A strong story ending is essential to the success of your tale and is the result of deliberate planning from the very start of your manuscript.
Here are five suggestions for writing such an ending:
1. Play up the reputation of the protagonist, and even more so, the antagonist
Stories are about the protagonist and antagonist involved in a life and death struggle of some sort. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the stakes and leads to a more engaging and tense ending.
In Unforgiven, William Munny, the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Later he is described by the Kid as being “the same one that shot Charley Pepper up in Lake County? You’re the one who killed William Harvey and robbed that train in Missouri.” Likewise, the antagonist, Sheriff Bill Daggett, is described by a deputy as being utterly fearless. He is seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.
A truly memorable story ending is as surprising as it is inevitable. Foreshadowing it, therefore, has to be subtly crafted so as not to show its hand.
2. Cast doubt about the outcome of the final confrontation
The more we doubt the ability of the protagonist to achieve his goal by defeating the antagonist, the more we root for his success, and the more we fear for his failure. When we first meet William Munny we find him slipping and falling amongst the pigs in the pen. The Kid says of him: “You don’t look like no rootin’ tootin’ cold blooded assassin.” And later, it takes Munny four shots to get the first cowboy. Compared with Little Bill’s ruthless skills, this makes us fear for his survival against the Sheriff.
3. Shift direction
Introducing twists which thwart our expectations, causes us to worry about the outcome. Little Bill beats up William Munny at the saloon, and Munny spends three days hovering near death. The Kid remarks that Munny is useless. Munny hardly appears as a man who can fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.
4. Increase the suspense around the final confrontation
When Munny is told that Ned Logan has been beaten to death by Little Bill, he knows that he has to go back and revenge his death. He knows that this might result in his own death. He tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s doubts about the outcome of the confrontation increases our suspense even more.
5. Have the final confrontation play out in the antagonist’s stronghold
Facing the antagonist in his own lair weakens the protagonist’s ability to prevail. Munny faces Little Bill in the saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies and henchmen. This stacks the deck against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.
A powerful ending increases the tension in the story by making the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist seem unlikely.
Interesting read. I can understand how the first over saturated film genre was the Western much like Super hero movies over half a century later.
I also understand that a strong story ending is also predetermined by the protagonist conquering a inner conflict . The Shawshank redemption is perhaps the best film never to have won as much as a single Academy award. The main protagonist’s ( Red) journey makes the ending so satisfying. Red has to endure a system that convinces him he can’t survive the out side world orchestrated by a warden ( the antagonist ) that wants to put the fear of God in him. The Warden’s methods cause his inmates to become so dependent on prison life that once they re-enter society their minds are overwhelmed with suicidal thoughts. The warden taking his own life over facing the criminal charges facing him is a double dip of revenge. ( Imagine your antagonist is Hitler hiding underneath his bunker as the red army is heading straight for him)
Long story short : If the protagonist successfully achieves revenge the final outcome is a satisfying ending.
Revenge is sometimes the goal, as in this case, but not always, Gerhard. I’d say it’s achieving the protagonist’s goal is more universally applicable.
Thanks, Stavros. Now you’ve made me want to see “Unforgiven”.
It’s worth it, Stephen.