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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

End As You Went On

With every boyfriend, I knew before the end of the first what would be the problem that broke us up. (This works both ways: I also knew before one month that my Patient Husband was The One.)  It's party intuition of course but mostly in knowing your dynamics. It never really was a surprise that so-and-so turned out to be a liar or had no sense of humor, and even when it hurt, the breakup had a sense of inevitability. What did you expect? You knew he was {fill-in-the-blank.}

Novels need to have this too, especially in their endings. Not boring or predictable endings, but we need to have a sense during the climactic fight that the parties are fighting over the right thing, and using the right tools to do so.

At the end of Return Of The Jedi, Luke and Vader have an epic lightsaber battle, both of them using The Force to try to win the battle for the other's allegiance.

Now back up a moment. How would you feel if Luke walked into the Emperor's chamber and when the Emperor tries to manipulate him with The Force, Luke pulls out his Ultimate MegaPlasmaCannon and fries him where he stands?

It's not satisfying because it comes out of nowhere. This young Jedi has spent three movies discovering and learning to manipulate The Force, and now at the climax, we have a sense that The Force needs to be involved in the story's resolution. 

It's not just a matter of tying up loose ends. That's mandatory. What I'm asking here is that whatever has been the central conflict of the story be reflected in the climax, and in a big way. If your main character has battled against a fear of heights during the book, your climax had better be taking place in a bell tower.

The story question will have returned repeatedly, and the intensity will have ramped up every time it shows itself in the plot. Since the climax is the highest-tension part of the plot, the story question needs to be at its highest pitch there as well.

The advice I normally give is that your main character has to be instrumental in solving the main problem, but I'm taking it one step further. Your main character's chief flaws have to be highlighted and overcome in the climax. Moreover, the thing your main character has desired most from the beginning of the book must be brought to bear on the final resolution.

Without that kind of resolution, your story just fizzles. In the end, we want to know not only that your character won the day, but that he won it fairly and has the dignity of a hard-earned victory.

When you infuse your central story questions into the fabric of the climax, the reader knows why those questions were worth so much effort in the first place. It's more satisfying, and the reader feels the victory along with you.

They say "Begin as you mean to go on." Well, now I'm telling you, "End as you went on." Make sure the ending is perfectly fitted to the story it caps.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or knitting socks. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 


David Kaufmann said...

I found this particularly well thought out and presented. Of course, a well constructed plot write to the climax - that's the point. But getting there, structuring the conflict so that the climax is organic - ah! there's the craft. Having done some academic work on narrative closure, I'm especially interested in the "sense of an ending." Your article reminded me, for some reason, about song construction as well. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This post is just what I needed! I finished my first draft but the ending I outlined was flat. Your premise of the main character fighting the internal "demon" is just what my story ending deserves.
Many thanks!

Suzanne Warr said...

And not only does Luke use the force, but he demonstrates that he understands what's needed emotionally from him in order to resist the dark side--just as important, the culmination of internal character arc as he matured. Loved this post, and tweeted it!

Melody said...

Very interesting analogy {metaphor? I get them confused}. I've never compared the climax of a book to the breakup of the relationship, but you make it make perfect sense. I may have to pull this trick into future stories...and make sure that it holds true for my current one. :)