Helping Writers Become Authors

3 Things to Know About the Ending of a Story

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There are three parts of a story that are difficult to write: the beginning, the middle, and the ending. (I was going to start the article by referencing the ending of a story as one of the hardest parts, but then I realized… it’s all hard. Ahem.) Each has its own special set of challenges, but today I want to talk specifically about the function of a story’s ending and a few points that sometimes cause confusion and/or are taken for granted.

Whether or not a story works is dependent on how well its beginning, middle, and ending hang together. Are they all of a piece? Does the beginning ask a question that the middle develops and the ending resolves? When viewed in this manner, it is quite clear that all three parts are equally important. And yet it is difficult not to be inclined to give the ending special status. After all, the ending is what “proves” the story, right?

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Indeed, the ending—and particularly the Climactic Moment that decides the plot conflict—can function as a confused writer’s guiding light in figuring out just what the story is about and how to wrangle its unwieldy earlier sections. For instance, I often talk about how the Climactic Moment can be used to determine:

This is because we never really know what a story is about until we reach the ending. Regardless what has come before, the ending provides the final commentary. The ending is what indicates whether the author finds this story’s series of events to be tragic, comedic, triumphant, ironic, or even unclear.

This is, of course, one of the reasons it can be so helpful for writers to have a good idea of their endings before they start writing. If you know what you’re building toward, it’s much easier to construct a resonant path toward that ending. (Although it is, of course, an equally valid approach to use your first draft as an exploration of what you want your ending to say.)

However, it is important to keep in mind that this view of the ending or the Climactic Moment is the writer’s view. It is a meta, zoomed-out, big-picture, Creator view of the unfolding drama. This is not the view of the readers or the characters. For them, the ending is less a destination they are moving toward and more properly an emergent of the story’s many adventures and travails.

This is an important distinction. Recognizing it not only facilitates an avoidance of the kind of formulaic stories that produce formulaic endings, it also presents a more accurate reflection of how life actually works. Although all of our lives—and indeed perhaps Life itself—will reach an ending, none of us know what that ending will be or what it will “say” about the story that has come before. Even if we, like our characters, are working toward a specific end (HEA, of course), that ending is less the final triumph (or failure) of a goal and more the inevitable emergent of all the many scenes and events that have unfolded leading up to it.

The Tremendous (But Sometimes Misunderstood) Significance of the Climactic Moment in a Story’s Ending

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Because I am an outliner who finds value in knowing the ending of my own novels before I write them, and because I so often discuss the entire shape of story here on the blog, I always emphasize the importance of the Climactic Moment (for the reasons mentioned above). But today, I want to step back a little and look at the Climactic Moment as it truly is—less as the final effect in a causal progression of plot and more as the inevitable emergent from a systemic progression.

1. The Climax Proves the Story’s Change, But Does Not Create It

It’s easy to view the Climax—where the story’s plot conflict is decided in or against the protagonist’s favor—as being the moment when everything changes for the protagonist. Before the Climax, he was a loser; afterwards, he’s a hero. Before the Climax, she didn’t have a job; afterwards, she does. Before, the Climax, he hadn’t rid the world of the bad guy; afterwards, he has.

However, although the Climax enacts a final causal change, it is itself the result of the story’s systemic change.

Causal change is that of a single factor (the cause) creating a single new outcome (the effect). This is a useful understanding of a story’s events, as far as it goes. But of course, like life, things are actually a bit more complex.

On the other hand, systemic change is that which is created by multiple causes. You can think of the difference between casual change and systemic change like this:

Causal change is like a single row of dominoes, in which one domino knocks into the next, creating a long row of causes and effects.

Systemic change is like an elaborate pattern of dominoes set up so that a single domino may knock into multiple dominoes and end up setting off a chain reaction that knocks over a multiplicity of dominoes.

Your story’s Climax is a causal domino—a single event that creates a single change (the protagonist becomes a hero, gets a job, offs the bad guy). But it is also an emergent from the larger systemic pattern of falling dominoes, which was triggered by earlier events in the story.

