Welcome to Week Thirteen! This is IT! We’re almost done.
And by now, you’re nearly exhausted, I’ll bet. You’ve put aside birthday parties, bar-mitzvahs, weddings, getting a new job, moving across country, cleaning out the refrigerator, and chasing dust bunnies out from under the couch. Your kids have been parked in front of Dora the Explorer videos for so long, they’ve learned to speak Spanish. Your spouse is pissed off at your perpetual state of distraction, and your friends don’t even bother asking you what you’re doing on Friday nights.
Hang in there. One more week to go. Seven days. You can do this.
Act Three: Welcome Home, Hero!
Argh, nope. Not yet. Before the hero can return home, she has to prove to the gods that she’s earned her transformation. This week, your hero will make that choice we’ve been talking about, the choice between what she wants and what she needs.
The oxymoron of Act Three is that in surrendering her goal, the hero actually makes it possible to achieve that goal, if it belongs in her life. In making that final choice, she is returned at last back to where she began, but she arrives there as a new person, seeing that place again for the first time, as with new eyes. As the saying goes, “You can’t go home again.” Not really. Once you’ve given up everything, home seems a good deal smaller than it once did.
The End, My Friend
Endings can be tricky. A surprising number of writers have difficulty with endings (and I count myself among them).
With openings, you know you have to grab your readers’ attention right away. There are certain opening techniques that are practical and will work, and if you’re a writer who’s been working at the craft, you’ll use them.
But endings are more difficult. The techniques aren’t so concrete. Yes, you have to retain your readers’ attention throughout the story, and yes, the ending has to make sense to them, and no, endings shouldn’t be anticlimactic or confusing. Endings should be clear and certain and creative.
“Uhm, great, but how?”
The single most important thing you have to remember about endings is this:
The ending dramatizes the triumph of some of the forces developing in the middle, which in turn were set in motion by the characters and conflict introduced in the beginning.
That is what your ending must accomplish. How you accomplish it is by controlling the two parts common to most story endings: the climax and the denouement.
The climax is the battle scene that the forces in your story have been building toward. If a character is going to change, this is the experience that finally demonstrates that change. If a problem is going to be solved, this is where the protagonist solves it. This is where the lovers are united, the family tension finally explodes, the quest reaches its goal (for good or ill), the decisive confrontation occurs. This is the pay-off, the money-shot.
All through this project we’ve been building suspense, invoking conflict, showing action. Uncertainty is the underlying prescription for good fiction. So what happens when we come to the end?
To succeed, the climax must do four things:
- The climax must satisfy the view of life implied in your story.
- The climax must deliver emotion.
- The climax must deliver an appropriate level of emotion.
- The climax must be logical to your plot and your story.
If your story implies that love will always triumph, and the hero doesn’t get the girl, you’ve failed. If your characters don’t feel anything in particular and the climax has a neutral emotional context, you’ve failed. If the intensity of what the characters feel doesn’t match the level of drama throughout the story, you’ve failed. If the climactic scene doesn’t grow naturally out of the actions that preceded it and the personalities of your characters, you’ve failed.
A successful ending must be tied not only to your implicit promise to the reader and the forces dramatized in the middle, but also to your protagonist’s nature. How can you tell if this is the case?
Ask yourself this question: If my protagonist was a radically different person, would this story still end the same way?
Your honest, deepest, most soul-searching answer must be “NO.” If the events in your book would be unaltered, no matter who the protagonist was, then your ending won’t feel convincing. If you could just as easily replace the hard-bitten, SAS-trained super-secret-agent sniper-assassin with Bob the Plumber and the ending would be exactly the same, you’ve done it wrong.
Certainty must replace uncertainty. Explanation must clear up the inexplicable. Readers must go away satisfied, and that means they must know more than they knew forty pages from the end. The story line can’t disintegrate before the ending, it has to retain that tension and conflict right to the last page.
Otherwise, the impact of the action and suspense is doomed. No action, no suspense… No readers.
So you have to keep the surprises and delights coming. Conflict is important, and without conflict, the story withers. But do you come coasting in to the end, or do you come crashing to it?
The Denouement, or “Was It Good For You?”
Conflict is the bedrock of action and suspense, so you’ll want to maintain that conflict as long as you can. Otherwise, your story will lack impact. Readers have a right to expect the writer to keep them interested right down to the last line. But you have to know the right time to stop.
Everything after the climax is the denouement. The idea is derived from a French word meaning, “to unknot.” This is the part of the book where all the tangled webs you’ve weaved come untied at last. All the threads are laid out straight once again, and all is right with the world—or at least, the view of life implied in your story is satisfied.
The denouement is the part of the story that Mark Twain called, “the marryin’ and the buryin’.” It shows us two things: the consequences of the plot, and the fate of any characters not accounted for in the climax.
A successful denouement has three characteristics:
- Closure. You give your readers enough information about the fate of the characters for them to feel that the book really is over. Show just enough of your characters’ futures so that the readers don’t feel they’ve been left hanging.
- Brevity. Keep it short. If the denouement goes on too long, it will leach all emotion from the climax. End while your reader is still affected by your big scene. Anything else will feel anticlimactic. As a rule, the more subtle and low-key the climax is in action and tone, the briefer the denouement should be.
- Dramatization. Try to show what happens to your characters by showing them in action, rather than be tacking on a lump of exposition at the end. Just be careful that whatever action they take is fairly mild. You don’t want to compete with your climax.
At the end of any story, something must be different from the beginning. Something must have changed in a meaningful way, and this change should be embodied in an action. Anything less doesn’t provide enough closure.
The way your story ends is the final impression you leave with the reader.
Does the reader come away excited and satisfied? Or bored and irritated?
The decision is yours.
Things to Keep in Mind
The plight of your hero is resolved during the battle scene.
Your hero’s want and need collide in the battle scene. In spite of what she wants, she chooses what she needs, thereby proving to the gods/her boss/her romantic interest/the President/the Galactic Emperor that she has earned her transformation.
The battle scene involves a choice for your hero. Keep it active.
“Active” doesn’t mean “external.” It can be an internal shift, but the reader has to feel present for it.
The hero makes a choice between what she wants and what she needs during the battle scene.
The battle scene is exactly that: a battle. It’s a difficult choice. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing, and the reader wouldn’t care. The hero is invested. What is she going to choose?
A satisfying ending to a story is a total surprise, and yet it is utterly inevitable. It couldn’t have ended any other way. The seed of the ending was planted at the beginning.
What does your hero come to understand as the result of his journey?
Your hero returns home. What does this new sense of balance look like?
Write a quick point-form outline from where you are to the end of your novel.
And here it is: Write to THE END of the first draft of your novel.
Ready? Steady? GO!
If you enjoy this content, please sign up for the mailing list.
You’ll receive access to free eBook content, daily writing prompts, and a monthly newsletter from the studio of a working writer and professional publisher.