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How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig, Writing Fiction Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

There are more than a few writers and teachers out there, many of them orders of magnitude more famous than I am (not hard to do), who don’t like to compartmentalize or even attempt to define the sequential parts and essential milestones of a story’s plot structure. Too formulaic, they say. Takes the fun and creativity out of it, they claim. A write-by-the-numbers strategy for hacks, a vocal few plead.

When they do talk about how to write a book and, more specifically, story structure, they tend to dress it up with descriptions that are less engineering-speak in nature—“the hero’s journey” … “the inciting incident” … “the turn”—and are more appropriate to a lit class at Oxford. Makes them sound—or more accurately, feel—more writerly. Or perhaps they just aren’t used to accessing their left brain for this very right-
brained thing we call storytelling.

What’s interesting is that the stories these writers create, especially if they’re published, and especially the stories they use as examples in their teaching, follow pretty much the same structural paradigm. And given that this isn’t an exact science, that puts them in this left-brained ballgame whether they want to wear the uniform or not.

None of how story structure is labeled out there in workshop land is inherently wrong, nor does it really matter. What you call it is far less important than how you implement it. And even before that, the extent to which you understand it.

Thank God for screenwriters. Because they call it like it is. In fact, most of them think Oxford is a loafer.

—Larry Brooks, author of Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling

The Four Parts of Effective Storytelling

I prefer to call story structure what it is: four parts, four unique contexts and discrete missions for the scenes in them, divided by two major plot points and a midpoint. Call them plot twists if you want to; the folks at Oxford won’t know. Throw in a compelling hero’s need and quest. Then formidable obstacles that block the hero’s path. A couple of pinch points. A hero who learns and grows, someone we can empathize with and root for. Scenes that comprise the connective tissue among them all.

Then execute all of it in context to a fresh and compelling conceptual idea, a clear thematic intention, an interesting worldview, and a clever take on the plot.

I dunno, it all sounds pretty creative to me.

In other words, a blueprint for storytelling. One that, when understood and marinated in artful nuance and dished with clean writing, becomes nothing less than the Holy Grail, the magic pill of writing a novel or a screenplay.

Not remotely easy. But perhaps for the first time, eminently clear. Then we come to Part 4: the finale of your story. And guess what? There is no blueprint for it. And no rules, either. Well, OK, there’s one.

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Guidelines for a Compelling Ending

The one rule of Part 4—the resolution of your story—is that no new expositional information may enter the story once it has been triggered. If something appears in the final act, it must have been foreshadowed, referenced or already in play. This includes characters.

Aside from that one tenet, punishable by rejection slip if you dismiss it, you’re on your own to craft the ending of your story. And in so doing, the enlightened writer observes the following guidelines and professional preferences.

GUIDELINE 1: The Hero is a Catalyst.
The hero of the story should emerge and engage as the primary catalyst in Part 4. He needs to step up and take the lead. He can’t merely sit around and observe or just narrate, he can’t settle for a supporting role, and most of all, he can’t be rescued.

I’ve seen all these things, many times, in unpublished manuscripts. I’ve rarely seen one in a published book or produced movie. It happens, but never in a title anybody remembers.

GUIDELINE 2: The Hero Grows Internally.
The hero should demonstrate that he has conquered the inner demons that have stood in his way in the past. The emerging victory may have begun in Part 3, but it’s put into use by the hero in Part 4. Usually Part 3 shows the inner demon trying for one last moment of supremacy over the psyche of the hero, but this becomes the point at which the hero understands what must be done differently moving forward, and then demonstrates that this has been learned during the Part 4 dénouement.

The hero applies that inner learning curve, which the reader has witnessed over the course of the story, toward an attack on the exterior conflict that has heretofore blocked the path.

Guideline 3: A New and Better Hero Emerges.
The hero should demonstrate courage, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, even brilliance in setting the cogs in motion that will resolve the story. This is where the protagonist earns the right to be called a hero.

The more the reader feels the ending through that heroism—which depends on the degree to which you’ve emotionally vested the reader prior to Part 4—the more effective the ending will be. This is the key to a successful story, the pot of gold at the end of your narrative rainbow. If you can make the reader cry, make her cheer and applaud, make her remember, make her feel, you’ve done your job as a storyteller.

If you can cause all of those emotions to surface, you just might have a book contract on your hands.

A Plan for Part 4’s Execution

Here’s the real magic of Part 4. If you’ve done your job well in the first three quarters of your story, if you’ve plotted with powerful milestones that are in context to a compelling and empathetic hero’s quest and evolving arc, chances are you’ll intuitively know how your story needs to end when you get there. Or, if not intuitively, then after some serious introspection and long walks in the woods with a digital recorder.