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In short, if your protagonist is going to end the story as a hero who is capable of defeating the antagonist, that is not a change that is suddenly enabled in the Climax. If it is, then you’re asking your Climax to carry far too much weight, and your character’s transformation is likely to feel flimsy and unconvincing.

Rather, the outcome of the Climax is in many ways the inevitable emergent of all the “mini” changes created by your protagonist’s choices throughout the story.

2. The Destination Is Not the Point, the Journey Is the Point

Here’s an interesting question to ask yourself: At the beginning of your story is your protagonist capable of performing the story’s climactic action?

The answer is probably yes.

For example, is Elizabeth Bennet physically capable of telling Mr. Darcy she’ll marry him?

Is Frodo physically capable of throwing away the Ring?

Is Sam Spade physically capable of solving the mystery and calling the police with the truth?

Resource and setting challenges aside, the answer, of course, is yes. So why bother to tell a 300-, 400-, 500-page novel? Why not save time by simply mentioning (in the style of the 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan) that there was “slashing and killing and it all ended happily ever after”?

The answer, of course, is that the ending is not the point. Even when readers are uncertain how a story will end, even when they are hoping to be surprised, they are not reading for the ending. If the ending defines the story, the story also defines the ending.

This is because skipping to the end, without the journey in between, is deeply unsatisfactory based on the fact that this is not how life works. More particularly, this is not how change and transformation work.

The hero is not a hero just because he reaches the end, but because of everything he did to get there. It is the difference between a visual culmination of a goal and an embodied one.

This is why, when we seek change in our own lives, just “doing the thing” doesn’t always get us the results we may want. Getting a new job, getting married, having children, moving to a big house—sometimes these goals fall flat because we put too much emphasis on the ending instead of arriving there in an organically emergent way. It’s like yoga: you and I both could probably look up some crazy pose on the Internet right now and force our bodies into it. Hooray, we’re yoga masters! Except, of course, we’re not. Potential injuries aside, we haven’t done the work to truly embody that pose. Therefore, not only do we fail to gain its true benefits, we also fail to learn what it has to teach us along the way.

It is important to remember that although a story must reach an ending, that ending is only important in the context of the protagonist having earned it through the journey. Lizzie Bennet could have accepted Mr. Darcy on his first proposal, but would they have been happy together—would they have become the epic lovers we now see them as? Frodo could have had the eagles fly to him to Mt. Doom in the first book and plopped the Ring in the fires before it properly had a hold on him, but would that ending have been anywhere near as powerful without the long pages of suffering he and Sam went through to get there? (For that matter, would the ending’s surprise of who actually destroys the Ring have been as resonant?)

In short, don’t rely simply on the events of your Climax to prove that your protagonist has changed. The Climax is merely there to give the protagonist a final stage on which to fully embody the change he or she has already earned.

3. The Ending Both Is and Is Not the Most Important Part of the Story

We often hear that the ending of a story is the most important part. In some ways, obviously, it is.

The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.–Mickey Spillane

Implicit in this idea is not so much the notion that your ending must be slam-bang, but more that the ending is what proves whether or not the story as a whole works. After all, I daresay we’ve all thrown a book or the TV remote across the room in disgust when a malapropos ending made us feel we’d wasted time on a story that, up to that point, we quite liked.

Somewhat counter-intuitively (or at least counter to lots of writing advice), the importance of an ending is not its ability to surprise us, but rather its ability to satisfy us. This is why we can and will return again and again to experience old stories whose endings we already know. Indeed, sometimes once we have initially experienced the ending and realized what a satisfying story it has produced, we will enjoy subsequent experiences of that story even more than the first time.

No less than the beginning or the middle, the ending is a crucial part of your story to get right. But part of that “rightness” is in seeing it as an emergent of everything that has come before, rather than as the final change in the characters’ world.

This mirrors another truth back to our readers, and that is that simply knowing how a story should end, or what the goal is, or the steps to “being a hero” is not enough to get there in a truly embodied way. Just doing the thing is not the same as living the journey. Lizzie and Frodo and Sam all know this.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you know what will happen in the ending of a story you’re currently writing? Tell me in the comments!

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