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…

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