Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 15: The Resolution

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 15: The Resolution

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.

Creating Character ArcsSo why do we need the Resolution at all?

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?

From a structural perspective, the Resolution needs to accomplish the following:

  • 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

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 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

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?

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 15: The Resolution

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. thomas h cullen says:

    A resolution to a story could be interpreted as a mere continuation of the essence of storytelling:

    Subversion.

    Because Croyan hasn’t been an evolving character, I regard his ending as the last of merely three distinguished climaxes – an emotionally explosive final sentence.

    (I remember, my eyes being watery just after the moment typing it, looking at the screen.)

    Once reading it, it’s my posit you’ll think it’s the last sentence.

    • Life is never-ending. Beginnings and endings are just arbitrary distinctions we place on our stories in order to make them manageable and meaningful.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        A perfect description! Yes. That’s very expertly said.

        Would you take me seriously K, were I to say that in writing “that” final sentence I felt as humanly possible as it is to feel?

        I sincerely feel I did.

        I’ll now spend the rest of my life content: whatever else comes my way, I’ll always have that sentence in my head.

        (This is literature’s beauty and power: unlike us, it never alters or changes.)

  2. I love mirroring opening and closing scenes. In the first draft I finished a little over a week ago my opening scene was the hero arriving back where he lives after spending two weeks at the one place in his world he hated with all his might. It was a place of torment and pain for him and nothing good ever happened there.

    The closing scene was him watching that place burn to the ground.

    • Great way to bring it full circle! Your example is a good one because it illustrates that “mirror” scenes don’t have to actually repeat themselves in any obvious ways. Sometimes, a successful mirror tactic can be something as simple as mentioning a place, person, or prop that was present in the opening scene.

  3. I love this series. Thanks so much for taking the time of working on it. I guess this is indeed the most important part of the story, it must be satisfying to keep the reader around your books.

    It is not until then when the ribbon should be tied.

    Thanks again!

    Hugs,

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      By this point, readers will already have decided whether or not they like the story, so the Resolution is just one last chance for us to drive home the impression – and hopefully it’s a good one!

  4. Great finish to the series! I’ll be looking forward to the publication and your next two arc series. I won’t mind if you take a break, it must be hard and long work between your blog and your own projects.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I will be taking a brief break next week. Then, Lord willing, we’ll dive into the series on flat arcs in June. So glad you enjoyed this one!

  5. Currently my resolution is an attempt to bring some kind of happiness to an ending that is far from happy. Rejecting the lie might have been very good for the MC in a general sense, but at the end of the story he is a complete wreck and basically suicidal (though I make a few allowances for his state of mind since he’s exhausted).

    So I thought the best use of my last scene would be to try and get him to see, if even for a little bit, the good things that might possibly happen (and eventually do happen). And also to bring a little bit of closure to the inevitable grief he has over everything that happened in the climax. 😛

    • thomas h cullen says:

      You write nuance – thought I’d acknowledge you for it.

      Good luck with it.

    • Good approach. Unless the ending you’re going for is supposed to be a total downer, it’s always valuable to try to find a bright spot in the darkness for that final scene. One of my favorite examples is The Time Traveler’s Wife, which ends with the death of the husband but offers a bright moment when it turns out his younger (alive) self time traveled to see the wife in her old age. It’s a small scene, but it lifts the whole tone of the otherwise tragic ending.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        Oblivion. Beaches (Bette Midler). The Empire Strikes Back. Rama Revealed (Arthur C Clarke & Gentry Lee):

        These four would be good examples of what you identify.

        A good ending’s when at least the next day, after having read or watched the story, your mind’s haunted it.

        What examples can you think of K?

      • I’m glad you approve. 🙂 I’ve never read that one, but I see what you mean, it would give readers a little to smile about and not just feel miserable about (tragedies are all very well, but readers don’t like to be left completely miserable too often :P).

  6. Gwen Stephens says:

    This series of posts has been tremendously helpful, sort of a concise, condensed version of Structuring Your Novel. I’m in the process of restructuring my novel (previous drafts were disastrous), with the aim of writing the “next first draft” in July’s Camp NaNoWriMo. The examples from film and literature are fantastic, and you explain everything in a straightforward style that’s easy to understand. In my outlining, I had determined all my major plot points, but the order in which everything should unfold kept tripping me up. These posts helped me label the events (first plot point, pinch point, midpoint, etc.), and everything fell easily into place from there. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re so welcome! Structure is really very simple when we look at its foundation. Once we’ve got the basics, the entire vista of storytelling opens up extravagantly.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      I complimented K on that point myself: her lexicon is intelligent.

  7. Very thought provoking post! It has many questions rushing through my mind in regards to my novel “He Was Weird.” My climax where the main character has finally had enough of the bullying and goes and shoots up the school happens at three quarter point. This is the first query point because the main character makes himself the final fatality of his rampage. The chapters after that deal with how the town and his family deal with the after effects of what he’s done. There are some points where I make posthumous thoughts on him like how he would have delighted in the town tearing itself apart and nearly going bankrupt through the lawsuits. On the flip side, he would have been disappointed to learn that his actions hadn’t changed what was truly important, bullying still went on at that school. At the end, I do bring all of the opposing forces together in reconciliation, the main character is represented by his sister. My question is how much does all this fit in with your post?

