Six impossible things

The Big Finish

Nearly every piece of fiction has one main character and one central problem. Even when the story is told from multiple viewpoints with an ensemble cast, each of whom has a different important plotline, there is almost always one plot problem that is the problem that the reader wants to see solved, and one character for whom that problem is just a little more important, more life-changing, more critical in some way, than it is for any of the other characters. There’s also one person – usually the same one – with whom most readers are expected to identify or sympathize with.

This doesn’t mean that the other characters and plotlines are unimportant; on the contrary, the complexity is what draws a lot of readers to multiple-viewpoint-and-plotline stories. But one of the ways that complex stories can (and often do) go wrong is when the writer forgets or misidentifies the main character and the central problem, and as a result, the climax of the story falls flat. This can completely wreck an otherwise excellent novel.

Some writers try to give the finish of each plotline equal emphasis, which would be fine if the reader is reading the plots as a series of independent novellas, each starring a different character. In a novel where the plots have been braided together, though, going this route spreads out and flattens the “big finish.” Instead of one peak moment and several lesser ones, there’s a saw-edged row of similar points, one after another, until the reader loses track of when the novel is really over and ends up feeling vaguely dissatisfied even though everything has been wrapped up, point by point.

Instead, what generally works better is to give the greatest emphasis (the most tense, dramatic, emotional scene) to the solution of the central problem. The more other problems and plotlines that can be tied in to finish at exactly this same time, in this same scene, the better. For instance, if the central problem is defeating the Evil Overlord of Galaxy Prime, the battle may also rescue the hostage from plotline #2, solve the romantic triangle of plotline #3, and give the heroine of plotline #4 the chance to finally overcome her phobia about spiders when she shoots the Overlord’s giant mutant spider pet, all in the same battle.

But the center of the battle is still defeating the Evil Overlord, and this is what determines the way most readers will see the book. If the Evil Overlord wins, or dies but takes the Main Character with him, then even if the hostage rescue, happy romance, and psychological healing are all wildly successful, the book will still generally be considered a tragedy. If the Main Character wins and survives, then several unsuccessful subplot endings will only make the book “gritty” or maybe “dark” or “realistic,” rather than a tragedy.

Sometimes, of course, there is no possible way for a subplot to be wound up during the grand finale. In a multiple-viewpoint book where one or more of the established point-of-view characters is not present at the big battle or great reveal, this is especially true. In this case, the question becomes what order the finishing-up scenes should happen in. If the writer is going for a big finish, the way he decides is based on what effect each scene and subplot wrap-up will have on the scene, the one that’s the solution to the central problem.

Most of the time, subplots that can’t finish up during the grand finale get wrapped up very quickly immediately after, so that there is little or no release of tension until after the main problem has been solved. Occasionally, though, wrapping up a subplot just before the main finish will add tension to the grand finale, especially if the wrap-up folds two apparently-independent subplots together. The hero’s search for his long-lost sister finishes…with the discovery that she is the hostage who needs rescuing. The traitor has finally been discovered…but he’s already given the Evil Overlord the security code to get through the shields.

The other mistake people sometimes make is giving the big finish scene to the wrong viewpoint character. This is really only of concern in a multiple-viewpoint novel, but it still happens more often than you’d think. The author gets so caught up in cycling through each character’s experience of the battle in short action bits that when the main character finally offs the Evil Overlord, that bit is shown from the point of view of one of the other characters who’s been watching, rather than from the main character’s viewpoint. If the writer has been doing a Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson thing from the start (where Holmes is clearly the main character, but Watson is always the viewpoint), then it’s fine, but if the main character has been a viewpoint, the writer needs a really powerful reason to deny him the POV in the big finish scene or it just won’t work very well.

4 Comments
  1. I almost did the wrong-POV-thing in my last first-draft. Throughout the novel, I cycled through POVs in every chapter then realized that in the last one I had to bring it all into the Main Character’s POV if I wanted to make it work.

    My ordered mind didn’t like the change, but the storyteller side won (fortunately).

    Thanks for backing up my instinct! 😉

  2. The ‘saw-edged finish’ is a potential problem for the novel I’m coming towards the close of now. The structure, the problem, and the central characters have been reasonably constant. The details and the feel of the resolution, however, have… developed.

    So in my initial imaginings, the three close-set final peaks went:

    Protag beats Strong Villain next door -> Protag’s showdown with Vile Villain back home -> PROTAG SETS UP BIG BAD SO GREAT GOOD CAN FIGHT IT DEADLY.

    But the way the story’s developed, I’m now writing PROTAG BEATS BAD BARON NEXT DOOR.

    It’s good that that episode is so much more powerful on so many levels than my first hazy vision of it. The flipside is that I now need to amplify Showdown and Doomstrife in just proportion, or an originally barnstorming finish is going to end up merely very loud and flat.

    Thanks for writing this when you did. This was a thought I badly needed to get explicit, about now.

  3. Excuse crap proofreading on my part: for BAD BARON read STRONG VILLAIN.

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