Elements of an ending

I’ve been plotting some new stuff lately, and trying to think up some interesting endings. Endings always seem to be the most challenging part for me; you want something that will both surprise the audience, yet feel completely acceptable, and resolve the conflict satisfactorily. And it’s not just a matter of what happens (the good guy kills the villain) but how it happens. How specifically does the good guy kill the bad guy? Especially since the story preceding the climax needs to convince the reader that the hero’s task is impossible.

So I’ve been thinking about endings, and I’ve come up with three elements endings (or climaxes, at least) are typically composed of:

(Beware: since I’m talking about endings, any examples are give are by their nature spoilers.)

1. The Secret Weapon

It may not necessarily be a “secret”, but the hero utilizes a “weapon” of some sort that he was not planning on using at first, or that the audience was not expecting. This is typically employed when the climax is physical in nature, such as the hero needing to destroy someone or something.

Examples: In Star Wars, Luke uses the Force rather than his ship’s auto-target system to blow up the Death Star. In Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, T-Rex saves the day, once by sheer luck, and once by a character’s decision.


2. The Trick

Typical in heist movies. The trick is when the hero comes up with some clever “trick” to defeat the villain or get what he wants. He may “trick” the villain into basically destroying himself. Typically if the trick works flawlessly, the audience doesn’t know about it until after it succeeds. If the audience does know about it, then it will likely fail, and the hero will have to improvise and utilize some new trick or secret weapon. Otherwise, if the audience knows about it and it works flawlessly, there’s completely no tension for the audience (even if the audience already knows the story and knows the trick).

A common example is the creation of a “diversion” … heroes pull the enemy’s attention away from something important, giving them just enough time to deliver a fatal blow.

Examples: In Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen. Well, I’m not going to explain the elaborate tricks of those endings, but of course they’re tricks. After all, they’re classic heist movies. In Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Aragorn and his motley crew draw Sauron’s forces out of Mordor so that Frodo and Sam can reach the fires of the Mount Doom. “A diversion!” as Legolas so proudly acclaims for the slow audience members. Yes, thank you elf man. In Fun with Dick and Jane, Jim Carrey tricks Alec Baldwin into signing a check so that his wife can forge his signature onto some other documents (after their original “trick” is destroyed by a lawn mower). In Inception… well, that’s another heist movie, so of course the climax is the trick being successfully pulled off. “I was disappointed that you tried” and all that.


3. Rebirth (realization) and sheer force

In drama films, where the main conflict tends to be more thematic or internal, the ending may consist simply of the hero realizing something new about himself or someone he admires, which gives him the inner strength to solve the conflict through sheer force. He doesn’t need secret weapons or tricks. He just needs to face his foes head on.

Examples: In Shrek, which is basically a male-POV romantic comedy, Shrek only needs to learn that Fiona wasn’t talking about him earlier and that he loves her, and he’s off to stop her from getting married. Granted, the dragon is a sort of secret weapon as well, but Shrek’s “rebirth” and newfound strength are the main drivers of the ending, along with Fiona’s revelation that she is also an ogre. In Inception, after the successful “trick” of the heist, Leo’s character also confronts his dream-version of his dead wife and finally lets go of her. (Which is why it doesn’t matter whether or not his totem stops spinning in the film’s final shot; the point is that he doesn’t care about it anymore.) In The Truman Show, Truman tricks the cameras into thinking he was asleep, but then braves the sea through sheer force, forcing himself onward even as Ed Harris threatens to drown him. (Always a definite rebirth when characters are submerged in water at moments like that; it’s baptism!)


Of course, these examples may overlap quite a bit; an ending could include all three. A character realizes something, which gives them the strength to use a trick as a secret weapon. Sometimes one character will be utilizing a trick to get the enemy where they want him while another character deploys a secret weapon.

Also, these tricks, weapons, and realizations are often not completely new elements to the story. What makes them convincing is that they tend to be hiding in plain sight all along. The storyteller has to find a way of making them not too obvious, yet there all along. If they come out of nowhere, we risk getting a deus ex machina ending which can feel very weak and arbitrary. I particularly loathe time travel solutions in stories that are not about time travel, such as in Signs, Interstellar, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (and Hodor’s revelation in Game of Thrones, for that matter).

