How to Finish

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It has been said that every story begins in media res. This means that there is always something that has occurred before the action picks up and there is always a context that the story is couched within. The same goes for endings as well. Unless your story ends with a complete apocalypse, then it is going to continue on even after your last page runs out. Thus it isn’t the world that ends, just this particular story about it.

That was certainly the case with my last story, its conclusion came firmly in the middle of a larger ongoing journey. Had I continued it to the next stopping point, there only would have been another continuation after that as well. And so on and so on without end.

So when exactly is a story “complete” and when is the right time to make your current page the last page? This is a discussion I’ve had with my wife on a number of occasions and we tend to have different opinions on the matter. We enjoy seeing movies together at the theater whenever we can, and usually when we walk out at least one of us will be dissatisfied by the ending.

She feels that Gravity ended too abruptly, that we ought to see how the heroine will be rescued from the beach she has landed on. I feel that we’ve already seen her triumph, and we can just infer that everything else is going to be okay now.

I feel that the final act of The Return of the King is bloated and long overstays its welcome. She says that it isn’t just the end of one film, it’s the end of the entire trilogy all-at-once, and so a long good-bye is fully warranted.

And the fact is, she isn’t wrong and neither am I. Each of these endings are simply different styles that match our different tastes. I’m not so arrogant as to believe that my personal preference in this matter represents an objective truth.

In fact, when it comes to writing a story, an author will usually find that they must choose from a number of possible valid endings to their plot. Maybe in some cases there really is just one best way to close a tale, but usually you will have at least these three equally viable exit-points available to your plot.

 

Implied Trajectory)

This is the story that ends while still on the battlefield. The villain has just been defeated and the warriors are breathing a sigh of relief, silently greeting the new dawn rising over the mountains.

One of my favorite examples of this is the film Warrior. The film focuses on two central characters, brothers who have each become estranged from one another and from their abusive father who inadvertently drove them apart. The two live entirely unaware of one another’s situation, with more than a decade having passed since they parted.

But then, of course, fate intervenes. Each of them is brought by their own needs to the same MMA competition, where each can only obtain their victory through crushing the hopes of the other. We all know the two are going to face down sooner or later in the ring, and when the promised conflict finally comes they quickly break each other down to tears. All of the anger and bitterness comes out blow-by-blow. Each of them has grown callouses and scars over their emotional wounds, and all of that baggage has to be worn down before they can get to the heart of that hurt.

And then, as all their walls are broken down, the two realize that they are still brothers at their core. The horn signals the end of the fight and the two leave the mat, cradling one another in their arms. Cut to credits.

But what about the estranged father? What about the destitute family the younger brother was trying to support? What about the foreclosure on the older brother’s home? None of this gets explored, because frankly it doesn’t need to. If this were real life then any number of trajectories might follow our characters after their fight. But this isn’t real life, it’s a story. And part of the language of story is that the trajectory it finishes with is the trajectory that the character’s will continue with. Just think of the most classic ending of them all: “and they lived happily ever after.”

After the two brothers reconcile at the end of Warrior we are meant to understand that everything is going to be okay now. The family will heal, the debts will be paid, the loved ones will be cared for. We’ve already resolved the great conflict, so all the littler ones will surely follow.

 

Reaping the Reward)

Of course we can go the other route with a story, giving the ending plenty of space to breathe. The victory has been hard-won, but now we want to see the heroes receiving the fruits of those efforts.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post the excellent example of this in King Henry V. This epic spans two full countries and years of duration. We travel through lofty courts and muddy battle-fields. There is love, there is fighting, there is humor, and there is betrayal. With so much ground to cover it might have been easy to rush the plot, but the play insists on taking its time and giving the story due justice. Thus it is we spend the entire first two acts before King Henry even reaches the decision to fight his war.

Henry is, of course, the King of England, but by his ancestry he also feels he rightfully has claim to the throne of France. He seeks to unite the two mighty nations, but his ambitions are unsurprisingly rebuffed.

The more peaceful campaigns having been exhausted, we then find Henry with his soldiers invading French soil in Act III. This act and the next detail the warfare, complete with several dramatic shifts in power before Henry finally stands in triumph on St Crispin’s Day.

At this point the story really could have drawn to a close, implying that this trajectory of triumph will continue past the final curtain. But as the play has taken its time in showing the lead-up to the war and the details of that war, it only seems right that it now  illustrate the outcome of that war as well. And so we get an entire act dedicated to Henry’s romancing of Katharine, his ascension to the French throne, and the peaceful prosperity of the two united kingdoms.

An epic tale deserves an epic ending, and sometimes its nice to just bask in the world of a story for a little bit longer before saying good-bye.

 

A New Beginning)

All stories find their close right at the end of one arc, but some are also positioned right at the beginning of another. As suggested above, this was the idea behind the ending of my latest story. There we had an arc of how an individual ruins himself by his voyeurism and criminality. The final moments of the piece involve the law finally catching up and taking him into custody. This marks the end of a life for him, but also marks the beginning of another.

One of the best examples I know of this sort of story is that of The Railway Children. This charming piece by Edith Nesbit begins, as so many other stories, with something going terribly wrong. Specifically, it opens with the father of a 19th-century London family being arrested on false charges. His once-wealthy wife and children must learn to live without him, eventually having to sell their house and move away to the country where a great number of adventures await them.

The children: Roberta, Phyllis, and Peter, win over a great many friends with their bright and enthusiastic nature. Though they are destitute themselves, they still find all manner of ways to help out those that are even less fortunate than they. By these connections they eventually come across a man that is aware of their father’s plight and has several strings he can pull in that regard.

Ultimately the father is exonerated, and the final scene features him coming to his family’s little cottage and entering back into their lives. The final lines include the following:

He goes in and the door is shut. I think we will not open the door or follow him. I think that just now we are not wanted there. I think it will be best for us to go quickly and quietly away.

As he crosses that threshold the story that this book has been about is ending, but now another story is beginning. It isn’t the place of this book to try and tell that story as well, it is a very personal and intimate family story after all.

 

These make up the most common types of endings, but of course there are all manner of other options as well. There are the endings that really aren’t endings at all. The words stop but the arcs don’t, and the world just keeps on turning. This could be a literal cliff-hanger as in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. It could also be a single slice out of an ongoing serial, such as Little House in the Big Woods.

There are of course the endings that are true endings, most notably any of the many biographies that follow their subject to the moment of death, at which point there really isn’t anything more to say.

Then there are those things called epilogues. Some of which are really the ending of the story and ought to have had a proper chapter heading. Other epilogues, though, are used to bridge that gap between the Implied Trajectory ending and the Reaping the Reward ending. The story proper will end with the main arc completed and the “happily ever after” implied, but then the epilogue will give a quick synopsis of what exactly happens to each of the characters in that “happily ever after.”

There are many types of endings, and if there’s anything specific I’ve wanted to say with this post it is to simply choose the one that best fits your story. The examples of the stories I shared above were specifically chosen because they could have each been finished in different ways, but each of them should have been finished in the way that they were. Warrior should have concluded at the moment of emotional climax, King Henry V should have had a grand, sweeping close, and The Railway Children should have carried us just far enough to see the sweetness of a new beginning.

The fact is many stories want to be finished in a particular way, and it is the obligation of the author to find out what that way is. With my next story post I’d like to experiment with a more unusual sort of ending. That tale is going to begin with its own ending, though it will take the entire following story for the main character to realize that its path is already over. Come back on Thursday if you’re curious to see how that turns out.

And Now We’ll Begin

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New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.

The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.

That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.

Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.

What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.

But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?

My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.

Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.

Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.

A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!