Antagonists are one of the most important parts of stories and can often make or break the enjoyment of a story. Sometimes, no matter how well written your protagonist is, if the antagonist is poorly developed or presented then the story comes across as flat.
This post is one of a series of two posts. This week, I will be talking about the role of antagonists in stories generally and what makes them work. Next week, I will look at what makes a really good villain, which is somewhat different thing. The second part will have a particular focus on fantasy/thriller/adventure type stories, though should be applicable to other genres.
It is important to note that not every story requires an antagonist, so don’t feel like you need to shoehorn one in just for the sake of it. All stories need are goals and obstacles to create conflict. An antagonist is an effective way of creating that conflict, but isn’t the only way.
Here’s some ideas to think about when writing an antagonist:
I will start with the most obvious. Please give your antagonist interesting motivations. People often talk about antagonists having non-realistic motivations, but more importantly you should not give your antagonist boring motivations. Give them a compelling reason to be doing what they are doing. Here is a list of boring motivations:
I want to destroy the world because I am angry.
I want to destroy the world because I am evil.
I want to kill people because I like it.
I hate the protagonist because they are so good and I am so evil.
Good and evil are boring concepts. They are overplayed. If you want an interesting antagonist, stop thinking of them as the villain in the story and start thinking of them as the hero of their own story.
This is key. Your antagonist should truly believe that whatever they are doing is justified. Not necessarily that they are doing the right thing, because right and wrong is not as cut and dry as that, but definitely that they are justified in doing the actions they are doing. They can arrive to this through relatively messed up logic, but they need to have that logic.
If you can make it so that your antagonist sees themselves as the hero and even sees your protagonist as the villain, then you have some interesting motivations going on.
Examples of compelling antagonists who believe themselves to be the hero include Magneto from the X-Men canon, John Doe from the movie Se7en, Ozymandias from Watchmen and many others. These characters are for more interesting because their motivations appear real. After all - nobody really sees themselves as the villain. They all think that their path is the best one.
More than just heroes, the antagonists should be the protagonists of their own stories. This means they need to be agents of their own character development arc.
You need to plan out a character arc and a goal for your antagonist just like you do for your protagonist, even if we only catch glimpses of it throughout the story. They should not be static. They should not simply be waiting for your protagonist to show up and defeat them.
Think about Lord Voldemort, who is a very memorable villain. He has a very clear character arc across the seven books and is, from the very beginning, working to regain his lost power. He has detailed, actionable plans and as we grasp glimpses of this through Harry’s eyes during the story we grow to understand what he wants and why. This is very successful.
Make sure your antagonist, just like your protagonist, is active and making active choices to further them towards their goals.
Foils: Two Types of Antagonist
Great antagonists are also foils for the protagonist. A foil is a term to describe a character who contrasts with another character in order to bring out certain traits of theirs. A good foil character usually falls into one of two camps:
1. Diametrically Opposed
One of the best ways of creating protagonist / antagonist conflicts is by giving them very different worldviews.
The reason the Joker is such a compelling antagonist for Batman is that he holds a diametrically opposed worldview. Batman believes in justice, doing good and the sanctity of life. Joker believes in chaos and sees life as ultimately futile and absurd. This opposition creates for a powerful protagonist / antagonist dynamic.
His opposing viewpoint contrasts with Batman’s and causes him to question the value of his beliefs. The Joker specifically pushes Batman to re-evaluate these beliefs by setting up situations like the boat gambit in The Dark Knight. In this situation, he forces Batman to wonder if the faith he puts in people and in the sanctity of life is really worth it.
It is good character development for the protagonist.
If your antagonist is like this - diametrically opposed in their worldview to the protagonist - get them to put the protagonist in similar situations, where they are forced to reevaluate and question their worldview in order to defeat the antagonist.
2. Reflections of Each Other
Another good way of creating a foil for the main character is by presenting an antagonist that is a little too much of a reflection of them. There should still be differences in how they view the world, of course, or there is no conflict. But, if you offer up enough similarities to cause them to pause and wonder, this can be particularly effective.
