A Fitting End

conclusion word formed from lettered yellow tiles
Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com

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.

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Five

photo of doorway
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“Ungrateful beasts!” Jeret snarled as he swung his arms, sending the little attackers buzzing for safety. “I’m sorry it’s not a perfect world, but I gave you everything that I could. I tried over and over!” He picked up a rock and threw it at the nearing cloud. The Seclings easily swerved to avoid it, but it gave them pause. They hovered in the air, waiting for more numbers.

Jeret took the opportunity to reach down to his waist, where a self-made belt held the cylinder. He waved it, throwing haze all about him in the air.

“A dome,” he said. “Transparent, but thick and strong.” A vague bubble start to form all around him. “It’s made of glass, and has minute holes to let air in, but they are all much to small for any creature to pass through.”

The dome popped into existence just as the Seclings rushed forward in their attack. They bounced harmlessly off the glass-like surface, entirely unable to penetrate its protection. Jeret stared at them darkly.

“But why?” he asked them. “I’m not a Firling, I’m not an Impli. I did make them, but you don’t know that, so why would you attack me?”

Even as he said it he knew the answer was not based on reason or logic. It was just in their nature. He might as well ask why he had picked fights with strangers back home on Amoria.

Jeret shook his head, trying to dismiss the thoughts. That was then, but this was now. And now he had every justification for the destruction that he was about to cause. Waiting for these species to destroy each other naturally was no longer an option. Who knew what sort of trouble they might get up to if they were left alive together? Things would have to be expedited.

What would he use? A flood? A fire? Bolts of lightning? Drop a mountain on them? A cloud of poison? Creation was miserable and hard, destruction was just so much easier.

Jeret grabbed the cylinder, readying it for use. He would dig a tunnel out of here first, get beyond the gardens and up on a tower. There he would be out of reach, but could still see everything. And then he’d kill these miserable convicts.

Jeret’s hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He fell onto his side, head cradled in his arms. Maybe…maybe he did know why he got into so many fights back home. And maybe he knew why the Seclings behaved this way as well. They had been hit so many times, that now they were in a perpetual fear of where the next strike was going to come from. No creature could be trusted, and it was better to destroy than be destroyed. Something about Jeret had always been afraid, and he had always fought. Fought against his neighbors, against the community, and even against himself.

“My poor little children,” he wept. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you better. I tried. I wanted you to have a chance. If someone else had made you, you might have been happy. It’s not your fault.”

Jeret lifted his head, and touched his hand to the dome, pressing it against the point where the Seclings clustered most densely. They were still trying to break through to him.

“I’m sorry that I made you… when I was always just going to kill you in the end. Hopeless. It was hopeless. You were always doomed.  And now I’m going to kill you, and whatever I make to do it, then it’s going to kill me, too.”

The words came out without a thought, and even as he spoke them he was surprised at their sound. But somehow he knew they were true. Everything he tried to do here, it escalated. Every violence always came back round in the end. He didn’t know how, but if he destroyed his creations, he would destroy himself, too.

But maybe that was the right thing to do.

For the first time Jeret felt that he deserved to be here on this forsaken piece of rock. He really was unfit for society, wasn’t he? Given utmost power, and all he could do with it was destroy.

Jeret looked down to the cylinder. He would die violently, that much was certain. But did he have to die fighting anymore? Maybe there was still a chance for peace inside at the end.

His hands worked quickly, as if afraid that if he paused to think about it he would lose his nerve. He raised the cylinder and traced some haze against the dome.

“A very hot rock, cupped against the glass. A piece of burning metal, held in a steel cradle, melting through the dome.”

The Seclings started to lift off of the dome surface as it became too hot to bear. Even Jeret could feel the heat growing from where he sat.

“And the glass is melting, opening a wide hole to the outside.”

