I’m writing an article for a Portuguese magazine on how to finish a story and I thought I’d write something of the sort up here. First things first. I see many people intensely focused on getting the first sentence right – I believe, in my heart, that the last sentence is far more consequent. You are able to forgive and forget an average or mediocre first sentence – as long as the first scene is good, the first sentence doesn’t really have a lot of weight, that’s what I believe. You can start with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ all you want – very few people, I believe, would stop reading because of that. The last sentence, however, will be responsible for your reader’s lasting impression of the book and will have an impact on the Word of Mouth we all need. This said, this post is not about the last sentence so much as the last full Act altogether. The last Act is where it all fits together and that’s one of the most important parts. In my view it’s not necessarily the most difficult part – I actually think the second Act progression to be more difficult to achieve. When we start a story, or at least when I start a story, I usually know Point A (where the protagonist is starting) and Point B (where the story will end). Being able to steer from one to the other in an interesting way is, on the whole, the hardest challenge. However, the final Act has its own difficulties and that’s what I’d like to talk a little bit today.
A story is like a treasure map. The reader starts at the edge of the map and starts following it until he/she reaches the X. The X is the place where the treasure is buried, the last few pages, and if the treasure is not there, the reader will feel furious and frustrated. So whatever we do, we have to show the reader the treasure he was promised. Some people believe this to be a ‘happy ending’, but that’s not true. The treasure is not a happy ending, the treasure is Catharsis.
Let’s go back a few thousand years. Aristotle believed that the genesis of tragedy, and subsequent dramatic narratives and (let’s say) fiction writing as we know it today, started in religious rituals, in traditions linked to Dionysius. As people reveled in storytelling, they would purify their souls with the emotional jolt, mostly unhappiness (but let’s argue for happiness as well), at the end of the narratives. So Catharsis is that thing we feel at the end of a story when heroes triumph or perish.
I remember when I was 15 or 16 I went to watch ROCKY IV with my brother at a theater and that moment in the end when Rocky finally was able to punch the seemingly invincible Drago and draw blood the whole theater went wild and jumped in their seats. Also, every time I watch Zwick’s GLORY I cry at the end when the whole Regiment is slaughtered. This is Catharsis – this emotional jolt you get from stories. And that’s the treasure we promised our audience. To get it we have to invest and carefully build-up our characters so people care about the final situation. But it’s the final Act that will deliver the blow.
We must make sure that the final Act is satisfying. I often speak (see here) about a plotting tool I use, called the Snyder’s Beat-Sheet. The problem is that Blake Snyder’s 15 beats finish with these mysterious items: Break into Three; Finale; Final Image. Three beats that don’t tell you a whole damn lot about what to do in the Final Act. I only use the BS2 when I’m in trouble and need help figuring out what to do at a certain point – and Snyder’s last beats are not of much help – they just don’t tell you much. Fortunately, Snyder had a trick up his sleeve, what he called The Five-Step Finale. He said that you should look at a finale in terms of ‘Storming the Castle’. So here are the five steps:
- THE PLAN – The hero and his team come up with a plan to ‘storm the castle’, to solve the final problem. Remember in STAR WARS that last Resistance meeting where they plan the raid on the Death Star and show the plans and tell everybody about that shaft where you could put a bomb in and blow everything to smithereens? That’s the scene.
- THE OPERATION BEGINS – Following the plan, the hero and the team ‘storm the castle’. In STAR WARS the attack on the Death Star commences.
- IT’S A TRAP – As the attack continues, the hero and the team face failure as they see that what they want is not there, or it is impossible to achieve. In STAR WARS it becomes clear, as the fighters are destroyed one by one, that the task of reaching the shaft on the space station will not be achieved. No-one seems to be able to reach the target.
- THE NEW PLAN – It’s time for the hero to come up with a new plan, overcome difficulties and go for the gold. As Luke Skywalker dives towards the Death Star, the voice of Obi-Wan comes into his mind and says ‘Use the Force, Luke.’ Luke has seen that the other pilots were unable to find the target using the computer, so he turns it off and decides to use the Force.
- VICTORY – The hero executes the new plan and finally wins. Luke uses the Force and shoots into the shaft, blowing up the Death Star. He won.
Snyder’s Five-Step Finale is very useful when we are planning a satisfying ending. I usually try to have the protagonist face as much danger and hardship he cans at the final battle/challenge (could be a love story, works the same way). And if I planned it well and did my job, then the Final Image at the end will complete the full circle from the Initial Image at the beginning. See, for instance, in ALIEN: Ripley was awoken from crio-sleep at the beginning of the movie, and she goes back to crio-sleep, now alone with her cat, at the end of the movie. Or LOTR: Frodo and his friends were living happily on the Shire at the beginning of the story, and they are again happy on the Shire at the end, even though struggling with their scars.
The Full Circle is an important standard, but there is something even more important. People sometimes ask: can I or should I kill my MC at the end of the story? I normally reply: it depends on your Theme and your Message. I spoke a little bit about this here. What is the Message you want to convey? What is your Theme? Your whole story should be saying something. It should reflect something you want to say. And the best way to have a consistent ending is to understand exactly what you want to say. The underlying Theme of STAR WARS is, one way or another, Man against Machine. So the ending of the movie must be Luke defeating the Machine of the Empire, the Death Star, Darth Vader, using Human instinct and the spiritual Force. He turns off the computer because he is better than the computer. And he must live. If he had died at that point, the Machine would have won. The same reason for the MC’s to have died at the end of ROGUE ONE: because it is a movie about Sacrifice for a higher cause.
Well, that’s all I have to say about Endings at this point. Don’t forget to dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s, and take care of all loose ends. And good luck to you, fellow warriors. I hope this was useful. See you around the next campfire.