Two of my favourite examples both come from hit TV shows - Dexter and Breaking Bad. I’m aware that both these examples involve famous anti-heroes. The protagonists are villains themselves. But this is concept can apply just as well to traditional heroes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock and Moriarty are another excellent example of a protagonist and antagonist being very similar.
The first example I will use is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. He stands as one of the strongest antagonists in the show, partly because of his similarities to Walt
Up until meeting Fring, all the other drug dealer / cartel enemies he faced were of a similar nature - power-hungry, mercurial and generally mad (like Tuco from the first season). Walt is often seen desperately wishing to deal drugs more like a sensible business, with sensible people that will just give him money for his product and distribute it.
In comes Gus Fring - exactly what he has always wanted. In many ways, Gus is like a reflection of Walt. Intelligent, business-like, but also ruthless when he needs to be. He offers Walt exactly what he has been wanting - lots of money to make his product safely and have no hand in the distribution or any other activities.
The effectiveness of Gus Fring as a villain is that he demonstrates that what Walt said he wanted is not what he actually wants. He doesn’t want to be in the background. He wants to be Fring. He wants to run the operation. Fring is so effective as a villain because he is so similar to Walter and in many ways he is the representation of everything Walt wants - this is where the conflict is derived from.
A second example is the Trinity Killer from Season 4 of Dexter, arguably the best season of an otherwise hit and miss show (certainly later on).
Dexter is presented with an antagonist who is also a serial killer with a family, just when he is struggling to come to terms with that element of himself. In fact, in the very moment when Dexter is determined to kill Trinity, he sees him go home to his family and stops. This isn’t because of any empathy he feels for them, but because he sees himself in Trinity and is intrigued. He wants to know more.
In this story, the antagonist acts as a foil to the hero. He provides conflict - yes - but also an opportunity to really explore the depths of Dexter’s character by holding a mirror up to it. He can see his own reflection in Trinity and, increasingly, he doesn’t like what he sees there.
In both of these situations, just like with Batman and Joker, the antagonists are effective because they force the protagonist to confront their own personal viewpoints and change the way they think about the world. You should be aiming to have your antagonist do this.
Faces and Facelessness
There has been a tendency in literature lately to make antagonists large faceless conglomerates, whether an evil corporation or a group of deadly assassins or something else. Personally, I think this is a dangerous narrative trap to fall into.
Great antagonist are visible. They have character. The reason faceless groups don’t work well as antagonists is that you can’t give them an arc. You can’t give them depth in the same way.
If anyone has watched the hit Netflix Marvel Show Daredevil, I’m sure they would agree that Wilson Fisk is an infinitely more compelling protagonist than the Hand - a faceless group of ninjas.
The Wachowski Brothers (siblings?) (sisters?) knew this when they made the Matrix. They knew they had an antagonist that by its very nature is faceless, so they gave it a face and a character and even an arc in the character of Agent Smith, who is far more compelling than all the other ‘agents.’
Please be careful of making your antagonists too faceless and characterless. Yes, you may want to be making a social commentary on heartless pharmaceutical companies or late stage capitalism or whatever, but give your antagonist a face and a personality, not just a theme.
Successful antagonists are more than just plot devices, they are the protagonists of their own story. They need as honest a motivation, arc and development as your protagonist does, even if a lot of this is not seen directly but happens in bits and pieces.
Next Thursday will be part 2 of this antagonist discussion, focusing more closely of fantasy/adventure villains and how to write them successfully.
See you next week.
Point of view is one of the earliest decisions you will have to make when writing a story and can often be one of the most important. There is a modern trend in literature, especially in the realm of genre fiction, to write in 3rd person limited. This gives you the opportunity to dive into different character’s heads but still retain some of the intimacy that comes from a first person POV.
Part of this is because 3rd person omniscient can be very difficult to get right and often comes across as rather archaic when compared to the modern tropes of writing. Another part of this is because 1st person is often looked down upon unfairly.
