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December 15, 2016
Ultimately, the nature of plot is problem. The main character faces something that must be overcome or completed or defeated or endured, and the efforts that main character makes to do just that causes ripples that change the circumstances … and not always for the better. We take our dear characters and we throw them into deep water, then when they try to get out of it, we drop a rock on them.
In other words, the path to solution is rarely kind.
But eventually, we do need solution. If you don't have solution in a story, the story will feel incomplete. If it ends just because the time period you set for it is over, then what you have written won't feel complete. If it ends because the story was really just a trip from point A to point B with nothing to overcome, then what you have written won't feel complete. Completion comes with solution. But if we do throw our character into deep water and then drop a rock on them, how can we possibly get them out of it to bring about the satisfying solution?
I've actually seen this happen to writers. They do a great job of giving the main character a serious problem, and then ramp it up until it feels absolutely insurmountable. The reader is on the edge of his/her seat. Then...the writer is stuck. How do you solve a problem that is too big to be solved? If you try the old "It was all a dream! A horrible, horrible dream!" approach and have the story all be a dream but that’s a big no-no. Plus, editors hate that. Readers hate that. But folks have resorted to it. So, what's wrong with the "all a dream" ending? It feels like the writer pulled the rug out from under us. It renders every effort by the main character pointless. If it's all the dream, nothing in the story mattered. And that is no way to craft a satisfying ending.
So, what about that insurmountable problem? Another misstep I've seen is the "surprise, a superhero" ending. In this one, one of the characters suddenly displays totally unmentioned and unexpected skills that are perfect for solving the problem. The main character whips out a magic stick or another character busts out from secret ninja skills. This is another unsatisfying ending because it feels unbelievable. It's less unsatisfying than the "it's all a dream" ending because it's kind of nice to think about suddenly busting out the superhero moves, but it still ends up being a plotting failure on the part of the author.
So, um, we still have that insurmountable problem. Another misstep is the "rescue" ending. This one is most commonly used in stories for younger kids when parents swoop in and solve the problem (or teachers do it or some other powerful adult). The problem with this ending is that it (again) renders the efforts of the main character unimportant. All that effort he put in doesn't matter if an adult just swoops in and solves the problem. The kid could have just flopped over limp until the adult came along to save the day. Never pick an ending that steals the importance of the main character's choices and actions.
Fine. What do we do about the insurmountable problem? The solution usually lies in a combination of change in viewpoint and characteristics of the main character that we've already introduced. If the main character got into trouble because he's impulsive, more of a do-er than a planner, then how can those very characteristics be turned in a different direction to solve the trouble? Sometimes this will affect the way you structure the problem and the worsening of it, but the result will be a much more satisfying ending. By creating both the problem and solution as deeply connected to the traits and personality you've given your main character, you'll make the story feel more organic and more meaningful.
So go ahead and toss your characters into the shark infested waters, just be sure you've already given them the things they'll ultimately use to get back out. Do that, and not only will your story be tense and exciting, your ending will satisfy.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.