Endings – Part Two: the necessary elements of your third and final act

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After reading Part One of this article, you will be well versed in the advantages and disadvantages of Happy, Sad and Bittersweet endings. You may also have a loose idea of how you want your story to end. Yay! This is a good start. However, it is not enough just to know vaguely what will happen. With Act three comes the requirement of finishing the story, and with it many responsibilities:

  • The Climax (of which the entire story has been building up to).
  • The Resolution of the core conflict (resulting from the climax).
  • The tying up of lose ends (some of which relate to the core conflict directly, and some that stand alone – eg. linked to the characters life goals – to create a general sense of satisfaction/closure for the reader).
  • The ‘completion’ of the Character Arc.

This article will give you an overview of these elements and hopes to help you write an ending that is thorough and most importantly, complete. It is important to note that whilst I am talking about these elements in reference to the third and final act, ALL of them will already be playing a significant role in your writing from the start, having been established as early as the first act. 

The Climax

To define, the Climax is the part of the story where your protagonist “has been backed into the wall and has no choice but to fight back” K.M Weiland (2012). Basically, it’s do or die for your character. Although his life doesn’t need to be in danger, and it does not need to be a physical fight, it is important to note that the higher the stakes, the more your reader will care about the outcome.

For example, if the worst that can happen to your protagonist is that he will lose his mobile phone, then your story could end up being underwhelming and pointless. Taking the same example and upping the stakes – what would happen if your protagonist lost his mobile phone, and on that mobile phone was the only written documentation outlining the cure to cancer? What if his entire life’s work was stored on there? This would make for a much more interesting story.

If you are following the three act structure, the Climax should come in the third and final (or the very end of the second) act to allow the preceding acts to build plenty of tension and make the stakes clear to the reader (and characters). By the end of the Climax, the main conflict of your entire novel should be resolved (see the next section).

To use an example of a Climax, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – Harry, Ron and Hermione have been on the hunt for the Philosopher’s Stone from very early on in the story – this is the story, the main plot. They need to get it before Voldermort reaches it first (although at the time, they think they are battling against Snape). They and the readers/viewers are very aware of the consequences if it gets into the wrong hands, and this makes for a very nail-biting, entertaining story. Arguably, although they are facing many a challenge before Harry gets to the stone (Fluffy the three headed dog, the Devil’s Snare, the chess game, and finding the key) the Climax comes when Harry is face to face with Voldemort and is battling for the stone and his life. By the end of the confrontation, the conflict has been resolved – albeit it temporarily in the grand scheme of things – and Harry has the stone, preventing Voldermort from coming back to power.

The Climax is an essential part of a plot because without it, you would have no story. You would simply have a bunch of characters rambling about, lost in a world that is void of any goals or conflict. Boring. Your characters have been on a mission from the minute your story started to get somewhere/something, or indeed, to avoid a certain situation and now they face either losing it, or having to confront it. Much more interesting.

Read more about the Structure of a good climax here:

http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-of-story-structure-pt-10-climax/

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/4-ways-to-improve-plotclimax-in-your-writing

http://www.booksoarus.com/climax-of-a-story/

The resolution of the core conflict

Much like the Climax, The resolution of the core conflict is an essential element of any story, and must not be overlooked in planning and writing your ending. The Climax and the Resolution are linked because you cannot have one without the other. If by the end of your climax the conflict has not been resolved, your story has not ended. It is a continuing narrative that can get pretty boring and feel pointless and unsatisfactory. Using the example above again, the resolution to the core conflict of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is Harry reining triumphant. Yes, the triumph is temporary, but the characters do not know this. They have completed what they set out to do.

Remember, the resolution does not have to be a happy one (as discussed in part one of this article) but the main conflict must be resolved in some way. 

Tying up loose ends

Tying up loose ends is important before you end your story because your readers are very likely to have formed a bond/friendship with your characters and care about what happens to them. Just because the core conflict has been resolved, doesn’t mean they have automatically stopped caring. Give your readers the closure they need and respect they deserve by giving them just that little bit more.