Perhaps this is because the initial instinct of a school child writing a story is to go with first person – it is easy and relatable for them, like a diary or journal entry – and as such there has become a stigma where ‘first person’ is perceived as more simplistic or perhaps easier than a wide reaching 3rd person narrative.
This stigma couldn’t be more wrong.
I believe that not only is first person one of the most difficult perspectives to do well, but also (if done well) is one of the most powerful tools in all of literature. It elevates writing to something more complex, deeper and far more human. First person narratives are the writing equivalent to Daniel Day Lewis-esque method acting. To do it effectively, you need to eschew your voice as a writer and become your protagonist, wholly and completely.
My favourite example of an author who can do this is Kazuo Ishiguro, a master of first person. If you read any of his books – Never Let Me Go, A Pale View of Hills, The Remains of the Day, it would be quite easy to be convinced that they are written by different people if his name was not on the cover.
In fact, The Remains of the Day stands as my favourite book of all time, and much of that is down to the mastery of the first person narrative that is employed. I will talk about this later.
In this post, I will try to explain why and give some tips as to how to write first person well.
1. Some Technical Points
Before I get into the more complex ideas, I think it is important to touch upon some key technical mistakes that are often made in first person narratives.
a. Filter Words
In first person, you have to remember that everything that happens is being seen through the eyes (and ears and nose and skin) of the narrator, so words that you might usually use to denote who was experiencing what become redundant. You should aim to remove these filter words where possible.
To give an example, here’s a random bit of description I just wrote:
I stood by the bay and watched the boats roll in and bob against the pier.. I could hear the screeching of gulls and smell the salty sea-air as it brushed across my face. As I stood there, watching, I felt a wave of quiet peace wash over me, just as the waves washed themselves on the sandy banks of the shore.
Now, cutting the filter words:
The boats rolled in, one by one, bobbing against the pier. Gulls screeched overhead and the salty sea-air brushed past me, the ocean wind cooling my face. Just as the waves washed themselves on the sandy banks of the shore, so did a quiet wave of peace wash over me.
By getting rid of the “I watched”, and “I could hear” and “I could smell”, we are brought closer to the narrator and the scene becomes more intimate. We see it through the narrator’s eyes rather than seeing the narrator seeing it, so to speak.
Whereas in 3rd person, the reader requires the words here and there to identify character, even in 3rd person limited, the first person does not and including it only serves to distance us from our narrator.
This isn’t to say you can never use filter words. Sometimes, they can be used effectively to increase tension or highlight the impact of a situation. For example:
Stumbling around the room, I searched for the key. I could see the mark from where it lay on the table, I could see the bowl where it was meant to be, but that was it. The key was gone.
Here filter words are used for emphasis, highlighting that the narrator is searching for something. The key is to use filter words sparsely and only for impact. Don’t just include them in description, know why you are including them, if you do.
b. Limited Knowledge
Your narrator has the very limited knowledge that a single person has. If you want to experience, go outside and people watch and see how much you can really work out about what people are thinking, where they have been, what they are doing. If you aren’t Sherlock Holmes (hint: you aren’t), then this is difficult.
Similarly, your narrator should not know more that they can reasonably work out. They shouldn’t know what other characters are thinking unless they state it. And even if they do, they might interpret it wrong. You need to make sure you think about how much one person could reasonably know.
(Yes, your narrator can speculate, but it should be clear that it is speculation).
c. Being Wrong
As an extension of this, your character should also often be wrong about the conclusions they come to about people, situations and actions. Think about how often you’ve misinterpreted a situation in life. Your character is not some omniscient genius – make sure they misinterpret things. Have them read into other character’s words in a way that makes sense to them, but is clearly incorrect to the reader. Or becomes clearly incorrect later on.
This isn’t a flaw so much as just being human.
One of the most important aspects of first person narration is voice. In an earlier post about dialogue, I talked about the importance of developing an idiolect for your characters. This applies just as much, if not more, to your narrator.
If you want to write a successful first person narrative, the voice needs to be consistent. You need to think about formality, inflection, dialect, phrases that they use and you need to use this throughout – even in you description.
