A Fitting End

conclusion word formed from lettered yellow tiles
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Back to Basics)

Some elements of storytelling are so ubiquitous that they are taken for granted…at least until you start writing a story of your own and then have to pause and ask yourself “wait, how does that actually work?”

One such example is that of writing a story with a satisfying ending. We all know that a story should have one of these, and we all can tell whether a story has it or not, but when it comes to crafting one of your own…how?

It seems like such a simple question should have an obvious answer, but often it is the simplest questions that prove the most troubling. I would contend that a great number of published authors still do not know what it is that makes for a good ending, they just look for it in other tales and then try to imitate those scenes in their own.

Having to resort to imitation is a limitation, though, and it is worth diving into some core concepts to truly master one’s craft. The category of “good endings” is much too broad to cover with just one post, but I would like to take a look at just one kind of satisfying conclusion a story can have. Here are the specific steps I used to try and use that particular finish in each of the stories from my latest series.

 

The Opposite End)

I started things off with The Soldier’s Last Sleep, which featured a soldier facing down wave after wave of enemy forces, just trying to hold onto his life until reinforcements came to relieve him. It wasn’t a war story about accomplishing an all-important mission, or giving a great sacrifice for the greater good, it was about surviving, pure and simple. Private Bradley’s single great task was to hold on to himself one moment at a time.

I dragged this sequence out for quite a long while, hopefully long enough for it to really weigh on the reader how terrible a burden just continuing to survive could be. I wanted them to be thoroughly exhausted by the strain of holding on, and feel as utterly depleted as Bradley did when at last he was replaced by fresh troops.

Then Bradley’s whole world suddenly changed. There were no more enemies trying to kill him, no more demands that had to be made of his body and mind. Now at last he was able to unclench, and I had a brief sequence explaining the torrent that rushed out of him in that release.

But that was not quite where the story ended. I do not believe the absence of a quality is the same thing as the opposite of it. I did not want the world to just stop weighing him down, I wanted it to actively lift him up. And so I added a brief moment where he learns that the war has passed, and all the machines for war-making are now being used as transports to take him back home.

Writing a story that pushes in one direction to then finish with an ending in the opposite direction is one way to make a satisfying close to a story. It gives the story a sense of transaction, a cathartic this-for-that, which naturally suggests a sense of completion.

 

The Invention)

I tried a variation on this with my next story, The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath. This story feels a lot more direct. It opens with a king presenting a problem, his desire to punish a rogue district in his kingdom. Each of his assistants present a solution, each trying to find a crueler invention than the last, but each leaving the king ultimately dissatisfied.

Because, like a story, an act of legend is not just about making things bigger and bigger. Too often I see stories that try to escalate things in the final act with something like “well now the big baddie is threatening to destroy two innocent homesteads.” A story that ends with a bigger firefight and larger explosions doesn’t really feel like an evolution on what came before, only an iteration, and therefore a less fulfilling end.

A story does need to have a sense of escalation throughout its body, but its ending should feature something more than just being “bigger.” It ought to present something novel, something which takes everything prior and transforms it in a way that feels like a revelation.

King Bal’Tath calls out this very  point, and explains that a truly memorable action is one which feels like a new invention, and also one which feels poetic in its balance of cause and effect. He then presents his own solution, and also the ending to the story. It is an answer meant to be satisfying in its harrowing sense of karma. The end he proposes is not just crueler, it is fittingly crueler. He want the people to betray their own conscience first, and by that sow the seeds of their own destruction. Thus once again we have that idea of a transaction, but also we have added the idea of a new invention. This doubles down on the psychological sense of proper completion.

 

Hidden Meaning)

I took this same idea in a somewhat different direction with my next story, Washed Down the River. This tale featured a pair of detectives working a case from clue to clue until its final revelation. Once again, though, I did not want the final revelation to simply feel like all the others that happened along the way, only bigger, I wanted it to feel fundamentally different. Also it needed to somehow be a fitting response to everything that had followed before.

