Powerful endings don’t just happen. They are the result of careful and inspired preparation implemented from the first page of your manuscript. The best endings are as surprising as they are inevitable — in hindsight. This post offers five techniques, chosen from an assortment of others, for making your story endings more memorable.
1. Enhance the Reputations of the Protagonist and Antagonist
Stories are about the antagonist and protagonist involved in a life and death struggle to achieve/prevent the story goal. Enhancing the reputation of these two essential characters ups the ante and leads to a more engaging and tense ending. In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), the protagonist, is described by the opening titles as “a known thief, murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition” and later is described by The Kid as “You 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 Little Bill (Gene Hackman), is described by a deputy as being fearless, having grown up in tough circumstances and survived. He is also seen beating English Bob, a hardened murderer, within an inch of his life. His toughness and cruelty enhances his reputation as a feared antagonist.
2. Cast Doubt about 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 take us away from our expectations – from what is needed for the protagonist to achieve the goal – causes us to wonder and 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 will fulfill his contract and succeed in standing up to Little Bill.
4. Further Increase Suspense Around the Final Confrontation
When Munny is told that Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) 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 well result in his own death since he tells The Kid “Here, take this money and give my half and Ned’s half to my kids.” Munny’s own belief in the outcome of the confrontation increases the suspense and makes us fear about his survival even more.
5. The Final Confrontation Occurs in The Antagonists’s Stronghold
Facing the antagonist in his own lair, strengthens the antagonists’ and weakens the protagonists’ position. Munny faces Little Bill in the Saloon, surrounded by Little Bill’s deputies, henchmen, and supporters. This weighs heavily against Munny and makes it unlikely that he will survive the confrontation.
Planing a powerful ending involves seeding a number of elements at various points along the story that increase the tension and make the likelihood of the protagonist prevailing over the antagonist unlikely. Enhancing the reputation, casting doubt about the final confrontation, constantly shifting direction in expectation, further increasing suspense around the final confrontation, and having the climactic scene occur in the antagonists’s lair, are some of the most important techniques in achieving this.
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