I Will End You (I Hope): How to Write Better Endings

Posted: October 8, 2016 in fantasy, fiction, film, science fiction, television, Writing
Tags: , , ,

 

I love beginnings! They unspool almost without effort from my brain. So much mystery with just a few words. Momentous events can be implied with a few lines description. Captivating characters step through a doorway radiating promise. What I hate (ok, perhaps hate is too strong a word)… what I cringe away from are endings. Those black holes at the end of my plot outlines that sit there like gaping craters. They’re hard to dealpicture-110-300x186 with those craters of emptiness, or worse, of weak plot I keep telling myself is good enough (writer’s instinct: listen, you fool, before it’s too late—that’s Swiss cheese you’ve written! It’s rotten through and through). There are quite a few books and movies out there that suffer from this syndrome. Why? Because writing a good ending isn’t easy. No, in today’s world of jaded readers and audiences suckled on amazing stories, it’s damn near impossible.

So what, I wondered (for the nth time), makes a good ending? With that question in mind, I began to jot down a list of my favorite stories and some notes about what made their endings stand out (I considered both final endings and endings of key plot sequences). Next, I divided them into ending components, and this is what I came up with (spoiler alert!):

Components of Great Endings:

Unexpected revelation (URn):

Wizard of Earth Sea: enemy revealed as something unexpected (Ged’s death).

Game of Thrones: Hodor’s big reveal. This is also another excellent example of tricking the reader, where the clue is laid down early on and becomes so routine the reader overlooks it until the final revelation when it all makes sense.

Unexpected ally (UA):

The Diamond Age: The main character is kidnapped, raped, fights her way out, and is rescued by the mouse army the reader thought was only imaginary.

Lord of the Rings [Helm’s Deep], Game of Thrones [battle at King’s Landing], Count Zero, Watership Down: hold off superior army, allies arrive to counter-attack [brought by one of the characters].

Conan the Barbarian: Arnold is almost overwhelmed by his enemy, but a Valkyrie (lover back from dead), intercedes, allowing Arnold to regain his footing and win the fight.

Beserk: rescue by the Skull Knight during “The Eclipse”.

Star Wars IV: Han returns to give Luke a hand right when he needs it most.

Note: to avoid a deus ex machina situation, the allies can’t make it too easy for the protagonist who should still struggle to overcome the problem.

Unexpected reversal (URl):

Blade Runner: Protagonist (Harrison Ford) faces final enemy, Roy (Rutger Hauer), cannot defeat him, yet Roy saves the protagonist’s life. Important note: in the very end, Roy gains a transcending appreciation for life, and thus, his saving his enemy’s life in understandable despite being unexpected.

Trickery (Trick):

Hunt for Red October: Sean Connery fakes the destruction of his Russian submarine so he can defect without hurting his crew while still maintaining the intel value of the stolen sub to the Americans.

Conan the Barbarian: initial phase of final battle using decoys to distract enemy soldiers.

Roadwarrior: in a change of heart, drives fuel tanker that turns out to be a decoy.

Almost Famous:  Penny Lane tricks Russel and viewer into thinking she sent Russel to meet her, only to find she really sent him to meet the protagonist.

Somewhat similar: Silence of the Lambs: viewer is tricked into thinking agents are coming to rescue the protagonist at the correct house, but it’s not the correct house. Just when she could really use the help, she’s on her own.

Note: there are two forms of trickery: fooling the antagonist and/or the reader/audience. In either case, the trick has to be clever and plausible.

Failure instead of success (FIS):

The protagonist must either succeed or fail, and failure isn’t an option. Or is it? This binary choice is a tough one for authors. LOTR solved it with a 3rd party (Gollum) and the ring’s evil, corrupting influence.  The ring defeats Frodo only for Gollum to take ring and unwittingly complete mission. It works because Gollum’s behavior is completely plausible having been laid down over the entire trilogy and its precursor, The Hobbit.

Endurance (End):

Wizard of Earth Sea: Ged pursues enemy to final confrontation (turns from fleeing to pursuing: hunted becomes hunter: courage).

The Road: enduring many travails, the protagonist finally dies (self-sacrifice in a sense) but first gets his son to safety.

True Detective: the first protagonist is stabbed by the big bad (seemingly mortally), but counter-attacks anyway, enough so protagonist #2 can assist, #1 kills big bad before he can kill #2.