To give an example, in the chapters of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate where first person is being used, it is done so in a very informal and conversational tone. She even starts the second book with the line:
“Hm. No. I’m not telling this right.”
Which is wonderful. This remains consistent throughout. However, in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, his character is a stuffy butler so his language is far more formal and far more reserved.
He includes many similar phrases in the narrative, like: “I think you will understand”, “But you will no doubt agree,” and “you will no doubt appreciate.” This consistency gives him strong voice and reflects the part of his personality where he feels the need to convince others (and himself) of things he is unsure about.
This is hugely important. Agents and publishers go on about the need for the writer to have a good ‘voice’, but in first person it is less about the writer’s voice and more about the character’s voice. You need to become that character. You need to go full Heath Ledger Joker on it and every line of description or action you write should be told from that voice of that character and not of you.
This is very hard to get right. If you want some tips, go find my post on dialogue and read through the bit on idiolect. Create an idiolect sheet for your protagonist and stick to it.
3. Reliability of the Narrator
This is a huge one for first person. A first person narrator is not a reliable narrator, ever. And by this I do not mean that they are necessarily lying (though many do), but that they view the world with their own particular bias and filter their experiences through that.
We all do this. This is what makes us human. Not a single one of us has the ability to be purely objective. The way we respond to people and experiences is defined by the way we look at the world and the bias we see it from.
If you are writing in first person, you cannot tell an objective story. It feels false and simplistic.
This applies just as much to basic description. Remember that when you are describing characters or settings in first person, you are not describing what they look like, you are describing how the narrator sees them. And, as I talked about in my post on character descriptions, our perceptions of how people look are very defined by the way they make us feel.
A good example of this can be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. When Victor Frankenstein is at University he has two professors: Waldman and Krempe. He disagrees with Krempe's beliefs and science and ways of teaching. Indeed, Krempe tells Victor that his previous studies were all a waste of time and 'nonsense', and that he must begin his studies again. However, Waldman is much more conducive teacher, who shares a lot of his views, praises him and pushes him to further accomplishment.
The descriptions of the two professors are therefore very different. He paints Krempe as aesthetically very ugly, while Waldman is upright, strong and soft. Specifically, he describes Krempe as being "a squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance." and says of Waldman that "his person was short but remarkably erect and his voice the sweetest I had ever heard."
Interestingly, the one objective piece of information we can take from their descriptions in that they are both short, but the choice to describe Krempe as 'squat' compared to Waldman 'short, but remarkably erect' is key. This is, after all, how Victor perceives them.
As such, even the most basic actions and descriptions in first person narratives need to be filtered through the mind and the voice of the narrator.
This sounds tough, but this is where first person narratives excel and where they elevate themselves from other types of narratives. If you can successfully write a story where the reader is only being told the story through the bias of the first person narrator, but can also see the objective viewpoint and how the narrator might be wrong, then you are really on to something.
4. Emotional Bias
Think about what kinds of emotional biases your character has – we all have them.
How do they feel about old people, young people, people who are overly gregarious or very shy, their parents or their siblings? Show this bias through the way they react to them, but don’t explain it. Show it through actions – it’s the ultimate show, don’t tell.
If I return to my Frankenstein example, it is clear in the novel that Victor is driven by his ego. The reason he loves Waldman and sees him in such a good light is because he is complimentary and his thoughts fall in line with what Victor already believes. Krempe's only real vice is to tell Victor that all his previous study of alchemy isn't really relevant and he still has a lot of learning to do.
Despite it never being explicitly said, the reader comes away with the sense that Victor is egotistical and sees people more highly if they are willing to stroke that ego. This is a big emotional bias for him and we learn it through the way he sees people and the things he does, without ever being told it outright.
In The Remains of the Day, the narrator is an old English butler who refuses to let himself feel any real feelings and squashes them down. He truly believes that the greatest trait in the world is a sense of restraint and having a stiff upper lip.
