This post was originally published on the The Three Kookaburras blog and is reproduced with permission.
It can be difficult to know when to end a story. You may begin with a clear idea of where you’re heading. This is true for left-brained plotters, the kind of authors who can write the last sentence first. Other times the narrative grows organically, without much of a plan. American fantasy and horror author Ray Bradbury takes this approach. He advised: ‘ … find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.’ This doesn’t mean that the story can amble on forever, though.
I’m exploring this topic because, with my latest manuscript, I didn’t want to let the characters go. I carried on past the story’s natural end point, using the excuse that I was writing a satisfying dénouement — the final part where the plot strands are drawn together, explained or resolved. However, it began to feel wrong. I examined the plot and quickly discovered my mistake. This is where an understanding of story structure helped me know where to finish.
I’m half-way between a plotter and a pantser. I launch in, allowing the narrative to surprise me along the way. This is a lot more fun than drawing up detailed outlines. However, I do adhere to a rough, three act structure and always know my hero’s goal before I start writing. This made finding the true end easy. I just asked myself the simple question — when does the conflict end? Because when it ends, so should the book.
In The Wizard Of Oz for example, the central question is: Will Dorothy get home to Kansas? Readers want to know the answer. When they find out, there’s no longer any reason to be engaged by the plot, so the story ends. In Romeo And Juliet, the central question is: Will the young lovers have a life together? The play ends when we get our answer. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the question is: Will the man and his son survive the apocalypse? In The Shawshank Redemption, the question is: Will Andy escape prison? Asking this central question always tells you when to finish a story. The arc is complete and your hero’s journey is over. The gladiator has encountered victory or defeat, the hero and heroine have found love, the policeman has captured his killer, or the wildlife warrior has saved the coral reef.
Of course the vitally important dénouement, or resolution, still needs to be written. A moment of explanation and reflection so the reader can appreciate all that has happened. But it should be short and sweet. The final meandering pages of my manuscript did not fit this description! I was ruining a great story, dragging it out until all the drama and emotion of the climax was squandered. My resolution swiftly went from six pages to one page, and the last line of the novel finally carried as much punch as the first.