A glob of molten glass dripped down to the ground. No sooner had it cleared than the swarm of Seclings funneled in, making straight for Jeret. He closed his eyes, accepting the end. He felt their insect-feet perching on him, felt the small shift in their bodies as they lifted their stingers high, felt the sharp pinpricks score up and down his body.

The toxin flowed into him and he felt numb all over, as if fat cotton was being pumped through his veins instead of blood. His thoughts went fuzzy, and he was vaguely aware of falling backwards, though he did not feel the impact of his head against the ground.

The sounds all about him were fuzzy, too. The buzzing of wings sounded distant and echoing, not unlike the sound of the surf crashing on a beach. Even his thoughts were slowing down. It was as if he watched the ideas and sensations flow by like a river, and the water was receding until he could see each thought individually and clearly. And then he didn’t see the stream at all, he was alone on the shore of nothing. He was only aware of his awareness. And then that awareness lapsed, and came back, and lapsed again. And then he had only a vague notion of himself. And then the vague notion was gone, and it was just himself. And then…

And then, inexplicably, there was something. Not nothing, as he had expected, but an actual something.

Slowly awareness was coming back. Jeret couldn’t move, couldn’t open his eyes, but his mind was moving again. Slowly sensation was coming back as well, and his body felt…normal. There wasn’t any toxin in him. Or if there was, then it wasn’t toxin any more.

Jeret blinked and he was laying on his back, looking up at his garden. There was a pleasant buzz of Secling passing overhead. He sat up and a wave of them took off from his body. As they passed by his eyes he noticed that their stingers were falling from their abdomens. Somehow he knew it was because they didn’t need them anymore. Because all of their toxin had dried up.

There was a sudden rustle at Jeret’s side, and he looked down to see three Firlings wrestling on the ground. It was play. They were not trying to harm one another. They were not trying to hunt the Seclings flying all about.

They had changed. Even though they had been fully defined before, somehow they had changed.

And then came the strangest sensation of them all. A rumbling directly beneath Jeret, and the whir of machinery. Jeret squinted at the garden paradise around him, and had the distinct sensation that something was hiding behind it. Not only behind the garden, but behind the entire asteroid that was his home. Behind his entire consciousness, as if it was only a screen, and another world was underneath.

“And he’s coming out of simulation now.”

The garden wavered. Something was behind. If Jeret could just see beyond what his eyes told him he saw…he could almost discern it now. He felt his body regaining its sensations again. And not the pretend sensations this time, the real ones.

All at once Jeret opened his eyes and the garden was gone. He was in a dark room, with a ring of dull, orange lights around the perimeter which were slowly turning brighter. He was laid back on a half-reclined chair, facing a man pressing buttons on a control panel. Every now and then the man glanced up, to see how well Jeret was coming out of his hallucination.

There was a sudden stripe of white light across the still-mostly-dark room, a door had just opened off to the side. Jeret turned, and against the blinding brightness he could see the silhouette of a rotund man, balding on top, but with a tangle of stray hairs bursting from the sides.

“Mister Jeret!” the man boomed jovially. “How are you feeling?”

Jeret’s brow furrowed in confusion. He had seen these men before, but his mind was still trying to remember where. Oh that’s right, it was the men who had administered the sedative immediately before his exile, the last people he had seen on Amoria. What was so confusing, though, was that his mind seemed to be of two ideas whether the time on the asteroid was real…or only a dream. Perhaps he had never left this room?

“Looks like you’re still coming to,” the man concluded when Jeret did not answer. The perimeter lights were now bright enough that Jeret could see the two men clearly enough to make out their details. Somehow, the more he saw them, the more his mind was pulled towards reality.

“I was…dreaming?” Jeret suggested.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“There was no asteroid?”

The man smiled.

“A–a simulation. And you put the cylinder there on purpose?”

“Jeret, I’d love to stay and chat, but really I’m just here to ask you one thing. Do you think you are ready to rejoin society now?”

“What? But I’ve been exiled?”

