Part 7: Re-visioning Your Story Why from the End to the Beginning? Many writers spend a significant amount of time crafting the beginning of their story. They know the beginning of a story is critical. If you don’t hook your reader, the story will go unread. But did you realize the ending is just as important?
No amount of convincing characters, intricate or thrilling plot, nor vivid story world construction can overcome a poorly crafted story end. And a failed ending of your story will cause an agent, editor, or reader to put down the book never to pick up another of your stories. But a great ending will reward your reader with an emotional payoff. Hooked, he’ll eagerly seek out more of your stories. So how do you construct a great ending? In revision.
First, in order to craft a perfect ending, you must understand the key components of the ending of a story: the crisis, the climax, and the resolution.
The crisis is the pivotal moment of your story. Your protagonist’s choices and actions have led her to this point where she must make a final, irrevocable choice. “At the point of crisis,” Bob Mayer says in The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit, “the protagonist is forced to make a choice whether or not she wants to attempt to restore the balance that was disturbed by the inciting incident.” She is boxed into a corner and there are only two, specific, concrete actions she can take from here. And she must make a choice.
Robert McKee calls the crisis “the story’s Obligatory Scene. From the Inciting incident on, the audience has been anticipating with growing vividness the scene in which the protagonist will be face- to face with the most focused, powerful forces of antagonism in his existence.” In other words, the antagonistic force must appear to be overwhelming. The protagonist, and thus the reader, must feel the antagonist will win.
In order for the crisis to work, the choice with which your protagonist is faced must be of utmost importance to the character at that moment. He must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice (whatever he thinks that may be) in order to attempt to achieve the object of his desire.
“The Crisis must be a true dilemma,” according to Robert McKee in Story, “a choice between two irreconcilable goods, the lesser of two evils, or the two at once that places the protagonist under the maximum pressure of his life.” In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain suggests this should be a choice that forces the character to act in accordance with or against a principle he has held dear up to this point. He says “to make a choice between self-interest and principle is difficult for any of us, in any situation, at any time. ” Once the choice is made, the crisis leads directly to the climax.
All the choices your protagonist has made up to this point have built increasing tension in your reader. The climax delivers the goods in a big, explosive scene. The protagonist having made his choice succeeds in reaching his goal, realizes he wants something else or fails to reach his goal. In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says, “Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy. ”
The best climax pulls together subplots as well as main plot into a final deciding action. Dwight V. Swain reminds us in Techniques of the Selling Writer, why this act is important: “In adherence to or abandonment of principle, your focal character proves ultimately and beyond all doubt what he deserves. ” And while the reader’s tension is released by the climax, if the story ends with the climax, the reader feels the ending too abrupt. He struggles to guess the meaning of the ending. He has no sense of closure. You, the author, must provide closure with the third component of the ending, the Resolution.
The resolution explains that the crisis is over and the effect of the final decision and action has upon the principle characters. It gives a sense of closure by highlighting the emotional impact of the final action. This can be accomplished through the viewpoint of your protagonist or a narrator. And in the best stories, the reader has an aha moment when she realizes that this is the ending the protagonist had been working toward since the beginning. However, if the resolution details every character’s emotional reaction, the ending of your story will drag. It will lack the impact it needs. Keep it short. Give it resonance through a powerful phrase, gesture, or setting that the reader remembers from the beginning. The resolution is the reader’s payoff for reading the story. Make it count.
Now that you know the three key components of a great story ending. Read the endings of five novels that you love. Examine the crisis, climax, and resolution of each novel. What elements do they have in common?
So now it’s time to read the ending, and only the ending of your story and answer the questions below. Remember, take notes. Do not try to fix any of the problems or concerns you identify.
- Is the action on the page or did everything happen off stage?
- Have you wrung every bit of tension out of it that you can?
- Did you pull your punches at the end or did you make it difficult for your protagonist?
- Were there ‘well, duh’ choices your protagonist should have made? Your reader will know and think less of your character.
- Does the reader have to guess the ending?
- Do you have a ‘Hollywood’ ending, a la the hero finishes hacking the bad guys to death and the heroine rush to embrace him in a steamy kiss with the sunset/sunrise in the background? Ewww!
- Does someone other than the protagonist save the day, or have him wake and realize it was all a dream?
- Was tension maintained to the last possible moment?
- Did you force your protagonist to make a choice?
- Is the choice worth the cost to the protagonist?
- Did you build up his desire or need as he moves through the story so the reader believes the protagonist would go to all that trouble?
- Did your protagonist translate his choice into two concrete, specific, alternative actions?
- Was it a choice between an ‘easy way’ and a way that would lead to disaster or sacrifice?
- Is the alternative to the easy way out disastrous for your protagonist?
- Did you keep the ending in doubt by making failure look likely?
- Are there any loose ends or subplots that haven’t been already resolved?
- Was your character rewarded or punished based on his choice?
- Has poetic justice been served?
- Did you focus the emotional fulfillment into a punch line?
And now that you know your ending, re-read the beginning of your story.
- Does the ending answer the question posed in the beginning of your story?
- Have you planted clues for the ending in the beginning of your story?
- Is the mood and tone of your beginning echoed in your ending?
- Finally, are themes, motifs, or phrases from the beginning echoed in the ending?
From the ending to the beginning doesn’t measure up in your first draft? Don’t worry. You now know where the weak spots are. And you’re subconscious is already working on the solutions!
The final post in the Revisioning Your Story series: Preparing for the Rewrite
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If you haven’t been following this series. Please check out the first six posts on Re-visioning Your Story: