Monday, September 05, 2005

Finding the North Star.

Finding an ending for your story can sometimes feel like searching the sky for the North Star on a cloudy night.

You have a sense of where the star might be... but it's hard to pin-point exactly.

So, how do you go about finding the "right" ending?

Well, some writers say they need to know the ending of their stories before they even begin to put words on paper; others write their stories in order to discover how they end.

Either way, an ending needs to work like a combination lock.

As you write the final scene, the tumbler has to fall into place, opening a new door on the story and allowing you (and, eventually, your readers) to look back at the story--all the way to the beginning--in an illuminating light.

Whether you write knowing your ending or write to discover it, the ending needs to emerge out of your main character's basic desires.

From the very beginning of your story, a character's deepest yearning will point toward the ending, even if the character is unaware of the goal toward which he or she is striving.

Like beginnings, endings are part of the promise that a writer makes to a reader. If that promise is unfulfilled, readers will walk away from the story disappointed and, ultimately, frustrated by the "broken" promise.

What is that promise?

At its heart, the ending promises this: a resolution that brings the reader a sense of satisfaction. The character or characters get what they deserve (either for good or ill); their desires are fulfilled (or unfulfilled) in ways that a reader finds satisfying.

According to Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, "Whether or not the lives of the characters end, the story does, and we are left with a satisfying sense of completion."

And how does a story arrive at a satisfying sense of completion?

Burroway shares novelist Michael Shaara's definition of story as a power struggle between equal forces, and, about endings, suggests this: "Finally an action will occur that will shift the power irretrievably in one direction."

"The crisis action is the last battle and makes the outcome inevitable," Burroway writes. "There can no longer be any doubt who wins the particular territory--though there can be much doubt about moral victory. When this has happened the conflict ends with a significant and permanent change--which is the definition, in fiction, of a resolution."

Whether an ending shifts power in one direction or another, or serves as the inevitable outcome of a battle over territory (emotional or physical), one thing is certain: endings ultimately need to reflect in a deep way the change a character has undergone since the beginning of the story.

The arc of that change--and the character's gradual growth along that arc--should be able to be traced throughout the story, from beginning to end, with the end reinforcing all that has come before it to shed new light on the arc and on the character's journey.

Perhaps a "true" ending is like the appearance of the North Star once the clouds have cleared.

It sheds a clear light on the direction the characters have been traveling, and, at last, reveals their path in a way that illuminates not only their journey but ours, as well.

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