“Yes, yes. So you were told. But that was when you insisted on being a threat to everyone around you. So let me ask you again, are you a threat anymore?”

“No I–I rather think I don’t want to hurt anyone at all anymore.”

“That’s what our records show as well. Congratulations, man, you’ve been rehabilitated.”

The man extended his hand. Jeret winced slightly as he pushed himself off of the chair and to his feet. His muscles were still tingling from lack of use. He felt awkward taking his first, fumbling steps, but the man in the doorway smiled patiently and waited. Slowly feeling returned, and Jeret reached out and took the man’s hand.

“Let’s get you back home now.”

And together the two of them walked out of the room.

 

So here we are at the end of our story. I mentioned on Monday that this story had two possible endings. The first option–the tragic and violent end–was more in line with Jeret’s initial trajectory. He came as an unrepentant and bitter man, and the natural culmination of that character would be an act of self-destruction.

But then he would not have developed as a character, which was something I very much wanted for him to do. And so I wrote about him learning to care for other life, and to take responsibility for his actions. By exploring the power of creation, he slowly lost his need for destruction.

Hopefully this transformation was communicated effectively enough that the new ending felt earned. It would not have made sense for him to have had that conclusion from the outset at the story, but I think he deserved it by the end. Similarly, had he still received the somber ending after his transformation, I think it would have felt off.

Of course this also brings us to the end of an entire series. It has been a very long one, extending all the way back through It’s Tough to Be a God, The Toymaker, The Last Duty, and Shade. The first entry was clear back on October 3rd!

As I stated earlier, my intention with this series was to wrestle with all sides of responsibility and duty, particularly related to the guiding of wayward children. Jeret was himself a wayward child, completely devoid of any sense of responsibility. His family cast him out (seemingly at least), but gave him an opportunity to be a father in his exile. As we just discussed, the weight of that power had a redemptive effect on him. Yes, power can corrupt, but I also sincerely believe that it can refine us as well. None of us can improve if we cannot choose, and none can choose where they do not have at least some power.

In either case, I feel I have had my fill of these themes, at least for a while. Come back on Monday when we’ll go somewhere new!

The Changing of a Story

man person people emotions
Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

The Kernel)

I am on the cusp of completing my story: The Toymaker. In it a small drummer toy is born to life, and then sent to find a mystical city. Along the way he makes a friend in another toy, a dancing ballerina. Unfortunately, the two are divided from one another when the dancer is kidnapped, and taken into a grimy town full of dirty hovels. The drummer charges in pursuit, but is further waylaid as one toy after another takes advantage of him. He become dirty and cracked, and even his innocent demeanor slowly becomes more desperate and angry. Almost he loses himself, but stops just short of doing so. In that same moment he discovers a strange connection that he has with some divine power, and by it is finally led back to the dancer that he has been searching for.

There is, of course, one or two more sentences to that outline, but I’ll leave it off so that you can see it for yourself this Thursday. It is very strange for me to read that synopsis, though, because it is absolutely nothing like the one that I started off with!

Whenever I get an idea for a story, I open up a text editor and get it down in as much detail as possible. Usually the idea is so small that it only fills out one paragraph, but I hope to transfer enough information that I can remember the heart of it for later development.

One night, I was making up a bedtime story for my son about a toy factory. As I spoke to him, my mind suggested to me a different plot. After the bedtime ritual was finished, and I left his room, this is the brief outline that I wrote down:

The Toy Factory. Idea of a man building a world, bit-by-bit giving it greater abilities and rules. Eventually a rebellion breaks out amongst it, and he himself is lost within its depths. Perhaps he has forgotten who he is, or was created in toy form by his own creations, and so his consciousness has been transposed to that toy and he needs to remember his original identity.
OR
The Castle-God. Some character has created a people and a world, little machinations that he kept around him, and which presently moved out to pursue their own ambitions. Now he still lives in that same castle, but forgotten and lonely in its massive halls. The character could be rediscovered, many generations later, having been fashioning a new set of creations all this time, ones to destroy the first.