Enemy Secret Weakness (ESW):

LOTR [final battle at Black Gate] and Star Wars IV and VI: attack superior enemy [but enemy has secret weakness that is exploited], enemy destroyed.

Sacrifice (SAC):

The Mission:  Robert De Niro sacrifices himself to save the village.

Harry Potter (end of last book): Harry sacrifices himself, but lives on to defeat enemy.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan sacrifices himself then is reborn and defeats enemy.

Hero Goes Alone (HGA):

The Man from Snowy River: the protagonist goes over cliff when no one else would, captures wild herd and clears his name.

Ripley in Aliens. It’s just her against the Queen.

Enemies Unite (EU):

The Storm Riders: Rival protagonists unite to defeat big bad who had manipulated them and betrayed them.

Endings can also be rated by various criteria. I’ve come up with five:

  • Difficulty (for the protagonist): I notice this a lot with stories I critique: beginning writers make things too easy for their protagonist. It’s almost as if they identify with their character so strongly, they can’t bear for anything bad to happen to them. I always advise they get over this tendancy and start throwing obstacles in their protagonist’s path. Unless the hero earns his/her victory, it won’t generate much enthusiasm from the reader.
  • Plausibility: Hollywood films are full of unbelievable plot devices, deus ex machina situations, or plots that just don’t make sense. An audience’s suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
  • Unexpectedness: everyone loves to be surprised. It’s a big part of the entertainment experience. While not easy to accomplish, it’s worth it (IMO) for an author to spend a lot of time making sure their story has some surprises in store.
  • Resolution: some stories have too much of this, others not enough. While every question doesn’t need to be answered, enough should be answered so the reader feels a sense of closure at the end.
  • Contribution (of the protagonist): It seems obvious the protagonist should do the most towards resolving the story’s major problem, but that’s not the case in some stories.

Using these criteria, I rated some stories. The results are completely subjective, but it allowed me to think more clearly about why I liked the endings of some stories, but not others.

plot-criteria-table

To take it even further, I used my ratings to create the figure below. Ideally, a story should be as close to the outer edges of the pentagon as possible.

 

plot-pentagram

The Greatest Endings:

In the final analysis, I find the greatest endings often:

  1. Combine more than one of the components above.
  2. Are nested like Matryoshka dolls, one surprise and/or escalation opens within/after another.
  3. Are complex and nuanced—some joy and some pain, some victory, but also some loss (you see where I’m going with this).
  4. Surprise the reader/audience. The unexpected is essential, but more difficult to pull off well as time goes on and audiences become more savvy. Surprises must (IMO) have their groundwork laid out well in advance, so the unexpected event makes immediate sense and doesn’t come off as a badly-done twist ending.

Tips for Developing Your Endings:

  1. Warning (advice gained the hard way): if you don’t have at least a rough idea of your ending as you write, you’re likely to end up having to do some major re-writing by the time you’re done. Having to do those re-writes is probably healthy for the story at that point, but if you can avoid re-writing in the first place, I’m all for it.
  2. Think of an ending for your story. Odds are your first idea is trite, simplistic, too easy for the protagonist(s), and uninspiring (I speak from personal experience). What now? Think of another ending. Then another, another, and more. To make it easier, start tearing apart every assumption about your plot, every turning point, every fork in the road. If they steal a ship, what if they build it instead? If the aliens can’t speak English, what if they know Japanese? Take your plot endings and “break” them, twist them, reverse them, etc. Besides the fun of morphing old, tired ideas into something new, it’s a great way to force yourself to expand your thinking. Theodore Sturgeon put it well when he suggested writers “Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that.” While you can apply this process at any point in your writing, I think it’s especially useful for plotting endings, whether it’s the end of your book or just an important scene.
  3. Make a table or list of the ending components in your book or series (see example below) for each character arc and/or major plot. This will at least force you to think through the various endings. Are you using the same ending components too many times? If so, this is a quick way to see that early on when you can easily rethink the plot.

ending-table

  1. Don’t feel you can’t use a plot device just because it’s already been used. It may even be true, as some say, that no new plots exist. What you want is to use that plot device in your way, putting your own unique style, spin, or stamp on it. That’s really the one thing you have people will value the most—you (see, even that advice is trite!).

And here we are,

The End

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