Think about the last book you read. How did the book make you feel when you were reading it, and how does it make you feel now, that you are done with it? Now think about the last movie you watched, or television series you finished – how did the ending change your opinion of the material?
Perhaps the ending cemented it as one of the best books you’ve read, leading you to reach out and tell your closest friends about it. Or, maybe the ending of that television series has ruined your enjoyment of the television series that you followed so closely for eight seasons, only to be let down in the end? Maybe the ending of the movie was “just okay” or “predictable” and while you enjoyed it, you might ultimately forget you watched it at all.
The end of the story is undeniably the most important part of the story, and that means that we as storytellers need to respect that fact with utmost certainty as we write our stories.
Beginning at the End
So you’ve got a story roughly worked out in your head – you know the setting, the main characters and their motivations – you’ve worked out many of the aspects of the plot, but you’re just not quite sure about your ending. It’s “okay” right now, but maybe when you’re writing you will come up with ways to make it better. Sure, you could get lucky, buy why leave it up to chance?
Even if you’re a naturally talented writer and the words that come out of your fingertips are things of pure eloquence, you should never, ever leave your characters stranded at the end of the story, unsure how to cleanly wrap everything up. So why risk it?
Before you ever pen your first word of your first draft, think long and hard about how everything is going to end. Take long showers and long walks and devote all of that time to coming up with that perfect ending. Is it a happy ending? A bitter-sweet ending? Or are you brave enough to tackle the extremely rare “bad” ending (for your characters)? No matter which one you choose, you need to commit to it wholeheartedly so that when you write your story you can start leading or misleading your audience in that direction from the very beginning.
The Crisis – Characters Driving the Climax
So here it is: the check you need to make when you’re considering your ending. How do your characters affect the ending? Why are they there? How has everything they’ve done until this point relate to what they’re doing in the final act of the story? What about the minor characters and subplots? How do the subplots affect the main plot? If you don’t have an ending that directly comes as a result of a choice or a series of choices that the main character has made, then you need to stop what you’re doing and make that happen.
The crisis of the story is the first part of a two-part equation for a great ending. It’s the point of the story where we learn why this character has to make a decision, and what he or she chooses will ultimately lead to the second part: the climax.
So what comprises a master-level crisis? Simply put, a crisis is when the main character is forced to choose between two irreconcilable “good” things, or has to pick the lesser of two “evil” things. If the main character doesn’t have to make a choice at all, then you’ve made a choice for them that the ending of their story will not be as satisfying as what it could be.
The result of the crisis is climax, but the other product is the change in the character that should be the entire point of a good story. See my write-up about re-writing here if you want more information on why any good story is a story about change.
Two Irreconcilable Goods
In the classic film Casablanca (1942) the main character is presented with a choice between two irreconcilable good things once his love interest, his old flame Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) drops her gun while attempting to steal letters of transit from our the main character Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)’s night club.
Ilsa, quite overtly states the crisis to Rick: “You’ll have to think for both of us,” she says. What this means is that Rick can choose for her to stay with him and forget the letters of transit for her husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), or he can choose an even greater good, giving her the letters to take back to her husband – but he will lose her in the process.
Because he chooses the second option, it shows how much he has grown as a character – his narcissism in the movie is abandoned for a greater good, leading this film to being one of the all-time highest praised classics.
If you decide to make your character choose between two goods, consider making them choose between a “good” choice that the “old” character, the character at the beginning of the story would want, or a choice that curbs the wants of the character for a higher cause. If you do this, the character’s transformation will be complete and you will have a higher chance of satisfying your audience.
The Lesser of Two Evils
What better of a movie to highlight the idea of “lesser of two evils” than The Dark Knight (2008), a film that has the concept of “lesser of two evils” strewn all throughout?
The first time we see a choice between two evils presented in the movie was by the Joker, and it was posed to the crime bosses. Since the Batman doesn’t have to follow the rule of law, he would most likely be able to apprehend their accountant Lau, who had fled to Hong Kong with their money. The Joker offers them two choices: let me kill the Batman, but give me half of your money, or risk letting the Batman catch Lau, losing all of the money in the process. They choose to not trust the Joker, ultimately leading to the Joker taking over their entire crime syndicate.
The next time in the film that the Joker forces the choice between two evils, it’s targeted against the Batman. Reveal your identity publicly, or I will start killing people. Since we have already established Batman’s identity as a hero willing to go the extra mile for good, he decides he will sacrifice his mask for the benefit of saving lives, the lesser of two evils, but the expected one for his character at this point in the story. He is only stopped from executing that choice because the District Attorney Harvey Dent has claimed that he, in fact, is the Batman.
Batman’s true nature is revealed by the choice that the Joker forces him to make next time. Unbeknownst to him, the Joker, who is now in custody, has kidnapped both Harvey Dent and Batman’s love interest Rachel Dawes, and placed them both in buildings that are rigged to explode. The Joker gives Batman a choice between two evils: let Harvey Dent, the symbol of good in the city die, or let his personal wants win – save Rachel. Batman chooses to save Rachel, but with a joke characteristic of the chaotic figure of The Joker, he finds out that Harvey Dent was where Rachel was supposed to be. Even though Commissioner Gordon raced to the other site, the end result is that Rachel dies in the explosion and Harvey Dent only narrowly survives the explosion in his building, becoming horribly disfigured in the process.
The Joker continues his theme of forcing a choice between two evils: once by asking the general public to either kill an accountant at Wayne Enterprises who wants to reveal Batman’s identity. or he will blow up a hospital, and another time by planting bombs on two escaping ferries (one with civilians and one with prisoners) and forcing them to choose between blowing the other boat up, or all of them being blown up at midnight.
Every one of the choices the Joker forces on the characters of the movie leads up to the crisis of the film. At this point, the Joker has been apprehended by Batman, but has caused Harvey Dent to go on a killing spree. He gloats that the people of Gotham will lose hope once they know what their symbol of good has become. This leads Batman to his final choice, the crisis of the film.
At this point Harvey Dent represents the antithesis of Batman – he now refuses to have to choose between two evils – whenever the option comes, he will simply flip a coin to decide. The lives of Gordon’s wife and son hang in the balance of the fallen hero, leading Batman to have to choose to kill him, something that he swore he wouldn’t do under any circumstance. Batman then makes the choice of telling Gordon to tell everyone that Dent died a hero, and that the Batman is not a hero after all (and he’s not Dent).
It’s a bitter-sweet ending, but the ultimate choice of Batman having to forego his number one rule of “no killing” in order to protect not only Gordon’s family, but the reputation of Harvey Dent and the spirits of the people of Gotham, proves to be one of the greatest examples of “lesser of two evils” crises in a story.
Think very carefully when you are writing your ending. A satisfying ending of a story will tie together the main plot with the subplots, resolve everything in one way or another, and then ultimately give the main character some sort of choice that will leave them forever changed. If you can figure out how you want to end the story first, then guiding your characters through the story to reach this conclusion should be a straight-forward task as a writer. Plus, it allows us to plant seeds earlier on in the story that will come to fruition when the time is right.
Ultimately, we get to decide how to end our stories, and that doesn’t always mean following any kind of formula. If you are able to satisfactorily tell a story outside of this framework, then you are talented indeed. However, you may run into issues when it comes to audience acceptance. If you haven’t been able to figure out why this is, then consider starting from the ending. It’s worth knowing where you’re going as you write. After all, it’s much easier to navigate when you’ve identified a destination.