This is part of an inter-blog duo of posts on endings in fiction. The sister post, written by William Morris, can be found at A Motley Vision.
Endings are hard. Of all the time I spend writing a piece, at least 40 percent of it will be spent on getting the ending just right. I think it’s important that a great deal of sweat and blood go into the ending, because that’s when the soul starts to enter.
However, endings are in no way voodoo. There are principles to making a good ending.
You’re not going to believe me about these principles, by the way. No one ever does. Do you know why? It’s because when I talk about stories, I talk about bones. I’m not talking about organs, I’m not talking about flesh, I’m not talking about makeup or bodybuilding programs. I’m talking about bones.
Bones are not pretty. They are not poetic. No magazines or Web sites are dedicated to the eroticizing of bones. But why are George Clooney and Brad Pitt so handsome? It’s their bone structure. Why do Nicole Kidman and Catherine Zeta-Jones get all the leading roles? Talk all you want about their flesh, but the flesh takes its shape from the bones. Bones hold your posture. They dictate your walk. They provide your hip and ankle girth. They sculpt the nuances of your face and hands.
Most people are so in love with what Nicole looks like with flesh on, that they can’t imagine that something as hard and practical as bones could possibly be under there. It’s the same with writers who have read the world’s great literature. They’re so enthralled with the complete story that they assume that its writing process must have been as poetic as its reading — that it started as a small George and grew into a big one.
I’ll admit that there are probably some people in the world who can gestate perfect stories like that, but they make up about .0001 percent of the population. If you’re willing to take the chance that you’re one of them, stop reading now and go pour your genius upon the page. If you think that just maybe there’s a craft to fiction, read on.
To make a good ending, you’ll need two bones.
Bone 1: A Goal. If the character has a goal and pursues it through the story, you can resolve the story perfectly fine by having the character reach the goal. This creates an up ending. Or, the character can not reach his goal, which creates a down ending.
Do you want to strengthen that bone? Make the goal especially difficult to achieve. Require the character to sacrifice all that is dear in the pursuit of that goal. The more the character sacrifices, the more powerful the ending, whether it goes up or down.
However, it might be more interesting if you add …
Bone 2: A Dramatic Need. If you have given your character a dramatic need (something about their psyche that needs to change, for example: learning to love, or learning to stand up for one self), and the character can meet that dramatic need, while also attaining his or her goal, you have a doubly fine ending because character changes are more compelling than achieved goals. As with the goal, the more the character has to sacrifice in order to achieve his or her dramatic need, the more powerful the ending, whether it goes up or down. But if you want to play you can always …
Break bone 1 in order to make bone 2 possible. It’s simple: the character’s goal gets in the way of his or her dramatic need. So the character pursues the goal until either: 1: he or she gives up the dramatic need for the goal (a tragic ending) or, 2: he or she gives up the goal to attain the dramatic need (an bitter-sweet ending).
These are the bones that make up an ending. There are only two. However, their strength is completely based upon how well you have set up the goal and dramatic need, and how they have been pursued throughout the story. But that’s an article for another day.
Already have a story mostly finished? Can’t find a way to end it? Try this. Go back and say, “What is my character’s goal?” If the character doesn’t have a goal, lend him one, just to see what happens. Do you want a happy ending? Let him achieve his goal. Want a sad ending? Don’t let him achieve his goal. Now turn the power of the story up and down by making the goal less or more difficult to achieve. Play with the emotional punch of the story by insisting on greater or lesser sacrifice.
Want to kick it up another notch? Go back and say, “What is my character’s dramatic need?” If the character doesn’t have a dramatic need, lend her one, just to see what happens. Do you want a happy ending? Let the character achieve her dramatic need. Want a sad ending? Don’t let her achieve her dramatic need. Now turn the power of the story up and down by making the dramatic need less or more difficult to achieve. Play with the emotional punch of the story by insisting on greater or lesser sacrifice.
Now put it all together. Take the goal and the dramatic need and make them mutually exclusive. The character can only have one or the other. Want a bitter-sweet ending? Let her gain her dramatic need at the expense of her goal. Want a tragic ending? Let her gain her goal at the expense of her dramatic need.
Are you annoyed with me? Have I stripped the poetry out of writing? Do only hacks think about writing the way I do? Let’s take a look at the master, the godfather of all English departments, yea even the Bard himself, who will surely strike me down for my impertinence.
King Lear. Lear’s goal: To prop up his ego. Lear’s dramatic need: to learn to love. Lear does not achieve his goal. But he does achieve his dramatic need, but only after losing his riches, his power, his family, his sanity, and worst of all, the only person in the world who actually loves him.
Henry V. Henry’s Goal: To take France. Henry’s dramatic need: to grow into the mantle of kinghood. Henry attains both his goal and his dramatic need, but has to sacrifice his friends and his past along the way.
Othello. Othello’s goal: To ensure Desdemona’s faithfulness. Othello’s dramatic need: to learn to trust Desdemona. Othello reaches his goal, but only through the sacrifice of Desdemona, which leads to his dramatic need, but too late.
So what if Lear had gotten into a few tiffs with his daughters, gone to a pub with a son-in-law and revealed a past indiscretion, and eventually lost his marbles and wandered around the countryside philosophizing until the end of the play?
What if Henry had agonized over whether to take France while playing tennis, had a dalliance along the way, and eventually settled for a baronage somewhere in Normandy?
What if Othello had wondered now and again about Desdemona while out drinking with Iago, gotten into a fight with someone who slighted his wife, then came home to find the house a mess?
Even with Shakespeare’s unparalleled command of the English language, these plays without their simple but strong bones would be mere curiosities, if they had survived at all. People like pretty language, yes, they like metaphor, they like sympathetic characters. But what they like most is all the above sculpted aesthetically around a beautiful structure.