The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 11: The Resolution

The resolution is always a bittersweet moment. You’ve reached the end of the story. You’ve climbed the mountain, and now you can plant your flag of completion at its peak. But as the finale of all your work, this is also the finale of all the fun you’ve experienced in your wonderful world of made-up people and places. The resolution is where you have to say goodbye to your characters and, by the same token, give your readers a chance to say goodbye as well.

Your story and its conflict officially ended with your climax. Conceivably, you could end your story right then and there. But most books need an extra scene or two to tie off any leftover loose ends and, just as importantly, to guide your readers to the emotion with which you want to leave them. Like those great “ensemble” scenes at ends of the Star Wars movies, this is the last glimpse your readers will have of your story world and your characters. So make it one they’ll remember!

What is the resolution?

If most stories ended right after the climax, the authors would likely have some very disgruntled readers on their hands. Why? Simply because after all the emotional stress of the climax, readers want a moment to relax. They want to see the character rising, dusting off his pants, and moving on with his life. They want to catch a glimpse of how the ordeals of the previous three acts have changed your character; they want a preview of the new life he will live in the aftermath of the conflict. And, if you’ve done your job right, they’re likely to want this
extra scene for no other reason than the opportunity to spend just a little more time with these characters they’ve grown to love.

Just as its name suggests, the resolution is where everything is finally resolved. In the climax, the character slew the bad guy and won his true love. And in the resolution, we see how these actions have made a difference in his life. Joss Whedon’s Serenity ends by showing Captain Mal Reynolds and his surviving crew heading back to space, now free of the Alliance’s
dogged pursuit, while both Mal and Inara and Simon and Kaylee take a step into their future relationships together.

The resolution is not just the ending of this story, but also the beginning of the story the characters will live after the reader has closed the back cover. It performs its two greatest duties in capping the current story, while still promising a sense of continuing life from the characters. This is true of standalone books and even truer of individual parts in an ongoing series. The standalone book Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard ends with a few short scenes explaining Jamie’s adjustment to his post-war life outside of the Japanese POW camp and hints at his near future growing up in England. Ship of Magic, the first book in Robin Hobb’s The Liveship Traders series, is even more open-ended: its resolution promises that protagonist Althea Vestritt will pursue and rescue her liveship Vivacia, which has been captured by pirates.

Where does the resolution belong?

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThe resolution comprises the very end of your book. This is it, folks! After this, there ain’t no more! The resolution begins directly after the climax and continues until the last page. Resolutions can vary in length, but, generally speaking, shorter is better. Your story is already essentially over, so you don’t want to try readers’ patience by wasting their time or stunt their sense of the story by tying off every loose end too perfectly. The length of your resolution will depend on a couple of factors, the most important being the number of remaining loose ends. Optimally, you will have used the scenes leading up to your climax to tie off as many ends as possible, which will free up your resolution to take care of only the essentials.

Another factor to keep in mind is the tone with which you want to leave readers. This is your last chance to influence their perception of your story. So consider how you want to end things. Happy? Sad? Thoughtful? Funny? One of my all-time favorite resolutions is the final scene in Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid. Its closing scene promises resolution between the main character and the woman he loves, as well as indicating the future progression of his transformed life. Add a sparklingly happy oldies song, and it manages to strike the perfect note
of happiness, hope, and affirmation. Books, of course, don’t have the advantage of being able to end with emotionally resonant music. But we should still strive to leave readers with a similarly powerful and memorable scene.

Lessons from film and literature

How do masterful authors and directors frame their final scenes to tie off all the loose ends and leave readers with an emotionally powerful scene? Let’s take one final look at how our four stories pull it off.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): After the climax in which Darcy and Lizzy proclaim their love for one another, Austen ties up her loose ends in a few neat scenes, which include the Bennets’ reaction to their engagement. From her perch as an omniscient and distant narrator, Austen then caps her story with a final witty scene in which she covers the book’s two culminating weddings and comments on Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s and Mr. and Mrs. Bingley’s future lives together. Her final scene is a beautiful example of hitting a tone that sums up the story as a whole and leaves the reader feeling exactly how the author wants them to.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): The closing scene of this classic movie has viewers crying all over the place every Christmas. It wastes no time in moving on from the climax, in which George’s friends bring him above and beyond the $8,000 he needs to replace what was stolen by Mr. Potter. In fact, in this movie, the climax and the resolution are the same scene. The resolution ties off all remaining loose ends by bringing the entire cast (sans the antagonist) back for one last round of “Auld Lang Syne” and by hinting that
angel Clarence has finally gotten his wings. This is a tour de force of an emotionally resonant closing scene that leaves readers wanting more while still fulfilling their every desire for the characters.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): Ender’s Game takes its time with its resolution (primarily because Card added it after the original novella’s publication). In it, we’re given
what essentially amounts to both an epilogue, explaining some of Ender’s life after his defeat of the Formics (he leaves Earth to try to make peace with both his superstar status and his guilt over his xenocide of the aliens), and an introduction to the books that will follow in the series (in which Ender takes charge of finding a new home for the sole remaining Formic cocoon).

