After all the ups and down and sufferings of our journey up Plot-line Mountain, we are now ready for the denouement. The big finale. But before we do that, we can take one more step. We ease off a bit. We want things to finally appear to be going Protag’s way. This is a set up. It might even seem formalistic. But it makes the finale that much more satisfying for the reader, which is what we’re all about. This is of the same variety as a movie where the villain is shot and presumed dead, and when the hero is making out with the girl, the bad guy looms up in the background. I think this fits all genres, especially mysteries, fantasies, and thrillers, but it does require finesse. It works as long as we avoid clichés and anything that looks like it was just stuck on at the end. Remember we said that if a device becomes obvious it loses it’s effectiveness.
Okay, Protag has broken out of the trees and brush and brambles. Only a fifty-foot grassy slope awaits him till the summit, where there’s a helicopter ready to whisk him to safety, wine, women, and song. The sun is shining. The air is clear. The birds are singing. Everyone can relax. Protag has it made.
Ten feet further on a ten thousand pound grizzly jumps out. Carrying a rifle. The one that’s been shooting at him. A great altercation takes place whereby there is weeping and gnashing of teeth–talk about Cliché City–as well as kicking and clawing and punching and pinching, until finally, ta da, our stout-hearted Protag miraculously, but logically, folks, always logically, overcomes the bear. Or, alternatively, Protag could lose the fight and gain great insight on what a bear’s stomach looks like. We’re not like those phony Hollywood guys; we can take the tough endings.
See? By easing off a bit, it makes the final confrontation more vivid. If a thunderstorm slips in on a cloudy day, who notices? But have the sun suddenly blackened by an anvil cloud and you’ve made an impression. Remember when we talked of Dean Koontz’s monster in Tick Tock? Well, near the book’s end, the hero reaches a safe house. And it’s almost morning when the monster will die. The hero is home-free. But guess who comes knocking at the door?
So that’s it. Once the climax is over, get out. “Protag rides off into the sunset.” Over, done with. Don’t drag it out. “Protag stopped at Aunt Martha’s for a piece of blueberry pie, washed his horse, polished his boots, and rode off into the sunset, meeting a blond with a figure like a brick excrement house, whereupon he altered his destination for Cliché City.” Once the main questions of the story are worked out, we don’t hang around to bore our reader. Remember the last movie episode of Lord of the Rings? There had to be five or six places where I thought the story was ending, but it kept going on forever. Boooooring. Better to leave our readers wanting a little more rather than feel overstuffed.
I think we need one last caution. Big caution.
The ending has to be satisfying. Happy or sad, the ending should leave the reader satisfied he made the journey with you. Fail to do that and the next time out, you might journey alone. For instance, I read a book once where a Bad Guy destroyed everything Protag had at the beginning, made Protag do his bidding throughout the book, and near the end the Protag got the bad guy’s money–hoo rah–but at the very end, the bad guy got the money back and Protag got zilch. Now I know what the writer was doing, building things up for the next story in his trilogy. Weeell, I think you can do this between chapters, but not between books. I didn’t read the next installment of this writer’s trilogy. Since he left me swinging in the wind once, why would I journey with him again? Please, save yourself from this mistake. Each book has to be complete in itself.
Does this mean everything needs to be tied up at the end? No. Real life isn’t like that. If two lovers finally get together and express their love at the end of a story, do we need to show them getting married and having kids as well? No. That’s something for the reader’s imagination. But we better make damn sure we tie up all the main questions of the novel. As a teacher of mine–David Hoof–liked to point out, we make a contract with our readers with the first sentence of our book. Better make sure we keep it at the end.
I think that’s everything I know about plotting. We’ll have things to say about handling different kinds of stories as we continue on the journey, but for now we need to move onto the second leg of the writing tripod: plot; characterization; effective writing. See you in BookMarc #13, when we take up Characterization, part 1 of 6 parts
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated September 13, 2014