Don Quixote…what happens to him at the end of the novel?
Oliver Twist…how is Oliver reunited with his birth mother? Why were they separated?
Catch 22…what happens to John Yossarian at the end of the novel? Does he finally get out of the army?
If you remember the endings of all three of these seminal works of literature, I’m impressed. (Are you a literature professor?) More likely, you remember things from the middles of those novels. Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Oliver’s apprenticeship as a pickpocket with the Artful Dodger and Fagin. Yossarian learning the meaning of Catch 22: if you want to be diagnosed as insane in order to avoid combat, it only proves that you are sane.
So, what actually happens in the endings in our quiz? Don Quixote, you may remember, was driven nuts by reading chivalric romances. In the end he recovers his sanity and apologies to all whom he hurt. Oliver Twist—trick question, sorry—is not reunited with his birth mother. She’s dead. He is instead adopted by kindly Mr. Brownlow, whose handkerchief was stolen by the Artful Dodger.
Yossarian—also a trick question, sort of—was not exactly in the army. At the end of the novel he is still in the 256th Army Air Squadron, but he decides to go AWOL, following his squad-mate Orr, whom he believed dead, to Sweden. If you thought that Yossarian was in the army, you—like many—may have conflated Catch 22 with the TV show M.A.S.H., which was not, as is sometimes supposed, based on the novel Catch 22 but rather on the 1968 novel MASH by Richard Hooker.
If you flunked today’s quiz, don’t feel bad. Many endings are not well remembered. Dorothy returning to Kansas and Scarlett O’Hara embracing her legacy, Tara, are among the exceptions. But if endings are often not well remembered, that is my point. We do not remember success as much as struggle. A miracle at the end doesn’t stick with us as much as the agony in the middle.
Endings can satisfy, in other words, but we are most deeply engaged by how that satisfaction is earned. Endings can thrill, too, but that thrill depends on the disasters and dread that precede it. Endings can be happy, sweet or even weepy, but that won’t happen if we do not first fear that happiness is impossible or hope that something wonderful will never go away.
Thus, the impact of your ending derives from what you create in the middle, things like impossible struggles, iconic actions, great secondary characters (good and bad), moral and emotional agony, failure, hope and meaning. To cheer we must first despair. To weep we must first know joy. The effect is all in the set up.
Let’s take a look at the symbiotic relationship of endings to middles.
Setting Up the Ending in the Middle
What do you want your ending to do? Cause us to cheer? Make us weep? Affirm our values? Challenge our beliefs? Capture the human condition? Celebrate the exquisite joy and pain of human existence?
If you’re aiming for an exciting and triumphant ending, start with the grand action your protagonist must perform at the end. Let’s call it The Feat. Now work backwards. What makes that feat fearful? How do we discover that it is impossible? What is the deadline and how does the clock tick down the remaining time?
More: At what location must The Feat be performed? What is the antagonist’s contrasting objective? What is the picture of success or the symbol of victory? Who has faith in your protagonist? Who is counting on success? Who wants your protagonist to fail? Who has the means to ensure that? What is your protagonist’s weakness, flaw or paralyzing fear? What obstacle is insurmountable? What event spells disaster? What is the irrevocable sign of defeat?
Next: How does The Feat becomes impossible? How is an obstacle too great? When does time run out? Why is the destination unable to be reached? How does the antagonist achieve success? How are the faithful disappointed? How is what is hoped for lost? How does the flaw, weakness or fear defeat your protagonist? How is the picture of success ruined, or the symbol of success handed to someone else? How can those things happen in your story?
Then: Time passes. The situation turns around. Something has been overlooked. Your antagonist’s plan has a flaw. Your protagonist receives fresh insight or inspiration. Your protagonist’s flaw is corrected, his weakness is overcome, her fear is defeated with courage. The faithful are energized and rise up in support. How can those things happen in your story?
The Ending: A way to win is discovered, victory is achieved, happiness is found, there is satisfaction with what must be, or peace is made with what is wrong. How does that happen in your story?
Antagonist’s Role in Timeless Endings
Another element in making timeless endings can be iconic antagonists. Antagonists become iconic when they represent a fundamental human weakness, vice, shortcoming or sin. What singular evil does your antagonist embody?
More: What event made him or her so corrupt, twisted or broken? What opportunity to change for the better is thwarted or rejected? What rewards does perfidy bring? Who reveres the antagonist and embraces his or her values? Why does your protagonist embody everything that your antagonist hates? What advantage, ability or superpower does your antagonist have? How is that the very worst thing your protagonist could face?
Next: How and when does your antagonist win? Actually win. How is your antagonist’s plan flawless? How is every possible glitch covered? If your antagonist is a villain, how is he or she is triumphant? If an enemy, how does he or she prevail? If a cheater or criminal, how does your antagonist get away with it or simply get away? If a monster, what does the monster successfully destroy?
Variations: If a love interest (a resistant antagonist), how does he or she walk away? If a mentor (a teaching antagonist), when does he or she give up? If a savior (antagonist as hope), make it so that the savior doesn’t arrive, doesn’t come through, dies or disappoints.
The Ending: Your protagonist turns it around. Your antagonist’s flaw, weakness, or hubris creates an opening. Cheating or deception is exposed. Proof is demonstrated and the truth is revealed. The antagonist’s last gambit fails. Defeat is ignominious and final. Your protagonist is redeemed and restored. How can that happen in your story?
Endings Anchored in Actions, Dilemmas, Desires, Hope, Meaning
Great endings also can spring from earlier actions, or grow out of dilemmas, desires, hope and/or the quest for meaning.
Actions: What’s your protagonist’s central, most significant task, puzzle, duty, quest or want? Boil it down. What is the one act or moment that would represent success? Elevate that action or that date. Give it a name. Endow it with a prestige and/or terror. Pack it with a significance that everyone in the story understands. Make the task a public one. If there is a puzzle, make its solution simple but elusive. If it’s a duty, performing it will entail sacrificing—what? If a quest, what lesson is needed to complete it? If a want, what’s the greatest sacrifice required to get it? Build those in. Bring to a head. Force your protagonist to act.
Dilemmas: Whatever your protagonist wants, transform that into a choice. What could your protagonist get instead of equal value? What is a terrible outcome either way? Whatever the choice—A or B, good or bad, two rights or two wrongs—heighten the value or cost of each. What would make the choice agonizing? Finally, force the choice. Make its consequences cut and count.
Desires and Hopes: What, or whom, does your protagonist desire? For what does your protagonist hope? What will your protagonist need to give up to get that desire? What disappointment hits when the hope is crushed? Does your protagonist desire the wrong thing? If your protagonist hoping for more than is possible? Fulfill the desire—or not. Satisfy the hope—or not. Desire is dangerous and hope is full of peril. However it goes, don’t let it go easily.
Meaning: What does your protagonist believe in? What meaning is your protagonist searching for? Undermine the belief. Make meaning elusive. To affirm a faith or find a firm truth will require a great—what? Knowledge is hard won. Wisdom is born of experience. Deal your protagonist a tough hand. Meaning must be earned, otherwise it doesn’t mean much.
As you can see, endings may be happy but that happiness is proportionate to the anguish, longing and peril that you generate first. Resolutions are necessary but aren’t satisfying unless they are difficult to get. It’s fine to make a point, but better when it takes effort to hone it. Gain follows loss. Success is pale without struggle.
Okay, you get my point. Timeless endings are all in how you set them up—in the middle.
What kind of ending are you shooting for? How are you preparing the way in the middle?
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