How to Write Endings That Work

During my classes on writing, people often remark that they find the ending of a story the most difficult to write. The ending, after all, is where everything must come together to excite, explain, and validate that which has gone before. Shaky endings leave us feeling unsatisfied and render the entire story suspect. Writing a great ending isn’t easy. But it is, in my opinion, easier to write than the beginning.

Consider the start of the story – what we sometimes refer to as the “ordinary world”. Here, the right genre must be chosen, the dramatic question created, and the theme and moral of the story conceived. The characters must be crafted from scratch, and then established through pertinent traits; the world they inhabit, too, must be thought out and sketched in – in just the right detail to foreshadow the reveals that are to follow.

Of course, your endings, too, have much to achieve — generate heat and excitement, preferably in a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, answer your story’s overall dramatic question, explain some of the riddles that have occurred along your story spine, show how the protagonist and other important characters have been changed by the journey, and provide the final twist to the theme, or moral premise. Yet, unlike the beginning of a story, the ending is driven by a sense of inevitability that may serve to guide the writer’s hand. Once the writer identifies the central premise, he or she should able to craft the conclusion as a surprising but inevitable result of that premise.

Unlike beginnings, which may commence at any point, endings are constrained by their point of origin and should therefore be easier, although not necessarily easy, to write. This analysis applies specifically to what we call closed endings, rather than open endings. Open endings are inconclusive or ambiguous by intent, as a way of suggesting the uncertainty and multiplicity of life, and are handled differently. (My novel, Scarab, for example, manages to present an open and closed ending simultaneously). In this post, then, we look at four of the most important characteristics of the closed ending – the second turning point, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution, or the return to the ordinary (but changed) world.

The Final Act

The third, or final section of your story, is intimately connected to the second turning point – the last big event that turns the plot around, leading to the obligatory scene. The second turning point causes a crisis which forces the protagonist to choose between what he wants (the outer goal), and what he truly needs (the two are often at odds). This decision leads to the climax – the do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. The protagonist then returns to the ordinary world, changed by the ordeal, to find that his world has changed too. Let’s see how this works in the example below:

Unforgiven

The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny (Clint Eastwood) learns that his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) has been murdered by Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) and his men. This leaves him no choice but to seek revenge over and above the job he was hired to do, which was to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. For a man who has fought hard to leave behind his days as a ruthless killer, this represents a crisis point. What he wants is revenge. What he needs is to leave his old violent life behind. His decision to avenge Ned’s death leads directly to his confrontation with Little Bill, which he wins hands down. His thirst for vengeance sated, Munny rides back to his ordinary world to raise his children in the manner his wife would have wanted. Although there are many embellishments and complications to each structural unit, the ending, as a whole, follows the classical pattern mentioned above – second turning point, crisis, climax, and resolution. Crafting your ending in this way ensures that your overall structure is sound, allowing you more freedom to add depth, colour, and resonance to your story.

Please feel free to add a comment, ask a question, or suggests further topics for forthcoming posts.

The Second Turning Point in Your Story

In Making A Good Script Great, story consultant, Linda Seger, reminds us that in any screenplay comprising of three acts, the first act deals with the set-up of the story, the second with its development, and the third with its climax and resolution. Each act, therefore, has a different focus — a different job to do. This “chunking” of material into sections, is of course, not limited just to screenplays. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle suggested that all stories comprise of three main sections – a beginning, middle, and end. This, in many ways, is the structural essence of any story. Much of the wisdom on structure by the so called manual writers such as Seger, can therefore be applied, with some modification, across a variety of writing platforms – the novel, the stage-play, and of course, the screenplay.

Turning Points as moments of Transition

The transition from one act to another is via an elevated action, or event, commonly referred to as a turning point, which usually involves the protagonist. Because the second act tends to be twice as long as the first or third acts, the former requires additional underpinning – the mid-point. In an earlier blog, I suggested that the first turning point represents the moment in which the story truly gets underway. The mid-point, by contrast, represents the protagonist’s “moment of grace”, a moment of insight in which he or she weighs up progress towards the goal against inner and outer resources. The second (and final) turning point occurs when the protagonist confronts another major obstacle, marshals all remaining assets, and pushes forward towards the goal in a do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. As with the inciting incident and the first turning point, the relationship between the first and second turning points is one of magnitude and direction (see earlier blogs). During the first turning point, the protagonist identifies the goal and embarks on the journey to achieve it. But the task is not easy. Obstacles and problems abound. Some are unsolvable. The second turning point, therefore, readjusts the initial direction, refocuses the goal, and, in the light of new information, strengthens the protagonist’s resolve.

In the film Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a ruthless killer in his youth, is a down-and-out pig farmer who can hardly shoot straight or stay on a saddle anymore. Because of his past reputation, he is approached by a young gun calling himself The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to assist in killing two men for cutting up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny, in turn, solicits the help of his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and together with The Schofield Kid, they set off to do the deed. Accepting the Kid’s offer is the first turning point. Ned’s decision to pull out of the deal is the mid-point because it offers Munny the opportunity to cancel the job at hand (which he refuses to do). The murder of Ned is the second turning point – Munny now has no choice but to take revenge on those who killed his friend. His goal, therefore, goes from killing the two men he was hired for, to killing everyone who participated in the death of Ned. Not even the saloon keeper, who allowed Ned’s body to be displayed outside his establishment, is spared. This precisely illustrates how the story goal can be refocused in the light of new information.

One Last Turn before the Climax

As with the first turning point, the second turning point achieves the following:

1. It spins the action in a new direction.
2. It revisits the central question of the story.
3. It elevates the stakes.
4. It sets up the next (and final) act.
5. It speeds up the action in the last act by tightening the protagonist’s goal around the looming confrontation with the antagonist.
6. It injects new information about the existing problem.
7. It leads directly to the story’s climax.

In Summary

The function of the second turning point is to inflect and refocus the story goal (initiated by the first turning point). Additionally it increases the stakes, pace, and tension, and leads directly to the final confrontation with the antagonist in the story’s climactic scene.