There was something else I wanted to say, but now I can’t remember…

Anyway, hope that’s helpful or interesting for someone out there. Are there any elements you think I may have missed?

Oh, now I remember what I wanted to say:

Endings often also include a martyr beat, a moment when the main character or a strong supporting character puts his own life itself on the line, often for the sake of someone else (a “stakes” character… saving the world means nothing if we don’t care about a specific person in it). If a supporting character gets the beat, especially an unnatural character (as in Netflix’s latest original series Stranger Things, or Hodor in Game of Thrones), the character may indeed die. The martyr beat may also be more metaphorical for dramas in which actual death is not a threat. In romantic comedies, for example, characters won’t die if they don’t get together, but they will die metaphorically, I guess? So the romantic lead throws away his business opportunities or something for the sake of stopping a wedding.

The point of the martyr beat is that idea of rebirth; by giving up fear or a piece of himself, the character is able to obtain a new self, which is capable of defeating the enemy. (A good Christian can see how stories reflect the story of the human spirit in Christ, and why the human spirit feeds on stories so much. God is a storyteller, after all, and we are the characters in his story of knowing Himself. So in Heaven will I get to meet and/or become the characters in my novel? I think I should… haha.)

OK, I think that’s all I have to say. Just writing this post gave me some new ideas for my novels ending, so I guess I will get back to plotting…

Only giants will do

Of Other Worlds

I recently finished reading a small series of essays and stories by C.S. Lewis collected in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.

Of particular interest to me was the first essay, “On Stories”, in which Lewis defends the elements of fantasy and sci-fi, myth and fairy-tale, as not merely arbitrarily-chosen story entities, but innately unique and important, as they carry with them all their unique weight, connotations, feelings, etc., which bring about different “kinds of pleasure.”

He mentions talking with a friend about books they had enjoyed as boys. He writes of his friend:

His favourite had been Fenimore Cooper whom (as it happens) I have never read. My friend described one particular scene in which the hero was half-sleeping by his bivouac fire in the woods while a Redskin with a tomahawk was silently creeping on him from behind. He remembered the breathless excitement with which he had read the passage, the agonized suspense with which he wondered whether the hero would wake up in time or not. But I, remembering the great moments in my own early reading, felt quite sure that my friend was misrepresenting his experience, and indeed leaving out the real point. Surely, surely, I thought, the sheer excitement, the suspense, was not what had kept him going back and back to Fenimore Cooper. If that were what he wanted any other ‘boy’s blood’ would have done as well. … Dangers, of course, there must be: how else can you keep a story going? But they must (in the mood which led one to such a book) be Redskin dangers. The ‘Redskinnery’ was what really mattered. In such a scene as my friend had described, take away the feathers, the high cheek-bones, the whiskered trousers, substitute a pistol for the tomahawk, and what would be left? For I wanted not the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged–the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, war-paths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names.

He goes on to write:

Jack the Giant-Killer is not, in essence, simply the story of a clever hero surmounting danger. It is in essence the story of such a hero surmounting danger from giants. It is quite easy to contrive a story in which, though the enemies are of normal size, the odds against Jack are equally great. But it will be quite a different story. The whole quality of the imaginative response is determined by the fact that the enemies are giants. That heaviness, that monstrosity, that uncouthness, hangs over the whole thing. Turn it into music and you will feel the difference at once. If your villain is a giant your orchestra will proclaim his entrance in one way: if he is any other kind of villain, in another. I have seen landscapes (notably in the Mourne Mountains) which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge. Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do. … The dangerousness of the giants is, though important, secondary. In some folk-tales we meet giants who are not dangerous. But they still affect us in much the same way. A good giant is legitimate: but he would be twenty tons of living, earth-shaking oxymoron. The intolerable pressure, the sense of something older, wilder, and more earthy than humanity, would still cleave to him.

Near the end of the essay he writes:

Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in the mere excitement when the journey has once begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas–homecoming, reunion with a beloved–similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so–well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more? … Art, indeed, may be expected to do what life cannot do: but so it has done. The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done–or very, very nearly done–in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making.

He almost makes storytelling seem a tragedy, but a necessary one, like a remnant from the Fall of Man, which perhaps it is. If I may be forgiven for playing with the metaphor, I wonder: are we bird-catching for the beauty of the bird, or for the wish to become the bird? Or to find at least glimpses of the bird we hope is lost within ourselves?

