Endings are one of the easiest and hardest parts of a story to write. They wrap all the threads of the story together and present them to the reader, all tied up and pretty. Or they should anyway. Sometimes, a story ends up being forced and ‘The End’ feels false.
Many of us start out with an idea for a character or setting. We have great opening hook and good insight into the world we are working in. We might even have an idea for where we want the story to end. This is important.
Knowing where the story is going to end up gives us a roadmap on how to get there. However, here’s the tricky part. Often as we write, we uncover new things about the characters. About their history and their desires. We learn that the story is not what we originally thought it was so we update our outline to reflect those revelations. BUT, we keep our original ending.
Admit it. You’ve done it, too. You love the idea of that particular ending so much that you refuse to change it. So you force it. You write it and scream at your characters that they WILL do what you tell them to do and the story WILL end this way. You struggle to write the scenes and chapters and never seem to reach ‘The End’ because it all feels off.
It feels forced. Both to you as the writer and to anyone who reads it.
This is a normal part of the writing process. Experienced writers are as likely to fall into this trap as newbie writers. However, in time you learn to recognize the signs that you are forcing the ending.
The story loses its flow when it is being forced. It starts to trudge along instead of rushing headlong toward the climax. You are hitting all the right beats, but the rhythm is off. A story that is following its natural path will find all of the right story beats without you forcing them. Why? Because the story fits the characters.
By this, I mean that the story beats are a natural extension of the characters actions and reactions. The character makes a choice. The choice has a consequence (good or bad), and the character then has to react to the consequence which forces them into another choice. However, here’s the thing, those choices need to come from the character. They need to stem from
the character’s design to be believable. A character that has a history of being selfish isn’t going to suddenly commit a selfless act. For that selfless act to be believable, we need to see the selfish character go through a transformation so that when they reach the final choice to do something selfless, they will believably choose the selfless path.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Story is the change in a character or characters over the course of time. It comes from a series of events that create choices that a character or group of characters must navigate. Story is not plot. Plot is the events that happen. Story is the meaning behind those events. Story is the reason we tell the tale.
How does this help you reach those coveted words ‘The End’? If you know why you are telling the story, then you are more likely to let the characters and story follow its natural course. You will begin to recognize the moments where you are forcing the story.
It all comes back to character design. Take that selfish character. Perhaps he lives a pampered life. Perhaps he has never wanted for anything. What would it take to make him selfless? He would need to see that everyone has value and that he is no more important in the grand scheme than the begger he passed in the street. What events would it take to change his perspective? What internal changes would he need to make? What choices?
The answer to those questions begins to shape the direction the story will take. They determine what events (plot points) need to happen for the selfish character to be presented with the choices that will lead to his change. At each plot point, you as a writer need to evaluate if it fits the story as a whole. Does this event spawn the choices that will lead the character to the story’s ending?
The deeper you get into the character’s design, the better able you will be to determine which events will shape the story you want to tell. The end is shaped by the character. However, you design the character. So if you want the story to end a certain way, then you need to determine what kind of character is needed to reach that end.
If you seem to be stuck in an endless cycle of never reaching ‘The End’ of the story. Go back to the basics. Look at your characters. Look deeper into their traits. Then decide. What needs to change to make the story work? Do you change the character to suit the story or the story to suit the character? It is one of the toughest decisions a writer has to make. Because either way, you need to gut your piece and rewrite it.
In my book The Snow White Files, I originally had Brendan Hunter develop a romance with the Snow White character, Lily. It felt forced. It took a long time to write the ending of the book because it went against Brendan’s design as a character. When I went back to revise, I had two choices. I could change Brendan so that he would pick Lily. Alternatively, I could follow the story’s natural path which meant Brendan would choose to start a relationship with his sidekick, Stasia.
Brendan’s character was so integral to the story and fit so well that it would not work to change him. The piece that didn’t fit was Lily. So I changed the story to fit Brendan. Once I made that choice, the rewrite went smoothly. I never had any doubts or struggles making that storyline work because it fit the characters.
Writing ‘The End’ is a major accomplishment for every writer. The struggle to get there can be frustrating and time-consuming. It gets a little easier with every story. Learning how to shape a character to the story and vice versa will help you build stronger stories that end in a believable way.