellow student who falsely accused him in the beginning—and gaining the proof to clear his name. (Green Street Hooligans)
- A brilliantly ironic closing scene, in which Bob proves his return to sanity by marrying Leo’s sister—which finally brings Leo out of his catatonia. (What About Bob?)
Further Examples of the Resolution in Character Arcs
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: In a lengthy Resolution scene, a very altered Scrooge rejoices to find himself back in the unchanged Normal World of his bedroom. Upon discovering it’s still Christmas morning, he sets about proving his new mindset over and over: by tipping the errand boy, donating extravagantly to the poor, making up with his nephew, and lavishing gifts and a raise upon the Cratchits. Dickens ends with a few paragraphs of narrative, spelling out, in no uncertain terms, how Scrooge was changed from that day forward: “…it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Cars directed by John Lasseter: Lightning backs up his shocking climactic action (in which he sacrificed the Piston Cup in order to help The King finish his last race) by turning down the coveted Dinoco sponsor in order to stand by the Rust-eze sponsors he formerly disdained. He then returns to make Radiator Springs his new training headquarters, breathing new life into his friends’ dying town, which also allows him to simultaneously pursue his dreams without living in the fast lane. He fulfills his promise (and proves he can be trusted) by securing Mater a ride on the Dinoco helicopter, then cements his relationship with Miss Sally. He blatantly offers the answer to his thematic question when he tells The King why he sacrificed the Piston Cup: “This grumpy old racecar I know once told me somethin’. It’s just an empty cup.”
Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Arc in the Resolution
1. How does your Resolution contrast your story’s beginning?
2. How does your Resolution mirror your story’s beginning?
3. How is the character’s new Normal World different from the original one?
4. Does the character return to his old Normal World?
5. How does the Resolution answer your story’s thematic question?
6. How can you state the answer to the thematic question in dialogue without making it seem like a “moral of the story”?
7. How does your character act differently in the Resolution from how he did at the beginning of the story?
In some ways, learning how to create a solid positive change arc is even more complex than learning how to properly structure a story (as a point of interest, my series on story structure ran only ten posts). If you can understand the psychological workings that are the foundation for human change, then you’ll also understand how to create a story about a character who changes, from worse to better, in a convincing way.
It isn’t enough to simply have a character change; he must change in a way that harmonizes with the patterns we all recognize in our own lives and those of our family and friends. Readers will resonate with those patterns in your characters—and they will be moved by them.
Thanks for sticking with me through this series for the past three months! I hope you’ve found the subject as fascinating as I do. Now that we have gained a solid foundation in this most complicated of all the character arcs, we’ll be moving on to two three-part series on the flat and negative arcs, respectively. Look for the first them next month!
Previous Posts in This Series:
Part 1: Can You Structure Character?
Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes
Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost
Part 5: The Characteristic Moment
Part 6: The Normal World
Part 7: The First Act
Part 8: The First Plot Point
Part 9: The First Half of the Second Act
Part 10: The Midpoint
Part 11: The Second Half of the Second Act
Part 12: The Third Plot Point
Part 13: The Third Act
Part 14: The Climax
Tell me your opinion: How does your Resolution show your character living his new Truth?
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