In any case, I loved the essay; it’s worth a read for any authors of fantasy or fairy-tales. And it seems to stir in me a desire to write, not so much fuel for the fire, but the breath that brings it to fury. (Or is that a metaphor too much?)

Barnes and Nobles launches print-on-demand business

Someone on Twitter posted a link to this recent article about Barnes and Noble entering the print-on-demand business:

Barnes & Noble announced today the launch of a new print feature for its self-publishing platform, Nook Press, which will allow authors to turn their ebooks into print versions that can be sold in B&N stores and online at BN.com

BN.com already sold print-on-demand books from Amazon’s Createspace, though perhaps your royalties will be greater if you go with their Nook Press? I haven’t checked out their prices yet. They do offer hardback, which Createspace does not, though I’m guessing prices won’t make it worth the cost for most books, unless you have a large audience or want to release a special edition of something.

As for indie books being stocked in their physical stores, the article says:

Through the program, authors who have sold 1,000 copies of a single ebook in the past year will be able to sell their print books on the local, regional or national level through B&N.

I can’t tell if they mean ebooks sold in total, or only ebooks sold through their Nook platform. Most ebook sales that happen at all happen through Amazon, so if you’re selling at least 1K books through Nook, you’re probably doing quite well. Otherwise, the limit does nothing for an author like me, who has nowhere near those sale levels, even on Amazon. Still, this bit of gate-keeping makes sense, as they wouldn’t want their store shelves to be filled with crappy-looking indie books that aren’t likely to sell.

Although I wonder if indie authors can’t already ask the managers of their local B&N stores to stock a book or two of theirs; I’ve seen at least one crappy-looking self-published paperback sitting on the shelf in our local B&N, prominently enough that I’m sure the author didn’t just sneak it in himself. Not sure what the deal with that was.

Anyway, it’s just one more opportunity for indie-authors, which is always a good thing; I still love browsing physical book stores, so it’s great that indie-authors may have an easier path to getting their books on physical shelves. It’s also another nail in the slowly-forming coffin of traditional publishers; when writers don’t even need them to get into physical bookstores, that’s one less incentive for a successful author to sign a deal with them. Although I suppose physical bookstores are battling their own slowly-forming coffins, so there’s really no telling what will happen…

Episode 1 of Insane Fantasy is out now!

This morning, I released episode one of my serialized novel, Insane Fantasy: The Crater Lands, exclusively on Amazon Kindle! Check it out!

Insane Fantasy: The Crater Lands

I wanted to do two things with Insane Fantasy.

Firstly, I wanted to try releasing a story in “episodes”, similar to how authors of yesteryear would serialize their novels in magazines. This has, of course, gone out of style, but it’s seeing a small resurgence with the rise of ebooks.

Secondly, I strove to create the sort of ever-expandable fantasy world in which completely outlandish phenomena, such as talking owls and colorful storms, would seem acceptable. Granted, making outlandish phenomena seem acceptable is the goal of any fantasy author, but I wanted to create that sort of bizarre childish fairy-tale world in which I could continually introduce new fantastical elements both without breaking some predefined magic system yet without making the world seem like the meaningless random visions of some fever dream. That is, I sought to create a fantasy world that was both cohesive and logical enough to host engaging stories, yet broad enough to allow for infinite expansion. This is perhaps nothing new in the vast world of stories, but a fun exercise for a storyteller nonetheless.

I’m working on the second episode now!

Insane Fantasy begins July 7th

Insane Fantasy: The Crater Lands

I recently finished creating the cover for the first episode of Insane Fantasy. Considering my lack of artistic skills, I think it turned out pretty well. I would of course have preferred to commission an experienced artist, but couldn’t afford that. Also, it took me a little over two weeks to create, which feels like too long to me. But a good chunk of that time was spent just learning how to use Krita to draw vector art, figuring layers and masking and the art of Bézier curve editing. So hopefully the next cover won’t take so long, but who knows?

Assuming nothing drastic interrupts my editing over the next few days, I plan to release Insane Fantasy: The Crater Lands exclusively on Kindle this Thursday, July 7th!

As stated before, this is a 29,000-word episode, an installment of a larger serialized story. I’ve already started work on the next episode, and it will be my focus of attention after this first episode is released.