I’ve been thinking a lot lately about story endings, and in searching for today’s blog post I decided to revisit an essay on the subject that was published in Write With Fire, my collection of articles on writing. This is a substantially tweaked version of that piece.
First, let me describe the endings to a couple of books I’ve read in the past few years:
Book 1: The hero is cornered at the end by the villain in a dank storm drain. The villain has a gun, and the drop. She’s a bit over the top as a character, but we know she’s vicious and ready to kill. The hero is a bit more bumbling but has shown amazing resourcefulness throughout. As the two face off, a wild animal attacks the villain from behind and kills her. The hero is saved.
Book 2: The hero and his friends are pursued by a savage and powerful witch. To show how evil she is, she’s even killed and "eaten" a child. She’s capable of transforming into an eagle or a dragon, and can take on many different human forms. She can possess human souls and force them to do her bidding. And then she faces the hero. He steps toward her, and with a single blow of his sword cuts off her head. The end.
If you’re like me, neither of these endings seems very satisfying. But why? I think it’s because the authors forgot two simple rules for endings. The writer of book 1 forgot that heroes must resolve conflicts themselves and cannot be “rescued” by fate. The author of book 2 forgot that defeating the villain must be difficult for the hero. Readers expect heroes to win, but they expect them to have to work for their victories.
The characters of any story have to earn their endings. With one exception, they cannot be given anything. The exception? Whatever they are given has to be either taken away again, or turn out to be a curse. The more easily a character wins, the less the reader cares.