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Denouements

Published 2019-08-16 23:22:12.304918 UTC

The ending to a story is possibly the most important part. While a good story depends on the quality of every act, a bad ending can outright ruin any story's overall integrity. If you want to write a mediocre to good ending, then there are certain things that you need to aim to achieve:
Your ending must resolve the conflicts from earlier in the plot (hence 'resolution'). It must be succinct, and do what it needs to do without dragging on, and it must be a peak of engagement (again, hence 'climax').
These are quite elemental goals for an ending that any writing guide will walk you through. I think, however, that there are two closely-related points that you should definitely consider when writing your ending. One to prevent your ending from ruining your story, and another to make it a great one.

(Spoilers ahead for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Romeo & Juliet, Far Cry 5, and War of the Worlds. Minor spoilers for The Sixth Sense and Hot Fuzz. You've been warned.)

Firstly, your story has a theme, of which the ending should accentuate. Even if your story doesn't have a message per se, it should have some common thread running through it to avoid being unfocused and aimless. Good stories will have endings that complement this theme. For a quite on-the-nose example: Throughout Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, there is a consistent theme of loss and hope. The film starts with Jyn Erso losing her family to the Empire (in different ways), and the Rebellion are constantly losing people and resources in their efforts. Jyn meets Chirrut Îmwe, a character who embodies faith in the force, and inspires hope where there is very little. Jyn ends up losing her father, Galen, during a mission but goes on to try and inspire the Rebel council with a moving speech featuring the quote "Rebellions are built on hope". The ending of the film only builds on these core themes by sacrificing the main characters to give the rebellion "hope" (Well, military intelligence, but according to Princess Leia it was hope.). The final scenes to Rogue One are very poignant for this reason, and they certainly go beyond the more generic 'happily ever after' finales from some other films in the series. It has a good ending

For a less subtle and more classic example, look no further than Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. (Note: While I am of the opinion that Romeo & Juliet is best interpreted as a satire, I'm going to ignore that concept here.) This play does very little except idolise love as an ultimate treasure. The titular characters talk to each other using countless metaphors and similes to describe their romantic plight, and their actions are very clearly motivated entirely by the end goal of being in love together; so even if you were shocked that they kill themselves when they think they can't be together, it shouldn't seem unthematic or uncharacteristic of the play in the slightest. Regardless of whether you like these example stories, their endings do not betray the rest of the tale.

Conversely, there are stories that are let down by their endings precisely because they feel out of place following the build-up. I believe that there are two main causes of this: badly thought-out eucatastrophes, and attempted provocative plot twists. The former can be seen in the story of the War of the Worlds (Mainly the Steven Spielberg film, but this also applies to the H.G. Wells novel to a lesser extent.), as the resolution to the threat of the unassailable death machines turns out to be common Earth diseases. This story tries to invoke feelings of terror and futility, but the ending doesn't even continue those themes as a moral or through subversion, it just ends in a deus-ex-machina of sorts. The implied stupidity of an invading force that would neglect basic bio-hazards undermines the image of unrelenting domination held by those aliens, and almost makes the story a waste of time. It is an unsatisfying ending and devalues the story while attempting to be a relief. It's important to note, however, that not all eucatastrophes are bad; so if you are intent on resolving a conflict with this plot device, I suggest taking inspiration directly from Tolkien instead.

The latter I found featured in the video game Far Cry 5. This story ends when you confront the main antagonist at his hideout after 'saving' dozens of civilians and dismantling all of the cult's oppressive infrastructure, when you get a choice. You can either try to arrest the bad guy, or let him go. After hours of battling through his army of followers, and quite a bit of psychological warfare, it's expected that one would go in for the final blow, so you choose that option, and after a bit of gameplay it's revealed that the antagonist was right all along. His doomsday cult actually did know that the world was going to end and actually was trying to save the local population. Even if their methods were vicious, it was ultimately the player who had doomed virtually everyone in the county. The problem is that the 'reveal' that the player was the villain doesn't fit in at all with the preceding themes. The bulk of the story has you being hailed as a hero for saving people from being held or pillaged against their will; even by a pastor, so at every turn you are being told that the cultists are in the wrong. There are no hints that they are anything other than deluded and directly evil, and there are no choices along the way to concede anything to them, so when the game pulls out this "plot twist" as a 'gotcha', it feels cheap. The player hasn't been tricked into anything, they have no choice, and as a result, the feeling you're left with is more like "that was a waste of time then.", rather than the seemingly intended "ah, they caught me out because of my preconceptions of the antagonist.". If you choose to let him go, by the way, the game fades to black as you hear a song that your character was conditioned with to start murdering; implying that you and your friends die before you leave town anyway. These endings are, in a nutshell, unfulfilling; and they throw away tonnes of built up engagement for an attempt at a provocative ending.

Secondly, an ending has a purpose other than those listed in the first paragraph, which is as an anticipation during repeat viewings rather than as a reveal. Once the audience knows what the ending is, it will linger in their minds throughout the entire story. The difference is that during the first telling of the story, the audience is asking "What happens next?", whereas when they come to hear it again they're instead asking "So how did that ending come about, again?". While it's relatively simple to satisfy the first question, if you fail to engage the audience when they ask the second question, your story will severely lack reread/replay value. Take Far Cry 5 again, for example. When the player is playing for the first time, they are under the illusion that canonically they are being a hero. When they come to play the game again, however, they will be aware that they are actively causing harm to the characters in the game. They will be working towards an end goal that they don't want to achieve. While it is possible to write a great story with an evil protagonist, Far Cry 5 is not that. The pretence that the player is doing good has been ruined by the ending, but ultimately it is the same story, so the game tries to maintain that now-pointless facade.

In order to make your story worth hearing again, it doesn't have to avoid plot twists. Some stories like The Sixth Sense almost demand a second viewing for the audience to fully appreciate the thought that went into hiding the twist in plain sight all along; and the film Hot Fuzz is so well written that it can be watched for the jokes and details alone once you have a firm grasp of the plot. Your ending should simply be a way to make the rest of the story able to answer those two questions. If your story is a mystery, make sure your ending follows logically on from the build-up, so that the audience can spot it coming when they know what to expect. If your story is a romance, make sure your ending has rewarding emotions. And most importantly, if your story is social commentary, don't make your ending a plot twist with the 'real' commentary following a veritable Poe's Law invocation of a tale.

I hope I've helped you consider the importance of the ending to your stories, and I hope that these examples will inspire you. If you're in doubt that an ending is "good enough", but don't know how to make an ending that stands out; don't worry! Just make sure that the ending doesn't undermine the rest of the story, and let it rest on the laurels of the journey that got your characters there. An 'acceptable' ending is still an order of magnitude better than Far Cry 5's. Yes, I am still salty about it.