And by “get there,” I’m not suggesting you write the first three parts and then see where you are.

Fact is—and this is for anyone who thinks what is recommended above sounds like organic storytelling development—unless you develop your story over the first three quartiles using your story’s key principles, parts and milestones as benchmarks, you’ll be more lost in Part 4 than you may even have realized. Only by having an executed story plan as a baseline for the perhaps somewhat slightly more organic unfolding of Part 4 does this process stand a chance.

That said, it’s better to plan Part 4 ahead of time, too. Even if you get a better idea for how to end your story along the way, this provides the richest landscape for that to happen.

What I’m saying is that you should strategize and plot all your main story points beforehand—even if you aren’t yet sure of your ending—and in the process of developing the first three parts you’ll find that the final  act begins to crystallize as part of the process.

If you engage in story planning through a series of drafts, rather than an outline, you’ll need to write enough drafts to finally understand what Part 4 should be. Same process, different tolerances for pain.

But there’s risk in that. If you are a drafter instead of a blueprinter (notice I didn’t say outliner—that’s a different process yet, one of several viable ways to plan a story), the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages does that to a writer.

Why Structure Matters

Every once in a while you’ll read about a neophyte swimmer getting into trouble in deep water, and then, when a more experienced swimmer paddles out to help, he fights off the rescue with all his waning strength.

The thing about panic and resistance is that it can get you killed. What can kill you even quicker is not even knowing that you need rescuing.

The analogy hits home because every now and then, more often than you’d think, I encounter writers who just won’t accept the unimpeachable truth and validity of story structure. They fight it off as if their writing dream is being mugged. They reject it as formulaic and therefore unworthy. Maybe they once heard a famous author—one who doesn’t even realize the extent to which he is applying these principles in his work—talk about the spiritual, magical way he writes stories, sometimes actually bragging about all the rewriting he does to make it right.

Make no mistake, a rewrite is always a corrective measure. Nothing to brag about.

Virtually every published novel and produced screenplay is, in fact, a natural product of solid story architecture. Regardless of how it got there. To believe otherwise is like saying the aesthetic beauty of the halls of Versailles has nothing to do with poured concrete foundations and seamless masonry. With architecture. Or that, back in the day, there wasn’t an actual blueprint for it all. Or that the pouring of those foundations was a no-brainer to the extent it didn’t warrant intellectual energy of any kind.

These architectural atheists swear that writing a novel or a screenplay is, or should be, a process of random exploration, that their bliss resides in following characters down blind alleys and allowing them to set their own pace from there, with no real knowledge of where they’re going.

This is like saying the joy of playing golf is wandering around the course, crisscrossing fairways, club in hand, hitting balls at assorted greens as you please. I don’t dispute the inherent kick in such an approach. There’s an innate kick in a lot of things: drugs, alcohol, sex with ex-spouses, Russian roulette … but that doesn’t make them smart or productive.

Chances are, these folks are confusing process with product. If you’re only in it for the process, that’s one thing. Just don’t expect to get published within this century.

Writing without bringing a solid grasp of story structure to the keyboard is like doing surgery without having gone to medical school. You can write like Shakespeare in love and have the imagination of Tim Burton on crack, but if your stories aren’t built on solid and accepted structure—which means, you don’t get to invent your own structural paradigm—you’ll be wallpapering your padded cell with rejection slips.

I’m not saying you must outline your stories. That’s not what story structure means. What I am saying is that you do have to apply the principles of story structure to the narrative development process, outline or no outline. Organic or totally left-brained. At least, if you want to publish. That’s just a fact.

Story Physics Learn the three phases of story development, how to use a beat sheet
and more with Story Physics. (Plus: See these principles in action with
examples from The Hunger Games and The Help.)
Order today >>

************
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20 Responses to How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending

  1. Transaction7 says:

    Good piece. Unlike some commenters, I did get some ideas on how to structure an ending.

    Now what I’ve really been looking for is How To Write a Killer Opening! “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” not to mention “It was a dark and stormy night” which I happen to like, are taken. I have searched many novels I liked for clues to how to do this within the suggested formats and I’m as lost as when my eleventh grade teacher just assigned us to write an opening without any guidance and never did get into that beyond saying mine were weak. I’m about 100 pages into a novel and the beginning literally has us driving up a country highway wondering what is about to happen, which of course won’t hook a reader much less an editor or agent.

  2. atwhatcost says:

    I was disappointed in this article. It said it would teach me about how to write a killer ending. It sounded like the author was fighting the Artist vs. Crafter debate and favored crafting. I already know 20,000 different writerly words for the different aspects of a story. I was hoping to find out how to write a killer ending. If that advice was in this article, it was covered by a thick layer of fodder and I missed it other than what I already knew–the MC has to grow and accept the role.