Thus, at the end my two detectives do not only crack the case, one of them figures out the secret of the other: that he is dying of cancer. That there is a secret is no secret, the audience is well aware that something is amiss in James Daley from very early on in the tale, but exactly what that is should come as a new revelation.

But, in keeping with our theme, I tried to lay the story out so that this final revelation was a direct reflection of all that had come before. The great hope in writing a story like this is for the audience to not be able to guess the ending before it happens, but then be satisfied that it was the only “right” conclusion once they have seen it.

I have mentioned in a previous post that this sounds like a paradox, yet the more paradoxically unfamiliar-familiar you can make your ending, the more satisfying it often is. I think this helps bring greater definition to that idea of a “new invention” ending that I mentioned before. Another way to express that is for the ending of a story to not only fitting, but to be surprisingly so.

 

Cultivating the End)

But could we have an ending with that same sense of transaction and invention, though without the element of surprise? That was the challenge I tried to tackle with my most recent story, Slow and Easy, Then Sudden. Here we met a character who feels warm and friendly at the start, but with every passing interaction becomes more sinister and foreboding. This tension is only ever expressed in words and emotions, but is held back from having any physical, cathartic release.

Of course that line is finally crossed at the end. At this point I don’t think it came as a surprise to any reader when he gave violent expression to his brooding and assassinated a man in cold blood. But even though that part of the end was not a surprise, the moment immediately before, when he suddenly kills a hare, I believe was very shocking. Thus I am trying to have my cake and eat it too. The final moments feel both unsuspected and novel, but also heavily anticipated.

Even without the killing of the hare I think this conclusion would have been satisfying, though less memorable, because the story still did evolve in that final moment of assassination. Yes, it had hinted at murder previous to that moment, and it built up anticipation for it, but neither hinting or anticipation at violence is the same as actually witnessing its occurrence.

 

Anticipation, surprise, invention, transaction. If there is one consistent theme to sum up all of these ideas, I would say that all of the endings to these stories I wrote is have featured a turn of some sort. Rather than having the story’s tail taper out quietly into nothingness, each time I have had it do a sudden about-face and look back on all the plot that has come before. These are endings that reflect on the rest of their tale.

As I said at the outset, this is not the only way to write a satisfying conclusion, but is it a way. Cultivate your ending, let it reap what has been sown, something related to its build-up, and yet elevated into a new form that goes further than anything previous.

Thus far in this series, my stories have signaled their endings more and more clearly, while still retaining that satisfying moment of uncovering something novel at the end. With this series’ next and final entry I will try to push this line still further. Right from the outset I will state what will happen at the end, I will lay the exact expectations for what that conclusion will look like, and I will try to have that finale still feel novel and satisfying. Come back on Monday to see the first entry in that story.

I Was Expecting Something Different

sliced of citrus lemons
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Feels A Little Off)

Recently my wife and I watched the anime series Death Note. Its basic premise is that a teenager obtains a notebook, and the name of any person he writes in it will die. The boy ends up with a flawed sense of justice, and determines that he should reign as judge over all the rest of the world, killing those that he deems unworthy without trial.

While watching the show I found myself strangely conflicted about the main character. He was clearly the villain of the show, and his methods ended up actively harming many innocents. He wasn’t even very likable, behaving manipulatively and deceitfully to those who cared most for him.

And yet, despite it all, I felt like I was supposed to be rooting for him. I wasn’t sure why at first, I just had this vague sense that the show wanted me to want him to succeed. So I spent a little bit of time examining why I felt that way, and I realized that I had had my emotions hijacked by the structure of the story. There are many little ways that storytellers give us silent cues as to what we are “supposed” to be feeling.

For example, imagine if a story opened with a scene of a single boy being chased and cornered by a group of four others. Even without telling us the reasons and motivations of the characters, we naturally assume that the single boy is our hero and the four others are our antagonists. We believe this to be the case, because we always expect the hero to be an underdog.