Tying up loose ends is linked to the resolution of the core conflict to some degree, but some ‘loose ends’ can stand apart from the main plot. If you cast your mind back to the graphic I used to explain structure here – in particular, the section on ‘goals’ our characters can have goals and desires that are nothing to do with the core conflict. I refer to these as ‘life goals’.

The life goals of the characters can be totally separate to the story goal.  For example, the protagonists story goal is to save the life of his wife but his life goal is to become a professional trapeze artist.  He has ambitions and goals that make him a memorable and realistic character. He is living in a multi-dimensional world with hopes and dreams of his own before the first disaster strikes.’

For me, some of the loose ends I needed to tie up were:

  • The main characters’ careers
  • The wedding planning that was on hold amidst all the excitement caused by the core conflict
  • The lower level conflict between the protagonist and his family

When tying up the loose ends in your novel, think about all the things that have happened to your character and ask yourself whether any additional goals and situations need to be addressed in order for your reader to feel satisfied once they finish reading your book.

It is important to point out here that some story-tellers purposely choose to not to answer burning questions or tie up any loose ends. Spoiler alert – recently, I watched the film Ask Me Anything which was based on the novel Undiscovered Gyrl  by Allison Burnett, and  the film ended very abruptly, without answering ANY of the questions I as a viewer felt like I needed to know. It felt unfinished, and did not give me the closure I usually expect and want from a story. However, it has stuck in my mind perhaps more so than if all my questions had been answered. As a viewer it leaves you thinking about the characters and postulating your own theories about what happened to them. Perhaps this is exactly what Burnett was going for. So what I’m saying is that this post, like everything, is just a guide, rather than a set of strict rules which should be followed at all costs. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to writing – we all know that. Think about what it is you want to give to your readers (perhaps not always what they want) and write with this intention in mind. 

The completion of the Character Arc

When planning your ending, it is important to make sure that you do not lose sight of your protagonist’s Character Arc. If you cast your mind back to the three act structure graphic again, you will remember that an important part of your story is how your character changes over the course of the narrative as a result of what he has experienced – the Character Arc. This change in your character was (and is right up until the book ends) a vital part of your story to allow it to have taken place in first place, because if your character was happy where/how he was at the start, there would have been no journey for him to make, thus no story.

Remember, this change does not necessarily have to be a dramatic situational or physical change. It could instead be a change in perception, aka things might look the same on the surface, but how he feels about them may be the change that is important. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that he gets exactly what he wants – perhaps the way he handles not reaching said goal is the change in itself.

Your Character Arc should be present throughout the entire narrative, not just in the final act, but it is important to address the change in your character/s at the end of your novel to show that they have learnt something, and everything that has led them here has not been time wasted. To find out that your character has gone through hell and back for no reason will be pretty deflating. What is much more pleasant is the idea that your character has benefitted from everything that has happened. Your character had a flaw at the beginning that may have been preventing him from doing something, which when provoked, set him on the plot journey in the first place. Now, after everything that has happened, the Climax and the Resolution, he has come out the other side a changed person. Yay for him.

You will probably find that just through the writing of your first and second act that the change in your character has evolved organically, meaning when it comes to act three,  your character is well on his way to completing his arc. Well done! This is just a friendly reminder that when planning and writing your final act, to be aware of the change in your character and write accordingly – he is not the same character he was at the beginning, it is important to make this clear.   

conclusion

To conclude, although every plot, character and situation is different, the fundamental elements that are needed for a satisfactory ending remain unchanged. When it comes to planning, give each of these elements plenty of thought and be sure not to overlook any of them. Lastly, ensure that you are giving your reader everything that they need: an exciting climax (and thus a story), a clear resolution, and in a lot of cases, closure.

Check out Part One here.

Part Three – A more in-depth look at planning your ending – is coming soon.

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