    • mikepascale says:

      I have to agree. Very uncharacteristic for Brian, as he usually pens more on-point posts. Sounded more like he had an axe to grind here, or restate his agenda for whatever reason. Normally I really enjoy his columns.

      BTW, Brian, the whole “right brain/left brain creativity/logic” thing was disproven YEARS ago. It’s bunk. A quick Web search will yield the info if you need it. (Don’t know if we’re even allowed to post links here…there isn’t even an “edit” button–on a site for WRITERS and EDITORS! lol)

      But thanks again for everything else you’ve done for us in the past. Looking forward to more in the future.

      Best,
      Mike

  3. Buy Story Engineering and read before you read and buy Story Physics. I think both of these books are excellent and really resonated with me as a writer. If you want to know how to write your ending, Larry Brooks offered a Webinar on endings and I think you can purchase this as a Tutorial through WD although there will be no ending critique with the tutorial but maybe Larry can offer his Endings Webinar with critique again. I find that Larry’s books are as good as a writing workshop.

  4. Jessi Webb says:

    Best paragraph in writing advice history goes to:

    “Writing without bringing a solid grasp of story structure to the keyboard is like doing surgery without having gone to medical school. You can write like Shakespeare in love and have the imagination of Tim Burton on crack, but if your stories aren’t built on solid and accepted structure—which means, you don’t get to invent your own structural paradigm—you’ll be wallpapering your padded cell with rejection slips.”

    Great article, Brian – thanks!

  5. mwebster says:

    What’s the difference between a turning point and a plot twist in this context?

    • Trave Heath Lien says:

      A turning point is a significant change in the story’s direction. A plot twist is an unexpected change in the view of the plot that has ramifications for the rest of the story.

  6. Trave Heath Lien says:

    I’m new to the Writer’s Digest website and would like to know if you have any recommendations on whom I should ask about advice on my own outline. My book has been outlined and an ending fell into place nicely, but I have no family or friends that are as intensely interested in writing as a career as I am and am looking for someone to simply look at my work for any pitfalls or obvious mistakes I myself have missed. There seems to be a lot of opportunity to talk to agents about finished work, and while I have several chapters written, it’s no where near done. I just would like someone to take a look and give me an idea of how I’m doing in regards to writing style, plot, and development. I’d be very thankful for any ideas or advice.

    • Tony Lanza says:

      Hey Lien -

      Just curious but how long is this outline?

      The Yank

      • Trave Heath Lien says:

        Sorry it took so long to reply, I couldn’t find the article again. Hope you still see this. It’s about 7 pages long. Just short summaries of each chapter. Mostly the key points to the plot. I also have a map of the world I created and pages that track each of the characters backgrounds even if I won’t be using the details. I’ve got a page that describes each of the races I created and what they entail. I also have a larger outline for the series as a whole. It’s the first book I’m working on with the first four chapters mostly written though the entire series has been outlined.

        • atwhatcost says:

          It’s an outline. Outlines change as you’re writing. (Not always in big ways, but they do change.) It sounds like you’re doing all sorts of things to avoid the one thing that scares you–write the story.

          Write the story tells more about how the story goes than reading someone’s outline. I know no one willing to waste time reading an outline. I know many people willing to beta and/or critique a full manuscript. Write the first draft, go back to make it truly work, polish it (just so the critiquers aren’t constantly telling you to fix grammar issues, when you’d rather they tell you if the story works), find a writing group–near you or online–and then go for “does this story work?” Not at an outline. (You have a map of your world is what gave you away as someone not yet ready for another writer’s help. Writer’s aren’t usually cartographer. ;))

          Other thing, don’t assume writing is your career. I know many writers with multiple successful novels, but writing still isn’t their career. Writing is most like a passion, not a career.

  7. Which is more informative and helpful, Story Physics or Story Engineering? Thanks!

  8. atwhatcost says:

    That was a lot of reading without learning what I wanted to know in the first place–how to structure a killer ending. No doubt, I already understand it has to go with the first three parts (I learned the hard. Yes, NOW, I’m on the rewrite. lol) And I have to know where it ends. (I knew the protagonist and then the ending, even before I figured out the beginning or middle.) The thing that drives me nuts is how to jam falling action and ending in such a small amount of space, and then…make it a killer ending. How do we get our characters to settle in to new life–for better or worse–so swiftly after the climax without it looking like I am jamming so much info into a small space?