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): In this movie, we find perhaps the least resolved of all our resolutions. Whether the movie was angling for a sequel (as its subtitle suggests) or just paying tribute to the continuing nature of its source material, the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, it still works on every level. After tying off all existing loose ends from its plot’s overarching conflict, it ends with a surprising scene in which Jack realizes the Acheron’s captain wasn’t dead as he supposed, but instead masquerading as the ship’s surgeon in order to attempt a takeover of the ship once it sailed away from the Surprise. The final scene, in which Jack orders his ship to change course and pursue the Acheron, while he and Stephen continue to play their rousing duet, gives us both a definite sense of continuation and a perfect summation of the movie’s tone.

Takeaway value

What final lessons can we learn from our exemplary books and movies? What do they teach us about ending our stories on just the right note to satisfy our readers, while still leaving them with that bittersweet feeling of wanting more even as they realize they’ve had just the perfect amount?

1. The resolution takes place directly after the climax and is the last scene(s) in the book.

2. The resolution must tie off all prominent loose ends, leaving the reader without any salient questions. However, it must also avoid being too pat.

3. The resolution needs to offer the reader a sense of continuation in the lives of the characters. Even a standalone book should hint at the life the characters will lead after the reader has closed the back cover.

4. The resolution should give the reader a concrete example of how the character’s journey has changed him. If he was a selfish jerk at the beginning of the story, the resolution needs to definitively demonstrate his change of heart.

5. Finally, the resolution should strike an emotional note that resonates with the tone of the book as a whole (funny, romantic, melancholy, etc.) and leaves the reader completely satisfied.

Congratulations! You’ve just completed the monumental task of writing a book. And not just a book, but one that is structured to excite and satisfy readers with its rise and flow of action, reaction, suspense, and revelation. As you write your closing lines, consider all the words that have come before and cap them off with an intellectual and emotional home run of a resolution!

Stay tuned: Next week, I’ll be concluding the series with a post answering Frequently Asked Questions about structure.

Tell me your opinion: How many scenes does your resolution contain?

Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 4: The First Plot Point

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: The Inciting Event and the Key Event

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 6: The First Half of the Second Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 7: The Midpoint

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 8: The Second Half of the Second Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 9: The Third Act

The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 10: The Climax

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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. Thanks for an awesome series. I’ve really enjoyed it. I love seeing my plots in the 3 act story structure. It really helps keep the plot going.

  2. Thanks, Natalie! I’ve had a ton of fun with it as well. I’m always excited to see others as excited about structure as I am.

  3. This series has been so useful to me in organizing my WIP! Thanks for sharing it.

    I think of the resolution as a dessert. The best desserts are as sweet and decadent as possible, beautifully presented, and in a dainty portion that leaves the diner at a balance between wanting more sometime and feeling utterly satisfied for the moment.

  4. This is such an excellent series. I’ve learned a ton!!

    Thank you ;o)

  5. @Jeannie: Perfect comparison. The best desserts are not only delicious in themselves, but also a perfect complement to the meal that came before.

    @Erica: Thanks for reading! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the series.

  6. Love when this happens–discussion pops up on the very issue I’ll be addressing this week in my work, which for me is a last run-through of the final pp of my WIP prior to beginning the querying process. Thank you! I’ll especially zero in on your “takeaway” points. They will be a fantastic help in crafting what I hope is a memorable ending 🙂

  7. In answer to your question, I have 3 conflicts in my novel. The 1st is resolved shortly before the climax and the 2nd resolution happens right before the final and major climax. The last resolution is one chapter, the last chapter, right after the climax, bringing the story to, what I hope is, a satisfying conclusion and tying up all loose ends.

  8. It’s nice to get that last chance to say goodbye.

  9. @Kenda: Congrats on finishing up another draft! I wish you all the best in the querying process.

    @Karen: Sounds like you’ve got it nailed. I like it when a little bit of the climax – usually something in a subplot – is drawn out until the very end, since it keeps the resolution from feeling tacked-on.

    @Traci: Yes. I always say writing a book is like being married. And finishing it is like getting a divorce.

