Endgame Part 2

>> Wednesday, April 27, 2011

So, if climax and denouement endings are powerful and have great impact, why not end all your novels that way? Well, because they have limitations.

There isn't one perfect ending type for every story because it depends on what story you're telling and, largely, what the focus of the story is, what the emotional draw to the story is.

In general, you see climax and denouement endings on plot driven books where the emotions being drawn from the reader are terror, suspense, tension, excitement, where the story is all about the circumstances or the mystery, the danger of a situation or set of situations. Once you've addressed the mystery or the danger, the story is over. However, if you have primary characters that the reader is emotionally attached to, invested in, this kind of ending can leave the reader feeling cheated.

For example, using the same climax ending from the previous post:

Mickey smirked as the last of his shots echoed and faded. Cautiously, he approached the figure sprawled face down in a muddy puddle rapidly turning red,. His smirk turned to a grin as he saw the gaping red holes in the black duster. The bastard was dead for sure.

Mickey kicked the corpse for good measure. "Prick," he said around his cigarette. "You should have killed me when you had the chance."

"True," he heard behind him. Mickey swung around in disbelief and hardly had time to register Lamont was alive behind him before the top of his head was blown away.

"Wrong prick," Lamont said, holstering his weapon. He walked away without a glance behind him for the dead.
If Lamont is the MC, killing Mickey may mean the end of Lamont's troubles. If the reader's involvement with Lamont is completely a part of this story, the reader might close the book happily, convinced that Lamont can take care of himself without worrying what might wait in his future. Depending on how much readers liked Lamont, they might be interested in future work where he figures in, but there's no urgency. As long as the key threats and threads of this story are tied with Mickey's death, the readers are cool.

But, what if Mickey is the MC, someone the readers followed through the whole book, thrilled for, worried for, stressed for. They're unlikely to be satisfied when he's blown away and left for dead. Readers are going to want an explanation (how did Lamont fool him?). They're going to want to know what will happen to Lamont (Will anyone make him pay? Will he be going after whoever Mickey might have been shielding/defending?) They're going to feel like the whole mess was a cheat. Why were they made to care about this guy just to blow him away? Which isn't to say you can't kill your MC, but that you'd better get the reader some resolution on why it happened, what made the story worthwhile anyway. The climax ending, in this case, won't work.

If a character, like Lamont, is the focus of the story, rather than the situation, with Lamont being multi-faceted and loaded down with history, relationships, and concerns beyond the risk from Mickey, this ending won't work either. If the readers are truly invested in Lamont, in him as a person, resolving the situation here may not be enough for them unless the writer has carefully cleaned up everything else that's key before. In general, the climax ending is for a book about a particular crisis where the crisis is the focus rather than characters or other relationships. It's very effective for a surprise ending, but it's risky if it's a surprise the reader is going to hate.

The case is similar for the denouement ending. Surprises are welcome, but you'd best not impinge on characters the reader is heavily invested in, which is one reason mysteries often use complex and intriguing characters to solve the mystery that are relatively outside the mystery itself. The characters who are involved might be likable or sympathetic, but the reader is generally not so invested that any answer is going to cause heartburn. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, are fantastic characters, but readers all know Wimsey/Bunter, at least, didn't do it. Anyone else is fair game. The story arc is all about the mystery, this mystery, and its resolution, so that's why the denouement ending can work for those kinds of stories over and over again. Because the reader doesn't really have an investment with the victims affected by the mystery, with the implications, addressing the mystery itself is enough.

However, get a character the reader has a stake in involved - Sherlock Holmes' theoretical daughter ends up dead/implicated - and the author will need some extra time post mystery solution to address the impacts of those events on the characters the reader might care about.

And that's why climax/denouement endings are challenging to use for situations where the reader is meant to identify closely with a concerned character. Solving the crises/mystery isn't enough - the reader wants to understand the impacts to the people he cares about, needs to be reassured that the characters are in a stable state, have dealt with any tragedy they've faced personally, are ready to move on. So, the suitability of the ending is tied to whether the reader is tied to the situation or the characters with regards to the story.

So, what do you do for character driven stories or stories that involve something bigger than the specific crisis (for example, a book focused on a war campaign and its resolution, while the war continues before and after)?

Good question. I'll talk about some other ending types next time.


  • Jeff King

    First off: let me thank you for being YOU… I am so grateful to have stumbled across your blog. Your advice, on your blog or mine, has made a huge difference to me.

    I love the way you explain things, the way you relate to them, the way you dissect its very being… it is awesome in my point of view.

    I can’t wait for the next post… ending are very important.

    I just want you to know your opinion means a lot… never stop giving it.


  • Stephanie Barr

    Thank you, Jeff. I'm touched. The analytical side can make reading something new difficult, but it helps me know what I want to write and why.

  • Relax Max

    I, too, worship at your feet/font, in my wrong-prick-never-ending-perennial penultimate nondenouement sort of unresolved way. I DO hope there is at least one more kind of ending. For, foolishly, in the past, I have been known to simply stop writing when my story was finished.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Of course you would, Relax Max. what we're talking about is how to finish it.

  • Relax Max

    If somebody buys my book and they get to the part where I've stopped writing, I think it is already too late for them to get a refund.

    On the other hand, I wouldn't want to keep writing forever like Stephen King does, if I have really finished much earlier. So I will be reading your future posts.

  • Relax Max

    I do hope you understand I am not being serious. I enjoy the things you tell us.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I took it as a joke, RM.

    Seriously. :)

  • The Mother

    There has to be a way to thread the needle and leave enough hook for the next book while still giving a satisfying ending.

    I'll let you know if I ever find it.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Oh, there is, the Mother.

    I'm planning to touch on that next.

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