Saturday, July 9, 2011

When to End a Story: No This Is Not Another Star Wars Rant……Yet

I am in no way qualified to offer writing advice to anyone, other than this very sporadic blog….and I’m working on that. Despite my lack of qualifications that is indeed what I am doing. When to end the story is as important as where and how to start it. (Perhaps a future post on those topics) A story needs a great end as much as a beginning. The end must satisfy the author and the audience. It should meet the promise put forth by the writer and live up to the reader’s expectation.

Well duh! Right? Yes, yet many fail in this regard or fail to deliver or even in certain cases deliver too much. This goes for novels, short stories, screen plays/movies, and a little known and important story telling device role playing games.

Look at some great examples of story endings: All three of the original Star Wars films New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Each ended on a note that wrapped up the current film and with the first two set up the events for the sequel.

New Hope ended with the destruction of the Death Star (the climax) and Darth Vader’s Tie-Fighter spinning off into the depths of space, the later letting the viewer know that this is only the first part of the tale. Then the award ceremony to have an epilogue that ends on a high note. Empire ends much more darkly, the rebellion set on its heels, Han Solo lost to the companions, and the huge reveal that Vader is Luke’s father. People could not wait for the last installment with Return of the Jedi, the tale was wrapped up, the villains defeated, and in the original theatrical version: The Yub Yub song. (Star Wars fans know what I am talking about.) What the three films accomplished so well that Lucas was hailed as genius was follow the heroic journey and express it so well to a wide eyed generation. Each ended with a strong climax and did not belabor the epilogue. We didn’t need to see Vader return to the Emperor after his defeat in New Hope. We did not need to see the adventures between Empire and Return that led to Han Solo’s rescue. Writers have filled in these blanks to adnauseam in comics, fan films, and novels. They allowed the viewer to leave the theater feeling satisfied, their own imaginations filling in those blanks, and each sequel paid off on the promise of the previous film. These movies fulfilled their obligation to viewer without, in my opinion, short changing them.

Robert E. Howard’s The Frost Giant’s Daughter depicted a young Conan of Cimmeria far from his race fighting among the Vanir and Aesir far to the north. After the battle he pursues a pale beauty across the ice fields, half-dream, half-mirage, yet wholly real to his dazzled senses. He battles her brothers, giants, and sons of Ymir, the northern god. Upon the defeat of the brutes he is rendered unconscious by what the reader perceives is the power of the god summoning his daughter away from the mortal realm and the grasping Cimmerian youth. He is found by his Aesir allies, and he learns that he did indeed chase the daughter of Ymir. The men brush the tale aside as a product of a ringing skull from a sword dent to the blinding and white and cold of the north. That is until the Cimmerian un-clutches his left hand revealing a gossamer cloth that had been the only garment of Atalia, the giant’s daughter.

This tale ends perfectly! The writer gives a brief epilogue to sum up the hero’s experience and then leaves the reader pondering with the bit of cloth in a warrior’s grip. Was it snow madness? Then where did the cloth come from? Again the reader is allowed to decide and let their own imagination take over.

Lovercraft’s stories all ended with that shock, that what if that made readers look askance at dark alleys and walk a little more quickly past a deserted house.

Pickman’s Model is a prime example. The tale is written in a first person style where the narrator is answering an unheard query from a companion, launching into a tale of macabre art. Pickman would paint demonic scenes with realistic backdrops or human models. The tale is the set up for the punch line. The narrator explains how Pickman is of old Salem stock, claiming an ancestor burned as a witch. Pickman’s ostracization from the art community at large for his disturbing imagery. The story weaves around the themes of the art, the models used, the backdrop settings. The reader has a dawning horror of what is to come so when the reveal is made, one is horrified because their fears are realized with the ending. The subjects of the work, the horrific models, were not fever dream imaginings of Pickman, but rather as the narrator states: “It was a photograph from life!”

Now let us take the tales that failed and why: for films one of the greatest examples is the first Back to the Future film. With the “To Be Continued…..” tag at the end had viewers chomping at the bit for the sequel. As my friend commented when we saw this film in theaters: “They better make another one!” So in an attempt to satisfy the viewers and make more money, the downfall of all sequels, the second film came out and disappointed. Fortunately the franchise was saved by a great ending to the trilogy. This is an example of where to stop the story. What if they had not followed though with a sequel? Would viewers rather been satisfied with a great ride the first time round and not sitting through the disappointing, almost repetitive, second film?

Novels that fall into the trap of epilogues that offer too much information are Dennis L. McKiernan’s Tolkeinesque series of fantasy adventures, that I started reading with the Iron Tower trilogy. This series, while great story telling in the Tolkien high fantasy style, end poorly, at least to me. The epilogues tend to tell of the fates of each hero after the tale ended. Some ended as ignobly as many real life heroes. Which does lend the stories that air of reality, but destroys the reader’s imaginative speculation of the story that continues after the book ends.

Without pointing to specific series’, how many writers that are constant bestsellers, are writing sequels for their popular worlds/characters that need to retire them? How many really have nothing new to say, the adventures stale, or driven by corporate merchandising?

Here is where the story telling device of Role Playing comes into the conversation. I myself have fallen into this trap. In order to continue a game that has obviously wrapped up, because, frankly, the game was one of the best ever! (Which many role play groups have at least one of) I created a weak sequel that lost steam quickly and was flat when compared to the magic of the first series of adventures. The same goes for the idea of dusting off the old character sheet and “getting the band back together”, in this case the adventuring band back together. I have found that when those great moments of collective story telling take place, be content with them and relive them as remember when…… lightning hardly ever strikes twice.

Now how do these mini-reviews relate to knowing when to end the story? They offer the formula for do’s and don’ts. The best thing is to end the story where it ends. Simple enough, yes? No. Because of the pursuit of more money, or a greater word count, this one simple rule is ignored. The Matrix and the aforementioned Back to the Future fall into this trap, even Conan the Destroyer, so pale when compared to the operatic Barbarian film, pursued the franchise cash cow, rather than ending the story well. (Setting aside all Howardian complaints of both films.)

End the story where it ends. Do not attempt a sequel or several more chapters unless they offer something as strong as, or in the case of The Empire Strikes Back, something stronger than what preceded it.

To end a tale generally has to be a gut reaction. As a writer one must be objective enough to sit back and say, “Am I done?” If the tale is finished, is it a satisfying ending? This too can be a gut reaction, but first readers, honest first readers, help here. This is where the thick skin comes in. A first reader has to be able to tell the writer who is in love with the story: “You should have ended it three paragraphs back.” Or harshly: “This sucks!” Of course this needs to be followed by the why.

Now, those that are fortunate enough to have the combination of luck, skill, timing, and perseverance to become published writers of novels have the dreaded problem of “trilogy” or “series” when they are really lucky. This leads to the weak sequel, it happens with movies, music, and of course novels. The artist is giddy from the initial acceptance, the idea of a paycheck, and adoring fans. Those fans might not be so adoring if you let them down in the second act. Be prepared with a strong second act, or don’t offer one. Think of all the sophomore efforts that are spoken of in various art industries. Critics salivate for sequels.

Now that I have long since rambled beyond the point of where I should have ended this essay, let me conclude by saying look closely at your themes, what do you want to say? What will punctuate your message or simply grab the audience’s emotions, leaving them pondering or wishing for more? That is where to end the story.


  1. All good points. I agree there are way too many bad sequels out there, and I would like to see more writers, directors and musicians just say no when faced with the choice of double-dipping on a great idea or just to leave well enough alone.

  2. Thanks for reading Shane! Always appreciate your comments, Brother!