Interestingly, one of the ways this is demonstrated to us is through his description of setting. At one point, when he is standing and looking over the English countryside, he says:
"The English landscape at its finest—such as I saw this morning—possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term 'greatness.' … And yet what precisely is this greatness? … I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it."
This is a nice description of English countryside, yes, but more importantly it reflects his personal emotional bias about the world. Despite never directly relating it to himself, it is clear (given that he is the narrator) that this is implicitly not just about landscape, but about life and ultimately about himself.
Once again, description seen through the subjective eyes of the narrator, rather than just description.
But what is done so masterfully in this book is that through the conversations he has and the actions he does, we can tell these feelings exist. At the end of the day, the story is one of unrequited love and you can tell he is deeply in love with Miss Kenton. But he never once states that he has any feelings for her at any point. It is all implied.
Let’s take the frame narrative of the story, he is travelling all the way down to the South of England just to see her. Now the reason he gives us, as the reader, is that he just wants to go on holiday and he realizes that a job opening has come up and she was a good maid back in the day. He tells us this specifically and gives us no other reason, but it quickly becomes obvious that the real reason is he just wants to see her again. I mean, he could get a maid anywhere. He's travelling halfway across the country just for an opportunity to see her. He never states his feelings; we work it out through his actions. In fact, not only does he not admit this to us, as a reader, what makes it work so well is that he seems unable to admit it to himself.
Why? Because of his obsession with restraint. One does not, after all, shout these feelings from the mountaintop. But he has taken it to such a degree where he can't even whisper these feelings to himself. It's truly heartbreaking.
This leads me to my next point:
5. Contrast as Character
If your narrator's actions are contrasting with the reasons and the justifications they give for things, this creates fascinating character conflict.
As human beings, we aren’t very good and being completely in touch with our feelings and all our decisions. Sometimes we get angry and upset and we don’t know why. Sometimes we do things out of the blue that we can’t explain. Your narrator needs to be like this too, if you want them to be human.
What elevates it to excellent writing is if you can set up the narrative in such a way that the narrator doesn’t know why they are getting angry about something, but the reader does. It’s difficult, but it’s the goal of great first person narrative.
To write well in first person, you need a very strong picture of the character. You need to understand how they view the world in terms of their emotional biases and personal worldview.
Have your character do things, then justify these things to themselves or the reader in ways that aren’t fully objective, in ways that tell you more about the character than they do the situation.
Have your character keep a consistent and steady voice throughout.
Ensure that your descriptions of all things are seen through the lens and bias of your character rather than an objective lens.
Most of all, use contrast to give your character emotional depth.
Lastly, if you do find yourself wanting to write in first person narrative. Please go and read The Remains of the Day. It is an absolute masterpiece of story-telling, a Man-Booker Prize Winner and the best example of first person narrative I have ever read. Ishiguro is a genius and it shines through in this novel. We all have a lot to learn from writing like that.
Next Thursday, I will be writing a blog post on what makes a great villain, in which I'll be exploring the role of the antagonist in different types of stories and what readers look for.
See you next week.
Endings are hard. Or at least, they carry the stigma of being hard to achieve, and I think this is to a large degree because people aren’t entirely sure what they want out of endings.
In this post, I will aim to explore what good endings to stories really do and why they feel conclusive, all the while being to some degree open to interpretation. It will hopefully include some practical tips for thinking about your own endings.
So what makes a good ending? I believe a great ending needs to:
Answering the Dramatic Question
The dramatic question is what drives the drama of your novel. You may have more than one, but more often than not it will centre round a dramatic question.
For crime/detective novels, this will often be some variation of “whodunnit?”.
For romance novels, some variation of “will they, won’t they?”
For epic fantasy and space opera, it might be some variation of “will they save the world and at what cost?”
Yours will hopefully be more specific and concrete than the above, but you should know what it is. If you don’t, go back to your manuscript and identify it. Write it down.
For examples, let’s think about some dramatic questions from famous books:
1984 - Will he manage to resist or even rebel against Big Brother?
The Lord of the Rings - Will Frodo destroy the ring and defeat Sauron?