  10. After reading your post, K.M., I think my resolution stacks up pretty well. I have the MC meet with three minor characters that are most important to him at the time in terms of resolutions and he has a short scene with each one (about a page a piece). Then I finish with an echo of the very first scene in the book where the MC is driving to a known destination to fix a defined problem. In the last paragraph, the MC is driving to an unknown destination where he will try to start over with his life after much of it has been destroyed.

    Thanks for the good series of posts.

    Chris

  11. Excellent series. The answer to your question is one.

  12. @ChiTrader: I’m a big fan of endings that mirror their beginnings. That type of resolution does an amazing job of bringing everything full circle and giving the reader a sense of closure.

    @Lorna: Glad you enjoyed it!

  13. Great post 🙂 I never realised that there’s a difference between the climax and the resolution before, it just kinda went over my head.

  14. They’re all of a part, but they do form two distinct sides of the coin.

  15. My resolution usually contains 1 – 2 scenes, depending on the story. Usually, they’re in one “epilogue” style chapter.

    That’s definitely something I’ve had to get used to when writing shorts, though. The wrap-up scenes are much briefer–usually, just a few sentences rather than pages of material. 🙂

  16. Yes, everything shrinks proportionately the shorter the story. Short stories are an art form unto themselves, but story structure remains essentially the same no matter the length, whether it’s a few thousand words or a few hundred thousand.

  17. K.M. I just heard of this series – and can’t wait to explore all the posts. I benefited and grew after reading your book, ‘Outlining Your Novel’ and use quite a few of your techniques. I had just published my first book (I had pantsed and was extremely unsatisfied with that method) when I happened across your book – and it helped to shape my methods of plotting and planning.
    All the best…I’m off to read!

  18. Tess R. says:

    I just want to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed this series. It was informative and delightful!!! I am anxiously awaiting your next series as well as the next post. Thank you.

  19. @Nadja: So glad you enjoyed Outlining! Hope you glean something useful from the series as well.

    @Tess: Thanks for reading! It’s been a fun couple of months. Be fun to move on to new topics as well!

  20. Katie, love your post, as always but this thing – I don’t completely agree with it.

    “4. The resolution should give the reader a concrete example of how the character’s journey has changed him. If he was a selfish jerk at the beginning of the story, the resolution needs to definitively demonstrate his change of heart.”

    I see this thing everywhere (in the craft books and blogs) and I tend to disagree. Yes, often in books you see a change in the main character. But in life you rarely see that. I’ve read a great book lately about a cheat physicist by Ian McEwan called “Solar”: the main character is a jerk from the beginning to the end, he doesn’t change. Yet the story is fascinating, because despite being unlikeable this character is very realistic and interesting. Also, another book I’ve read in Russian recently had a similarly unchanged character. It doesn’t mean that the character is static, or doesn’t try to change. Maybe it’s an example of the rule that needs to be broken sometimes ))

  21. You’re right. #4 assumes your main character changes. Most stories present characters whose arcs lead to some sort of personal transformation. But, occasionally, usually in tragedies, we’ll find stories in which the confirmation of the character’s original course is the point. In those instances, the resolution should give a concrete example how (and probably why) the character has not changed.

  22. 3. The resolution needs to offer the reader a sense of continuation in the lives of the characters. Even a standalone book should hint at the life the characters will lead after the reader has closed the back cover.

    In Jack London’s “Martin Eden” this rule is completely disregarded,
    but I cried and then felt good and cleansed when I realised why I have been made to cry. One of the best endings ever.

  23. Actually you’ll find many stories (particularly older ones) that disregard that rule. As with all rules of story, if your story will be the better for the breaking of it, go for it. But modern storytelling tends to prefer a slightly more open-ended finale.

  24. Thanks for a very helpful article. I have always struggled with story structure. My stories are character driven, and so the story flows somewhat from the decisions of the characters. I don’t tend to think abstractly. I have tried plot outlines before but they seem to silence my muse. Perhaps writing just can’t be all inspiration, then again, when not inspired my writing becomes flat. Nothing is easy, writing and storytelling are certainly no exception. I wonder whether purely allowing characters to drive the story can result in a decent structure, or whether the structure will seem off. My last book had problems with the resolution that several revisions improved but never completely solved. I hope that my future story structure will come easier. Thanks again for this article, and for helping writers!

  25. Writing ultimately has to be a balance between our creative right brains and logical left brains – between art and craft. Harnessing inspiration and going with the flow is important, since that deep subconscious well is often where we find our best ideas. But we also have to be able to step back and look at them analytically and trim and add to make sure the ideas maintain proper structure. Some writers let everything flow out during one stage (the outline or the first draft), then retreat to the objective distance of logical analysis during revision. Personally, I find my best productivity in a constant check and balance between creativity and logic.

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