How do you end your story?
Unfortunately for me, this is a subject which has been a painful one to address this month! I have long preached to my students on how to end a story, and the two key components that I think need to be in place in order for an ending to feel final. But having this week – after seven years – finished a novel that was supposed to be my first I realise I had been overlooking a third component for how to end a story.
In various discussions within creative writing a lot has been made of the ‘Seven Types Of Plot’ there are in storytelling. The majority of stories seem to be plots regarding a quest of some sort. At its simplest I would say that the ‘quest novel’ either involves a character needing to find something external (such a mystical ring, in The Lord Of The Rings) or something internal (for instance in Black Swan it is the main character’s psychological demands on herself that need to be overcome). For a story to feel finished the most obvious point to make is that the quest must come to an end. The ring must be found, or the dancer must get to the point where she feels satisfied with her ability. The journey must come to an end. But the reason many stories don’t feel finished with that is because it offers no guarantee of emotional resolution. This is a trickier concept to grasp – not least for me.
Let’s take The Lord Of The Rings as an example. Yes, the quest is to find the ring, which the title suggests is deeply important. But on an emotional level, is that really what is at stake? No. Emotionally, what we are invested in is the fact that a lovable hobbit has left the comfort of The Shire for a great journey. But all he really wants to do is be back in his lovely dwelling, feel safe and warm, and smoke his pipe. Therefore for us to feel emotionally resolved we need- at least a moment- when that takes place at the end of the story.
Even the most sleek commercial thrillers offer some deference to this principle. I recall watching the (admittedly dubious) Liam Neeson thriller Taken. Even when his daughter is no longer ‘Taken’, and we know she has been rescued, we still need a scene to emotionally resolve the whole story. After all, what was really at stake for our hero was the sense of comfort that his loved ones are now safe from harm. So it is crucial – for us to feel that the story has ended – that we see him in that final scene having a milkshake with her in a café. That we see him seeing her – safe and happy – at the end. We can then know for sure that the bad guy was not only slain, and the victim was not only rescued, but (until the next instalment of the franchise at least) harmony has been restored. Then, and only then, can we feel satisfied with this story, and that our emotional balance has been restored.
I mentioned having recently finished a novel that was long in the making. The reason I feel it is finally finished is because I understood that the quest does not just need to end practically and emotionally. I think a writer also needs to understand the heart of a story.
In my novel a man falls in love with a woman who resembles his tragically killed girlfriend. She is about to open a nightclub which recreates itself weekly to allow its members to live in their fantasy world- intending to offer them some sense of Meaning by allowing them to live in the world they want to be in. The man – a journalist – is hoping to find meaning through her not only through by resolving his guilt over the death of his girlfriend, but through the way of life her nightclub offers.
I had, for years, thought that key to ending the story was to see what happened to the nightclub, and if the two of them get together. Not so. What I have finally understood is that to finish your story you need to understand what your story is. I had a novel about a man finding meaning through his relationship with a woman. I had to thereby ensure that it was their relationship that drove the whole story. Furthermore I had to ensure that issue was resolved at the end of the story.
Also published on Medium.