Story Structure – Part 12: The End: Wrapping Up Your Stories
You can read the rest of the Story Structure series here:
Part 1 – Story Structure: Beginnings
Part 2 – Revisiting the Three-Act Structure
Part 3 – In the Beginning…
Part 4 – Propel Yourself into the Middle
Part 5 – Mushy Middle Syndrome
Part 6 – The Meandering Middle
Part 7 – The Wispy Middle
Part 8 – The Cramped Middle
Part 9 – The Art of the Subplot – Part 1
Part 10 – The Art of the Subplot – Part 2
Part 11 – Climax and Denouement
Two weeks ago, I looked at climaxes and denouements with the promise that this week, I’d look at the more specific things endings should and shouldn’t have to do. The biggest guideline for endings, I think, is that they should fulfill the promises of the book. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
The final conflict should match the conflict in the book.
Don’t you hate when you read a story where the conflict is building, the armies are forming, the tension is rising, and then something happens that wraps it all up in a neat little package of harmony? I know I’ve read books that had my heart pounding and finger twitching to turn pages, and then the climax came along and left me wondering, “wait, what just happened?”. If your plot has promised serious life-threatening action, then you need to deliver on that promise. While in real life wars are sometimes averted by diplomacy, that’s a lot harder to pull off in a story.
Likewise, if you’re writing a quiet, character-driven fantasy with primarily internal conflicts, don’t have a dragon swoop down out of nowhere and nuke the whole city. The reader will feel cheated. If your main character has been agonizing over a decision for the entire book and you make a dragon eat him, your reader will throw the book at the wall and wonder what his decision was.
Be careful with deus ex machina.
Deus ex machina is a fancy way to say “god in the machine.” It’s an old theater term from the days when a god would literally be lowered from a machine in the ceiling or apparatus of the theater and use his phenomenal powers to resolve everything.
You all know by now that I don’t think anything should be strictly prohibited in our writing, so because I’m kind of a writing agnostic, I have to acknowledge that I do think this technique can be done well. But, it is really tricky. I think for it to work well, you have to introduce the possibility of the “god” early in the story—the phenomenal, unpredictable power, whether it’s magical, supernatural, mechanical, etc. There has to be some niggling idea in the reader’s mind that something huge and unexpected could happen to change everything and resolve the conflict at the end of the story.
Now that I’ve acknowledged the possibility of a successful deus ex machina ending, I have to say that most readers will not appreciate that kind of ending. If you’ve set up a dystopian post-apocalyptic world where there’s the mounting threat of a major street war between rival gangs, you can’t just send in alien overlords to capture everyone at the end. You promised a street war—you have to deliver in some fashion, or your reader will feel cheated and hesitate reading anything from you in the future.
The tone of your ending should match the tone of the rest of the story.
I think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a great example of a book that does this well. *Spoilers Ahead* The whole story is bleak and gray and depressing, but in it are snatches of hope here and there—little moments where you realize that all is not lost. In the end, even though the father dies and you know the world hasn’t really changed much, there is a flash of hope when the boy ends up with a seemingly decent family in a slightly better place. The tone matches the tone of the whole book—bleak and gray, but with a flash of hope on the horizon. *End Spoilers*
Likewise, if your story is a snarky satire a la Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, you can’t end your story with a big serious speech on the meaning of life. If your story is serious and poetic, you can’t suddenly do a U-turn into sarcastic and satirical, either. Make sure the tone of the climax and denouement match the rest of your story.
Your characters should remain consistent up to the very end.
There’s some subjectivity to this, I admit, because many of my favorite characters are those who show some growth and change throughout a story and then do something unexpected in the very end. But, there’s a difference between “unexpected” and “inconsistent.” An action can be unexpected but remain consistent with the character’s growth and change throughout the story.
Let’s say you have a jerk of a starship captain who has serious authority issues. He refuses to obey his superiors all the way through the book, and occasionally, this causes real problems for him or for his crew. You can’t have him suddenly acquiesce to his superiors just to make your climax work without some explanation that makes those actions consistent. Maybe he’s been possessed by an alien, threatened with loss of command, or fallen deeply in love with his superior officer—something that makes his actions believable—but you have to show those changes somehow in order to make your reader believe he would suddenly obey orders when he never has before.
Don’t go on too long.
I heard some good advice in a workshop led by author Robert Dugoni a couple of years ago: Cut the last sentence of your paragraph, paragraph of your chapter, chapter of your book, etc. and see if the story still works. His point was that sometimes we go on just a little longer than necessary because we think we haven’t wrapped everything up. It’s good advice and worth a try—just cut the last bit of your story and see if it’s still satisfying.
And with that, I wrap up this series on structure at long last. So tell me in the comments—what would you like me to write about? You know I have opinions on just about everything, so let me know what you’d like to read, and I’ll see what I can come up with.