Mistborn - Will they overthrow the Lord Ruler?
Of Mice and Men - Will they find peace on their farm and make it out of the drudgery?
As you can see, the answer to this question is not always ‘yes’ (i.e. 1984 and Of Mice and Men), but it is always answered. You need to resolve this question for your book to end, otherwise the reader will be left feeling cheated out of a resolution.
But endings are more complicated than this. For a full examination of great endings, I’m going to take lessons from my favourite ending of all time: the ending of Fight Club.
The ending I’m talking about is David Fincher’s movie ending, not Chuck’s book ending. Fight Club is actually one of the few movies I think is better than the book. On top of this, while the ending of the book might be truer to the thematic tone of the novel - darker, grimmer and more hopeless - the end to the film is much more satisfying narratively, and as such is a good example to explore why.
I’m going to presume that you’ve seen it and I’m going to presume that you can clearly picture the final scene: Ed Norton’s character (Tyler or not Tyler?) and Marla Singer standing in front of the collapsing, exploding high-rises, holding hands, while the Pixies plays in the background. It is beautiful and iconic.
It is one of the best endings ever written. But why?
1. Failure before Resolution
One of the most important narrative tricks for a powerful resolution is making sure your character has utterly failed just beforehand. I’ve mentioned this before when discussing plotting, but will go over it again as it is important.
Think Lord of the Rings and Frodo putting on the ring and turning away from Mount Doom.
Think Harry dying at the end of The Deathly Hallows.
Think Tyler Durden, having sent Marla Singer away on a bus, tied up, beaten up (by himself) and about to watch the city be destroyed with no help coming from anywhere.
These are all the just-before-final scenes of the climactic endings. This is an important narrative trick. It gives the ending weight and importance, especially after a whole story has been told. If they didn’t happen, the endings wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact as they do.
Fight Club does this well.
Task 1: Cook up a scene where your character fails entirely just before your ending. Make sure the reader knows they have failed, unequivocally. Then, find a way to turn it on its head for the resolution.
2. Resolution of Character Arc
The Rolling Stones had it all worked out. Let me tell you why.
The most important thing that Fight Club gives us is a resolution of the protagonist’s arc. This is done by answering the dramatic question - which is derived from the protagonist’s goal.
The important thing to remember is that the stated goal or the apparent goal of the protagonist is not necessarily their actual goal. This is key in making impactful endings.
If you can have your protagonist think they want something, but actually it just be symptomatic of something else, then you’re working with real development. And if in the end you can give your character a resolution on their actual goal, while failing at their apparent goal, then you have a good ending.
In other words: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, you might find you get what you need.”
Let’s think about this in terms of Fight Club.
What is Ed Norton’s goal? Well, initially he just wants to sleep. This is his goal. Then he wants to be a bigger part of Fight Club. Then, when he finds out what Tyler is doing, he wants to stop Tyler from blowing up the city and killing people.
These are all, of course, symptomatic. He doesn’t know what his real goal is, but it is obvious from the start. He is lonely. He needs some kind of human connection.
This is the dramatic question - will he ever find true human connection?
He fulfils this at the beginning with consumerism, buying IKEA furniture, etc. But it doesn’t work. And the result is he can’t sleep. He then fulfils it with the emotional connection he gets from support meetings, but ultimately because this connection is false, it doesn’t work. He finally fulfils it by inventing a friend for himself and then building a cult around himself just to discover some sort of emotional connection, which he still doesn’t get. Meanwhile, there’s Marla, who he slowly, unknowingly, develops a love/hate connection with, but it is the only real one he has.
The ending works so well because he fails his stated or apparent goal at the end - which is to stop the buildings blowing up. He fails it completely. But, he finally achieves his true goal with Marla. It is the juxtaposition of this failed apparent goal and achieved real goal that makes the ending so powerful. The shot at the end literally shows the buildings exploding and them holding hands simultaneously, coupled with the wonderful line: “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
Task 2: Specifically at the end of your novel, identify what your protagonist’s real goal is (which should be tied closely to the dramatic question). Then, give them an apparent goal which is symptomatic of their real goal, but different from it. Now, end your novel by having them fail at the apparent goal and achieve the real one. Trust me: that’s a great ending.
