"The ending of your movie is very rarely going to be defeating the villain or finding the bomb. It’s going to be the character having achieved something that was difficult throughout the whole course of the movie."
John August, Scriptnotes, Ep. 44, Endings for beginners
But I always, always write with the end in mind. In romances, the hero and heroine MUST have at least an implied happily ever after. In murder-mysteries, the criminal must be caught and justice served. In fantasies, the impossible task must be completed and the world saved for another day. These are the "rules" of genre and so dictate the actions of the plot.
These rules, however, are not what keep a reader's interest. It's character that keeps us coming back to the same 37 plots book after book after book. We fall in love with certain stories because of the characters inside. We've seen their pain and anguish and sometimes it's the same as our own. We want them to succeed. We need them to succeed. We root for them all throughout the book, get mad when they can't see what's right before their eyes and rejoice when they finally understand what we've been shouting at them all along.
It isn't his (or her) death that drives the play, that makes it memorable. It's his attempts at getting through the course of love, his discovery that it isn't easy that keeps us interested. In choosing to make it a tragedy, Shakespeare's ending is expected. Once Mercutio and Tybalt die in the third act, we know the genre, we know the ending. It's the getting there that keeps us riveted.
But note the uplift Shakespeare gives us in the very last lines. They're all mourning the loss of the two lovers, and in that grief, what happens? The two families bury their differences and unite. Peace is restored to Verona. The deaths of the hero and heroine aren't the true end of the story. The main characters are dead, but the story goes on.
Good endings imply that the story continues after the last page. The episode of the character's lives that is this particular story is neatly wrapped up and tied with the proverbial bow, yet the reader understands the story goes on. The happily ever after ending is, by its very nature, a story that continues after the end of the book. In our minds we define what "happily ever after" means to us and we fill in their lives with our own versions of what that means.
In murder-mysteries, the criminal is caught and readers understand that he/she goes to jail and pays his/her debt to society. There is no stop to the story, only to the storytelling.
This workshop isn't as much about writing as it is about structure. Therefore, the activity I'm leaving you with is geared toward developing your understanding of endings, rather than giving you tricks.
Take a hard look at ten pieces of literature. Genre doesn't matter. Length doesn't matter. Use books you know well or have recently read and consider the following questions:
1. What are the rules of the genre for each book? Specifically, what are the rules that govern the endings of books in this genre? Knowing these can help with the next question.
2. How does the story continue after the end of the book? What is implied? What is specifically told?
3. Are the main characters static or dynamic? Does it make a difference to the story-after-the-story?
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