 

The Theme)

So, as you can see, I was already of two minds about which direction this story could go, but in each rendition I had this idea of a creator regretting his creation. A godlike character whose subjects have all gone astray, and who is later tempted to use his powers to abandon or destroy them.

While working on this blog I shared an entry about responsibility, and I mentioned how Victor Frankenstein regretted the monstrosity he created, and sought to destroy it. I realized that this was very similar to my Toy Factory/Castle-God stories, and decided to expand on it with that theme. So I married the two together: the Toymaker would be refashioned as a mortal within the world of his own creation, would rediscover his omnipotent identity, and then would decide what responsibility he had to his subjects: either to spare them or create an army to destroy them.

And then, to this, I decided to add one more wrinkle. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the story started with him already in mortal form? That way his rediscovery of his divine identity would be as much of a surprise to the reader as to himself.

 

Things Go Awry)

Sometimes stories don’t follow their plotlines though. I started off with a simple introduction, one where I introduced the world of the toys, and explained how they began as inanimate objects that gradually gained self-awareness. I emphasized that fact, by having the drummer (who would later be revealed to be the creator) witness another toy, a ballerina dancer, come to life.

But now that I had created this second character, I felt that I had to do something with her. I made her his companion on his initial journey, and the two played off of one another quite nicely. I came up with ways that they supported and depended on one another, quickly making the two of them feel “right” together.

The thing is, up until now I had just been meandering about freely to get the feel of the world, but now I realized this dancer was taking up such a large percentage of the opening that she had to be a main character now. I wanted to start pushing the plot forward by showing how despicable the created world had become, and the most obvious way to do that was by having these two innocent companions ripped apart. It worked well, but now it only further cemented this random side-character, the dancer, as the main catalyst for our drummer’s journey.

Now the moment where imbalance occurs is with the loss of that dancer, so every reader naturally assumes the story will right itself with their triumphant reunion. I had created an expectation, and I couldn’t just shirk that.

 

The Story Fights Back)

Alright, fine, I thought, he goes and he gets her back, but then the story progresses as normal. But every time I tried to write their reunion it felt wrong. It was just too quick, too easy. I kept writing about him almost reaching her, but each time I had to pull the rug out from under him at the last moment. This was because I had written it so that the dancer was everything to that poor drummer. The quest to regain her needed to be appropriately epic.

Unless she died? I thought maybe this could be what compels him to find his powers and condemn the world. Just as he’s about to reach her she’ll be irrevocably broken and that will make him snap.

But where, then, is the responsibility? This isn’t a creator accepting the burden of his creation going astray anymore, this is an angry tyrant exacting terrible vengeance. Not what I was going for at all.

One solution might have been to go back to the start and take her out entirely, but I didn’t like that. She had emerged naturally and organically, and I liked her being in the story. Quite frankly I had become personally invested in her arc, and really wanted to see where it would land.

 

The Solution)

And so, it was in this very problem that I also found my solution. Her becoming broken and him going into a rage was not going to serve a story about a god’s responsibility to his people, but it her being broken would serve a story about a little drummer’s responsibility to the toy that he loves.

The story had not been stalling on its first chapter, rather it had turned that first chapter into the entire story. It isn’t the story of how he regains boundless power, it is the story of how he makes amends to the dancer he could not save.

Maybe the bigger story still exists, but if so it is a tale for another time. With that in mind, I knew how I needed to close things. Only after great effort, after nearly losing himself but then calling himself back, only then would he be ready to rejoin the dancer. And in that moment, he would find her broken.

Not only broken, though, but angry. Angry at the world, angry at herself, and angry at him. The climax of the story will be how he hears that anger, and how he takes responsibility for it. I like this approach quite a lot, and I am excited to share it with you on Thursday. Then, at long last, we will be on to something new.