3. Change and Acceptance
This is one is pretty common knowledge, but is worth being stated again. Your ending needs to demonstrate to the reader either some level of change in the protagonist or some level of acceptance of their fate.
Most clearly, if you can have them make a choice that they would never have made at the start of the story, you are onto a good resolution.
Think Breaking Bad: Walt’s last scene is him telling Jesse to kill him - purely and honestly. He wants to die. This is such a departure from the Walt we have seen previously and this choice gives his character wonderful resolution.
In Fight Club, Ed Norton shoots himself in the head. Does he know it’s all in his mind and he will survive? No. He kills himself in an attempt to stop Tyler. That is what is most important to him. This, again, is a choice he would never have made at the end.
What Fight Club does wonderfully is it merges change (caring enough about something to shoot himself in the head because of it) and acceptance (staring at the exploding buildings and accepting there is nothing he can do about it). This is all summed up in the phrase: “You’ve met me at a very strange time in my life.”
4. Don’t Resolve Too Much
Just because you need resolution, this does not mean that you need to resolve everything. In fact, resolving every single plot point into a neat little bow that has no sense of continuing momentum often feels false. It takes the reader out of the story and reminds them that they are reading a narrative, constructed to end, rather than ending naturally.
As such, a sense of continuation of world, story and character is desired.
Think about this in terms of character. If you character is active and moving throughout the whole plot, you don’t want your reader to be left feeling that there is nothing left for them to do now and they are just going to sit on the sofa and watch TV for the next 50 years. It wouldn’t fit with their personality.
Let’s take two series that I’ve used repeatedly to show good and bad examples of this:
a. The Lord of the Rings
Does the story end with the one ring being destroyed and peace coming back to the world? No, it ends with Frodo leaving on a boat to a new place, new discovery and a new adventure with Bilbo, Gandalf, etc. I know the stated reason is to live out their older years, but the sense of continuing momentum we get from them departing again is both conclusive and satisfying. It is a good ending.
b. Harry Potter
The Harry Potter series has, for me, one of my least favourite endings to a series of books. I understand that she wrote it early on, near the start of her career, before her writing style and characters and plot had developed, but the ‘flash forward’ is an example of what I’m talking about above.
You may disagree with me, but many people I have spoken to have said it feels cheesy, false and somewhat takes you out of the gravity and emotion of the end of the series. I feel this is because Rowling is trying to resolve too much.
She’s trying to bring together every single thing and tie it off neatly, and the result is that Harry’s kids end up being called Albus Severus, James Sirius and Lily Luna. I mean, really? There’s such a complete sense of resolution to it - emotionally, plot-wise, developmentally - that it ends up feeling forced. So be careful about this.
If you can complete the arc for the character, which is more important than the story. The plot doesn’t need to be ‘resolved’ as such.
Again, one of the reasons Fight Club works so well is it leaves us with this final scene of action. We leave the story with questions. What will happen to them now? There is a sense that the story will continue, but because the arc is resolved and he has answered the dramatic question (finding a connection in Marla Singer) we don’t feel cheated that we aren’t there to see it.
We are comfortable with the knowledge that this is where we get off and the story can continue happily without us. This is the sense you should be aiming to achieve.
Endings are hard to get right, and they rely very much on how well you have set up the dramatic question and the motivation of the characters in order to get there. As such, I would always advise writing your story with a planned ending in mind. But some tips to remember are:
1. Resolve your character's true goal, but not necessarily their apparent goals.
2. Have your character fail before they succeed. Give it some drama.
3. Have your character's resolution demonstrate change and / or acceptance.
4. Don't try to resolve everything in the entire story. Decide what really counts and resolve that. Leave your reader with a story with some forward momentum.
Next week, I will write about how to write in 1st person perspective and what that entails, specifically looking at classics like The Remains of the Day.
See you next week.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.