Ten Things You Should Know About Endings

This week, terribleminds is moving hosts. We got too big for our britches and we’re fleeing the warm embrace of Laughing Squid and diving deeper into the trenches of a LiquidWeb VPS server. I’m not anticipating any downtime, but one never knows in such an instance what will happen. So, I figured this wasn’t a good week for an entirely brand new “25 Things” list.

What I am doing, however, is giving you a tasty chocolate Whitman sampler of “25 Things” — these have never before been on terribleminds but can instead be found in their entirety in my writing books.

You’ll find this works on the following schedule:

Monday:

10 (of 25) things you should know about setting! (from 500 More Ways To Be A Better Writer)

Tuesday:

1o (of 25) things you should know about endings! (from 500 Ways To Be A Better Writer)

Wednesday:

10 (of 25) things you should know about screenplays! (from 250 Things You Should Know About Writing)

Let us begin.

10 Things You Should Know About Endings

1. Behold My Clumsy And Confusing Definition

Let’s pretend for a moment that the end is a hazy thing — it doesn’t begin at any precise point and counts the nebulous territory between “the beginning of the end and the last moment of the story that reaches the reader’s mind.” The ending is when there’s no turning back, when the story can’t be stopped, when everything’s in motion and moving forward like a racehorse on angel dust.

2. Okay, Fine, You Won’t Stop Staring At Me So Here’s Your Goddamn Definition

If you want the technical definition, then the ending begins at the start of the final act — in screenwriting, it begins at the end of the third act. It encompasses the climax of the piece and then tumbles forth through the falling action and into the denouement. It is triggered by the turning point (or pivot) into the final act, which sets up the final conflict and resolution of that conflict. There. Are you happy now? *sob*

3. Boom Goes The Dynamite

The climax and falling action are the flashier components of the ending — this is the big-ass fireworks finale where everyone goes ooooh and ahhh and stares into the pretty lights and receives commands from their alien masters on when precisely to assassinate the Archduke. Or whatever. Know that the climax is when, metaphorically or literally, everything explodes. The falling action is the picking up of those pieces and the rearrangement of those pieces. The zeppelin blows up — CHOOM! (the climax) — and then as it sinks toward earth the hero’s mission to save the lovely lass is in question as the antagonist’s plan appears to be successful. But the hero has his mad hero skills and turns the tide and saves the girl and slays the antagonist and has a litter of puppies, blah blah blah. Note that some stories conflate climax and falling action into one moment: I’d argue that STAR WARS does this, tying everything up with the Big Boom of the Death Star going kaflooey. (Yes, “kaflooey” is a technical term.) DIE HARD doesn’t — the big explosion on the roof is your climax, and McClane versus Hans is the falling action (er, quite literally!).

4. All The Little Strings Tied Around Fingers

The denouement is not a critical component and some stories just say, “Fuck it,” and kick it into the mouth of a hungry alligator to be eaten and forgotten. The denouement (it’s French, and pronounced Day-NOO-MAAAAWWHHHH, with that last syllable comprising about 42 seconds of actual vocal time) and offers what you might consider “narrative clean-up.” It takes all the niggling details and ties them into little bows. Sometimes a denouement is just a handful of moments — again, in DIE HARD, it’s that short scene as they leave Nakitomi Plaza. In RETURN OF THE KING, it’s the last 6,000 minutes as the audience bears witness to a endless procession of hobbit-flavored not-quite-happy endings! Mmm. Hobbit happy endings. Tiny hands. But so soft.

5. A Good Ending Answers Questions

A story raises questions both within the story and outside it — “Will Steve woo Betty? Will Orange Julius save Cabana Boy from the jaws of The Cramposaur? Can love survive in the face of war? Is bacon overrated?” A good ending takes these questions and answers them. Most mysteries are solved. Most concerns are answered.

6. A Great Ending Asks New Questions

An author should never be afraid to let an ending ask new questions heaped upon the answers of the old. Yes, these questions, the ones you introduced, are addressed — but things, then, needn’t be so simple. Exposing the truth might force the reader to ask new questions, and those questions are likely to never be answered (unless there’s another story in the sequence). That’s okay. Hell, that’s not only okay: that’s awesome. That leaves people thinking about the story. It doesn’t just close the door and kick them out of the house — it Manchurian Candidates those motherfuckers (yes, I turned that movie title into a verb, shut up) and leaves the story top-of-mind.

7. Time To Confirm Or Deny Your Theme

Your story is an argument — a thesis positing a thematic notion, an idea, a conceit. The ending is where you (purposefully or inadvertently) prove or disprove that thesis. It’s when you say, “Man will embrace nature over nurture.” Or, “True love won’t save the day.” Or, “Yes, indeed, Fruit Roll-Ups are secretly the leathered skin of popular cartoon character such as Smurfs and/or Snorks.”

8. Endings Don’t Need To Be Pat

I dunno who “Pat” actually is, but my assumption is that he’s a nice guy and everything works out for him. When an ending is pat, it’s the same way: it’s a nice ending, and hey, lookie-loo, everything works out just dandy. You are not required to create nice, neat, tidy little endings — an ending shouldn’t look like a Christmas ornament designed by Martha Stewart.

9. Sometimes, A Nice Neat Happy Ending Is Appropriate

Sometimes, sure, okay, you want a happy ending. Here’s the difference, though, between a happy ending and a pat ending. A “pat” ending ties things up artificially — it uses coincidence and narrative hand-waving to bring disparate elements together and make sure everything is all toothy smiles and unicorn hats and rainbow poop.

10. Dominoes Tumbling Ineluctably Forward

An ending should feel natural. Like it’s the only ending you could write. That’s nonsense, of course — you have a theoretically infinite number of endings you could write — but as you write, all the elements will start to feel like they’re moving toward one thing, one way that they all sum up. Once you write it and once the audience reads or sees it, they should all feel like it’s the only ending the story deserved — an unswerving and inarguable narrative conclusion.

Want the rest of this list? Check out 500 Ways To Be A Better Writer, available for $2.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, and also available direct from terribleminds.

21 comments

  • I love #10. So many stories just feel like an odd series of coincidence that are just far too obvious and cliche.

    What about epilogues? I find that they always annoy me, even if I really want to know what happened to the characters 15 years later. I think I’d rather imagine their future than have it spelled out for me in some trite epilogue. I’m looking at two very famous series here: Harry Potter and Hunger Games. I mean, why take a great story, then tack on an epilogue that just falls flat?

    As always, reading your blog makes me want to go back and rewrite everything, hopefully better.

  • the “hobbit happy endings” bit should not be read before the first cup of caffeine. knee-jerk reaction of closed eyes and covered ears and singing “la-la-la” only made me think of the seven dwarves.

    incidentally, your website is flagging dwarves as misspelled. seems like a word you might need down the line.

  • Just a comment to tie the previous post about setting to the current post about endings . . . As Chuck will find out as his infant child grows, all animated movies from Disney are required by law (those produced by Pixar are exempted) to have thunderstorms occur during the climactic part of the ending.

  • Love this!!! Thank you. Too many times the ending I’ve read feels forced, like the author wanted it that way, and it wasn’t the way the characters would have done it.

  • Love # 7. It makes me feel like I’m a secret attorney, especially given since my mother wanted me to become a lawyer. Now I can tell her, “Look, I’m arguing a point.”

    It was worth a shot.

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