    • Trave Heath Lien says:

      First of all I’m simply a fellow writer working on a novel so please take what I say as advice rather than criticism. I don’t think any good ending should be filled with a lot of info. All info should really be given as your driving up to the climax with that final piece that really shocks the readers. The after climax should be something like a shellshock scene. Your gently setting the reader down and giving them a breath to think about what happened before sliding homerun into the ending. There are some good books that neatly tie everything together, but most fantastic books I’ve ever read leave a little bit of question at the end. I don’t think that there’s really a set of rules for writing a fantastic ending though… this is more of a guideline for how to set up an ending. He’s saying that creating an outline will give you a better idea.

      Outlines are actually really difficult to create, but the best way I’ve found to make one is to separate each chapter and scene into goals. What is the purpose of this piece? Does it explain a character flaw that will be important later? Questions like that. If the answer is there is no purpose or there is no reason then it needs to be taken out. By creating an outline like this it helps you focus on what’s important to the story and why, which in the end helps you to decide the best way to slide into your ending. I think the idea of an outline, given by Klems, is a means of producing the best ending to ‘your’ individual story that he can get.

      I hope this helped you to get a better idea of both the article and how to write an ending better.

    • theconq says:

      What works for me is just ending the story at the most logical point after the climax. For example, in my fantasy novel, the story ends a few days after the final battle, when the protagonist wakes up, healed from her wounds. She goes downstairs to a celebration, and that’s the end. It’s all very Star Wars.

    • Tony Lanza says:

      atwhatcost -

      I may be jumping to the wrong conclusion but your concerns re: 1)” how to jam falling action and ending in such a small amount of space” and 2) “How do we get our characters to settle in to NEW life… AFTER the climax…” make me suspect you’re mistaking the ‘denoument’ for the ‘ending.’

      I use the term denoument in the literary sense, i.e.; the story’s resolution. Put another way, it’s a glimpse of the future, an aftermath of the story proper.

      My advance apologies if I’m wrong. Best of luck on your book.

      The Yank

      PS to WD: Your auto-editor redlined denoument. Perhaps because of the missing accentique, but I could find no way to affix same. At any rate, accent or no, I trust you will correct this oversight?

      • RavenCorbie says:

        Tony,

        While I’m not WD, I am a French teacher, and the red line is not an oversight. The word you are using is actually spelled denouement, not denoument. That’s why “denoument” is underlined, while “denouement” is not. (Incidentally, the literal meaning is de-knot-ment, or the undoing of a knot. The word “knot” is “noue”).

    • marquest says:

      atwhatcost,
      Ha, ha. You made me laugh. Al that reading for nothing–well, that’s the way I interpreted it. I felt the same way.

      I don’t believe there is a specific structure for a “killer ending”.To me it all depends on the book and how the plot and characters have been set up. When I read a book, some of the most important things I want to see at the end are: tension, shock, relief. And above all, I want all my questions answered. Logical resolution is a must for me, too–I don’t want to find that the butler did it, when the butler wasn’t even around. Do I mind a twist at the end? Only when the twist violates my “logical resolution” rule. Does exposition bother me? Not always. In some of the Harry Potter books, the plot resolution has to be explained for it to make sense. In the first book, for instance, Dumbledore has to explain that “love killed the bad guy”. This kind of ending is one of the lamest of them all, but in HP, it worked. Why? Because J.K. Rowling worked so hard at building up Harry as a special boy. It was only fitting that the love his mother had for him, could be used as a weapon. Now try that with Rambo!
      Colonel Trautman: How did you kill all those guys? You had no weapons!
      Rambo: My Momma.
      Colonel Trautman: What! Is your Momma here?
      Rambo: No.
      Colonel Trautman: Then, how?
      Rambo: With love.

      I dont think so!

      Anyway, when you use the word “jamming” to refer to your ending, it makes me think that you’re going for too much. I don’t know it this is the case, it just sounds that way. You can always finish with the good guys having triumphed in some way (or not) and then add a prologue to show that your characters have settled into new lives or whatever. The way I usually go about things like this is that I always think in scenes. Scenes, to me, are like short stories: they have a beginning, middle and ending. Each scene has a purpose and I always focus on that purpose, once the purpose has been fulfilled, I go to my next scene. For instance, if the scene is about X character getting killed in a battle, from the get go, every part of that scene is going to be about maximising the effect of that character’s death (depending on what effect I want). That doesn’t mean I’m not going to work on other aspects of the scene. What it means is that i’m not going to work at developing a lot of unnecessary scene bits.

      • marquest says:

        Correction: I meant to say epilogue, not prologue.

        • mikepascale says:

          Yes, marquest–Don’t you find it odd that there is no way for us to edit our posts, on a site for writers and editors? LOL

          Amazon, Facebook and LinkedIn let users edit posts. So does WordPress itself. Twitter lets us delete and start over. Why can’t they offer it here? Simple few lines of code.

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