Or consider a story that begins with one central character. We follow her exclusively for the first third of the story, at which point the focus is handed off to another person. Even though the focus has changed hands, we still expect the first character to be our hero because we have spent the majority of our time with her. We firmly expect that this shift is temporary, and that the first character will soon return.

Well, it turned out that both of these elements were at play while watching Death Note. That boy who obtained the notebook was the character we spent the most time with, and he stood alone against an entire team of detectives trying to catch him. The fact that he was an underdog, and also the main focus of the story, created in me this sense that I was supposed to be rooting for him, even though his actions were deplorable.

 

I’ll Be Back)

There are several advantages that creating expectations in your reader allows for. One example is how it elegantly foreshadows upcoming plot points to them. This will provide the audience with a cathartic sense of satisfaction when fulfilled. They won’t even know why they feel so good, they’ll just say that the events “felt right” to them.

For example, consider the iconic “I’ll be back” scene from Terminator. In this the T-800 has tracked Sarah Connor to a police station and approaches the front desk to ask if he can speak with her. His request is denied, and he is told that he will have to wait until she has finished giving her statement to the police. The T-800 looks around, says “I’ll be back,” and walks out the front door.

And then, inexplicably, the camera remains at the front desk. The T-800 is the one driving the action, we should be following it, but for some reason we’re not. We’re staying in this boring, stuffy place. And then, silently, the anticipation starts to mount in the viewer. Slowly he starts to realize that this isn’t just an overly long end to a scene. There’s a reason why we’re staying here.

And right as that epiphany hits the car comes smashing through the front door, barrels down the desk, and the T-800 emerges wielding a shotgun and an assault rifle!

By utilizing the unspoken language of film the scene silently created the expectation, fulfilled it, and as a result created one of the most quotable moments in movie history.

 

Subverting Expectations)

Another benefit of giving silent cues to the audience is to then subvert the expectation that you have put in them. You can catch them by surprise and they won’t even know why they never saw it coming. Not always, but often a twist comes as a result of lying to the audience at some point or another. Some stories make the mistake of doing this explicitly. The characters straight up tell you one thing, and then later say “Ha! Just kidding, I lied! Aren’t you surprised?” And no, the audience isn’t surprised, they’re annoyed.

But if the lie was made implicitly, by planting an unspoken expectation in the audience that you then exploit, they won’t even know why they’re surprised, just that they are.

This bait-and-switch is perhaps most prolific in a mystery, such as when the author puts out a red-herring to distract the audience from the truth. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie famously moves its suspicion from one character to the next at a blistering rate. Each new suspicion has compelling reasons to buy into it, though none of them feel totally satisfying.

Then comes the final revelation: all of the suspects are responsible for the murder, not just one. Now why doesn’t this possibility occur to the reader beforehand, especially where the story was blatantly providing evidence against each and every character? It doesn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and readers know that in a murder mystery there is one killer and many red herrings. Agatha Christie understood that silent expectation and exploited it. In Murder on the Orient Express the red herring is that there was no red herring.

 

With Great Power…)

This ability to silently create expectations in your reader has to be given proper respect. It is a potent tool, and as such can cause much harm when misused. For example, subverted expectations only work so many times before the whole story starts to feel disjointed. If the plot is constantly misaligned with its subliminal messages then the audience will feel that something “is just off.” They won’t like your story because it simply felt wrong to them.

Creating expectations that are never confirmed or challenged will also be a source of frustration for the audience as well. Even if every narrative plot was tied up by the end, they’ll still have this sense that something was missing.

Of course the most common problem is to to have created silent expectations without even realizing it, and therefore having not ensured that each is resolved satisfyingly. Try reading over your work and pausing to ask what the story is making you think is supposed to happen. Then see if you handle that expectation elegantly or not.

 

In my next post I would like to share the first part of a story, in which I will intentionally create an unspoken expectation. Then, in the later posts, I will subvert it. Obviously my hope is to do it in a way that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Of course by telling you all these intentions upfront I’m already tipping my hand, but hopefully it will still be a satisfying read for you. Come back on Thursday to see the first half, where I will create the expectation, and then a week later I will implement the subversion.