    • thomas h cullen says:

      In case you haven’t seen it, and because it deals beautifully and sensitively with your subject matter, I’d recommend the film Beautiful Boy, starring Michael Sheen and Maria Bello…..the performances and script are outstanding.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Stories like this are difficult, unless they’re framed in POVs other than the main character’s, because they essentially become an entirely new story after the main character exits. Those potential problems aside, sounds like you’ve done a good job tying off loose ends and summarizing the final tone you want to strike.

      • 80smetalman says:

        Thank you KM, that answers my question very well and Thomas, I am going to check out that film. Also KM, your answer touches on my next planned book. It will be a collection of short stories about people being let down by the British Justice System. Those individuals band together to form a vigilante group.

        • thomas h cullen says:

          I rate it over We Need to Talk about Kevin; in fact I think it to be far superior.

          It must be in amounts unnerving, writing the subject matter you do, perhaps feeling more than usual the need to consider the responses of others…

          I know I certainly have, with my own subject matter.

          • I too was very disappointed in the film for “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” I thought they left out two parts from the book that I thought were very important to the story. Those were when he was brought home by the police and the false allegation against the teacher. If I was Lionel Shriver, I would be livid.

  8. I absolutely love this blog series.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      It’s a masterclass isn’t it. I feel privileged to have found it too.

  9. Hi!

    I just want to add my word of thanks for this wonderful series! I have found immensely useful and profitable.

    And then, a quick question, do you think it would be valuable/helpful/necessary to plot the character arcs for the other major(ish) characters in the story in as much detail or is this really just for the protagonist?

    • thomas h cullen says:

      All that’s only relevant; all which serves the story’s emotional truth.

      Beyond that, whatever can “authenticate” the reality of the story, without however going off on too strong a tangent.

      You ask a very relevant question. The real answer to it really is to know what your story is – is it’s essence plot, or character?

      I could talk at absolute length about Croyan, and his daughter Mariel, and the text their being part of being so centrally informed by emotional truth.

      Thanks for asking…..it feels good, getting to have such discussions.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s not unusual for a complex story to have several characters following different arcs. Although the protag’s is the only arc I feel it’s absolutely necessary to map out, it certainly can only deepen the complexity to chart out the supporting characters’ arcs as well. The important thing to keep in mind is that the supporting characters’ arcs must support – not compete with – the main character’s.

      • Thank you for your very helpful reply! Just another question (which I was meaning to ask with my first question but forgot) if you do flesh out the supporting characters’ arcs as well do they need to follow the same plot points? I’m just scared it might be too much for the reader to have to follow ten characters changing all at once?

        Perhaps to give an example in my current book at the third plot point my hero is running away from the “world” he’s supposed to be “saving” and then *something* happens that makes him turn back. One of his friends who was with him also turns back but I would like that to happen a little bit later so that my hero is already back by the time his friend arrives. Then the friend wouldn’t quite give up his Lie for good at the Third Plot Point? Could that work? Or does it have to be exactly at the Third Plot Point for everyone?

        I hope this makes sense! 🙂

        • thomas h cullen says:

          Yes that could work. Make that a surprise climax, perhaps.

          The critical thing is to consider who this supporting character actually is: who are they? When would their true nature dictate their turning back – sooner or later?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The main structural points are most important for the protagonist. The plot points in a subplot will be associated with and influenced by the main plot points, but may not be the same. If you’re dealing with characters who bear equal weight in the story, you can either use the same major plot points to affect both – or create separate ones for each person. But, generally speaking, the story will be tighter for having everything important revolve around the main structural plot points.

  10. Thank you so much for this series. I love these long meaty ones. I’ve learned a lot. I think this will help me with the edit of my novel. Very well timed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed the long ones, because I know some of them were *really* long!

  11. Katie–
    It doesn’t always work out, but I try to treat resolution in terms of the second shoe dropping. The climax is obvious, the major conflict is resolved–but something’s missing, something remains to be learned. When that second, lesser something falls into place, story over.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is actually a great way to look at it. We want *most* of the loose ends up tied up before the Resolution, but not all. Otherwise, what is there left to resolve?

  12. Aaron Shaver says:

    “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.”

    I think your statements here articulate the crux of it. Have you ever seen the movie Equilibrium with Christian Bale? Great action movie but the resolution is probably a total of 10 seconds. And it only succeeds in this movie because in the absolute very last second you see a slight smile on his face. If I had not seen that smile, the resolution would have been a let down.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Interestingly enough, I *have* seen Equilibrium – twice. But I have zero memory of the Resolution. Guess that proves your point!

  13. I devoured your audio podcasts every night during my overnight cleaning job. They are deep and insightful. And tasty.

    As I listened, I tried to imagine how the steps in the story arc, and how the plot structure fits with my novel, which is not chronological. The beginning of my novel is a mystery. The middle of the novel has an origin story, which is a thriller. It starts in the past and moves to the current story time. Then the third part is the final climax that brings the two stories together.

    So, in a non-linear story, do the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd plot points still have to fall at the 25, 50 and 75% marks? Or what if I have two story lines in one novel?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The plot points are as much about pacing as anything else, and, as such, they remain fixed within the overall structure, no matter how unconventional the chronology or narrative may be. Same goes for more than one storyline. If the same plot point doesn’t affect both stories, you’ll want to group the catalyst scenes together at the quarter marks, in order to set up the correcting pacing.

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