In a way, every story is a story of transformation.
Characters experience revelations.
Challenges are met and overcome.
The longer the work you’re writing, the more transformations are likely to occur. In board books and many picture books, for instance, the transformation is often simply circumstance. In the very famous Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, the little rabbit experiences the changes that come with bedtime. The little rabbit undergoes no change in personality or beliefs, and nothing is really overcome. The transformation is simple because board books are often more about the sound of the language and the images than they are about any deep story. But board books can accomplish a bit more. Lift-the-Flap board books are often a type of mystery. In another famous board book, Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill, the reader joins Spot’s mother on a search for her pup. Finding the ending in these books is quite simple. Good Night Moon ends after we’ve bid everyone and everything possible a “good night.” Where’s Spot? ends with the finding of Spot.
But what about a more complicated book? How do you find the right ending for the picture book you’re presently tooling with? Again, transformation can be the key to finding the ending. How many things transform in your book? Have you revealed all of them? If so, you’re ready to wrap up and you won’t want to go far beyond those final transformations.
In general, if you extend the story far beyond your largest transformation (usually the big challenge that drives the plot) then the ending is going to feel flat and wanting. But if you end the story with a lot of unsettled, untied plot and character threads then the ending will feel rushed and unfulfilling. As a result, it’s important to keep track of all the transformations going on in the story so they all resolve from smaller to largest (or most important).
Let’s look at how that works in a young reader story we’re all familiar with: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. In this book, we have a boy who enjoys acting wild. It puts him in conflict with his mother who sends him to his room without supper. The boy imagines sailing away to a land where the wild things are so that he can be their king. The transformations in the story are both subtle and huge. The boy’s room transforms into a sea upon which he sails to the island of the wild things. But he also comes to see that being wild is not better than being truly loved. The love of wild things might just eat you up, but the love of a mom brings you hot supper even when she’s annoyed with you. So the story ends with transforming the wild things world back into a human world first, as that is actually the lesser important transformation. Then the final ending wraps up the boy’s second transformation, one of character, as he sees the physical symbol of unconditional love, a hot supper, waiting for him at home.
You’ll notice that Sendak didn’t spell out his transformations. The book doesn’t end with, “And then Max realized that real love is unconditional, and that is the kind of love he wanted most.” Instead, Sendak simply revealed without explaining. Sometimes it’s okay to trust your reader to “get it.” Will every small child realize that Where the Wild Things Are is as much a story about unconditional love as the more obvious The Giving Tree? Possibly not. And both are classic books. But they also both work in terms of the author’s choices to reveal his “truth.” One is subtle and one is overt, but they both hinge on transformation. In both, the nature of one character doesn’t change: Max’s mother is annoyed with him when he’s acting wild, but she always loves him, and the tree always loves the little boy in The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The stories follow the other characters, the boys, as they slowly come to realize and appreciate love. The circumstances change for the tree, but it is the boy who finally comes to stay where he is truly loved, much as Max did in Where the Wild Things Are.
Ramping It Up
The longer your book, the more transformations you’ll set in motion as you write and the more important it will be to keep track of them so the ending feels satisfying. Now, one thing to keep in mind is that transformation doesn’t necessarily mean no more problem exists. If, for example, you introduce a character issue where the main character and his father don’t really understand one another very well. The transformation probably won’t be that they end up best friends and totally in tune with one another. That kind of transformation often feels not completely believable. Instead, your transformation in these very difficult situations may be more incremental. The main character may understand his father a bit more and may realize what is keeping them apart. Even if that doesn’t bring them even one inch closer, it may give your main character considerable peace, and that would be an acceptable transformation for that established problem.
In a young adult story, the transformation might even be from conflict to failure. Let’s consider the same issue: a young man and his father don’t get along. Imagine in the course of the book that the father simply dies. Death pretty much means the dad and son are not going to resolve their difficulties and the transformation is going to have to be totally one inside the son. He may discover something that makes him understand his father better, and leave him sorry that he cannot apply the information. He may simply realize that the problem with him and his dad was partially his own fault, and end up internally cutting his father a little slack, being less mad at him. But you will want some kind of transformation whenever you set up a serious conflict.
Conflict is your marker for needed transformation. Say two friends end up in a big fight. That’s a transformation, but it’s not one we’re going end the story on. Why not? Because the introduction of conflict feels like a beginning to the reader, not an ending–unless the transformation is a kind of realization that the main character needed to make so that he can sever the friendship. For instance, I might create a story with two characters who are best friends. However, everyone except the main character can see that only the main character is the “friend” in this situation. The second character is actually a user, a leech, and a bad guy. In that case, the conflict I set up to be transformed lies in the discrepancy between what is real (that this guy is no friend) and what the main character believes. Transformation needs to come with him realizing what is true and acting on it. In that case, the main character ending the relationship will feel like resolution, as it will be something we’ve been wanting all along.
Famous Last Words
Author John Green likes to collect famous last words. The last things we speak can say a lot about us, or they can be vague and anti-climactic. That’s because real life isn’t as tidy as a story.
In a story, the last lines usually do say a lot (even if only symbolically) about the story. Say you have a story about a kid who has had horrendously bad luck all his life. In fact, he may be the one kid who has never found a lucky penny even though he’s spent hours looking, and claims he has a theme song: “see a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck.” He finally gets up the courage to walk away from an unhealthy situation he’s clung to. This story might end with the kid walking away, his stomach roiling at what he’s just done as he waits for the feeling of relief he was expecting but hasn’t yet experienced. He looks down at the scuffed end of his sneakers on the broken pavement of the sidewalk and sees a penny. He stops, bends down, and picks it up. And smiles. That feeling finally comes.
Now, let’s look at a couple things about that ending. First, it has a symbol (a rather overt one, but still a symbol). It has a message for the reader that things are finally going to change for that character. It ends with hope (which is essential with middle grade stories and usually a part of young adult as well). And it requires prep. The ending doesn’t just fall out of the sky. For the ending with the penny to have the most effect, I need to prep for it earlier references. I might even include a story about how this kid once pretended to accidentally drop a bunch of coins just to pick them up, hoping that it might change something for the better for him. The early prep makes the ending feel both satisfying and inevitable. When you read a well-structured ending, you feel as if that’s the only way the story could possibly have ended (even if you didn’t realize ahead that it would end that way).
Check Your Ending
Do you tie up all the loose ends from small to large?
Once your largest conflict is over, do you end soon after?
Do you come up with a strong, clever, or euphonic last line?
Do you prepare for the ending before you get there?
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.