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.
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.
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.