Six impossible things

The End of the Plot

For a lot of writers, endings are the hardest part of plotting. Either they know where they want the story to end up, but not how to get there, or they know a lot of things about the story, but can’t seem to work out what the ending ought to be. (Writers who need to surprise themselves are a different category, closely related to pantsers.)

Every plot and subplot involves a problem; every plot and subplot ends when that problem is resolved one way or another. The master ninja’s plans are a spectacular failure, or his nefarious plot succeeds. The detective catches the murderer, or the real murderer escapes. If you know what your central story problem is, you have the end point of the story; conversely, if you know more or less how the story ends (they beat the Empire; he marries the princess; she destroys the alien fleet), then you can usually figure out what the central story problem has to be.

If you have a bunch of characters that you love, none of whom have any goals or desires or problems, and you simply cannot come up with anything that will make them set out to do things, consider throwing something else into the mix – a villain who does have (evil, nasty) goals that will mess up your happy characters’ happy lives, or perhaps a natural disaster that they will have to cope with. If you can’t bear to throw problems at your happy characters, you will probably have to find someone else to write about. Or consider a change of career.

Writers whose stories are a huge tangle of subplots with no obvious central core can take one of two approaches: either lay out all the problems and subplots and study them to see if anything connects (and perhaps come up with some additional plot lines or patterns that can make a central core), or arbitrarily pick one of the major subplots and declare it the central problem (while reserving the right to have a far better idea halfway through the story).

If you have a bunch of characters and events and potential plot points from all your brainstorming and list-making and other ways of coming up with things, and you still don’t have a central story problem, take a look at your heap of story-stuff and see what problems you can tease out of it. If Cinderella’s stepmother is forcing her to go to the ball when she really wants to stay home and study for her neurochemistry test, there’s a problem of clashing expectations and desires between stepmother and daughter. That may be a family problem, or a societal-gender-expectations problem, or both. If Cindy shows up at the ball in a sari and everyone else is wearing a 1950s prom dress, you may have a culture clash going on, or maybe a communication problem with the invites, or maybe she’s making a political statement.

Look at the problems that come up and see if there is a pattern, or if several of them tie together into one giant problem, or if one of them appeals to you more as THE central problem. Look at the problems again, and see what kinds of endpoints they could have or what sorts of resolutions they might come to. Is the first thing you think of in each case a happy ending or a tragedy, or are they mixed? Think about where the story might end – where it could feel like it is over and done – for each problem. Is Cinderella’s problem with her stepmother resolved when she gives in and goes to the ball, or when she flunks the neurochemistry test? When she and her stepmother reconcile when Cindy becomes the first college graduate in her family, or when she marries the prince with her stepmom looking on?

Another way of looking at it is to ask “what constitutes ‘winning’ in this scenario?” As the author, you get to decide whether Cinderella’s “win” is marrying the prince or acing her neurochemistry final. You also get to decide whether she wins or loses by whatever criteria you have picked – whether family is more important to this character than independence, or vice versa, and whether her ultimate choice is a triumph or a tragedy. There are multiple possible resolutions for any given plot problem, including “everybody dies.”

Also, make sure you are looking for your major problem in the right place. Character-centered writers frequently have central story-problems in which the resolution will be an epiphany or realization (“Man Learns Lesson”), a decision, or a discovery. If they have a central action thread, there’s almost always a related decision/epiphany/discovery problem in a closely related subplot. Action-oriented plots usually end with an achievement (defeating the Evil Overlord) or a discovery (like finding the cure for the plague). This is not a universal rule – action problems can end in an epiphany or decision and character problems can be resolved by an achievement or discovery – but these are the first places to look when you’re trying to figure out an ending. A writer who is too focused on action (“How will they kill the dragon?”) may fail to recognize that the central plot problem is really “Should we kill the dragon?” and the resolution is going to be a decision, rather than an action.

Finally, remember that you don’t have to make things up in order, you don’t have to start by knowing all the details, and you aren’t stuck with your decisions. For many writers, plots are fractal, especially the endings. They start with a macro view that sounds really vague and generic (“They defeat the Evil Overlord somehow; The End”) and slowly zoom in on the details as the rest of the story develops. Or they work backwards from the ending to the middle. There isn’t one way to figure out a plot that will work for everybody. If what you are doing isn’t working, try something else.

16 Comments
  1. “Either they know where they want the story to end up, but not how to get there, or they know a lot of things about the story, but can’t seem to work out what the ending ought to be.”

    For me it’s some of both, but the bigger headache is the first one. On the other hand, when I do have trouble working out what the ending ought to be, I also have trouble figuring out how to get there. The “lot of things” I know about the story doesn’t include that key part.

    It’s not just “how do the protagonists solve the story-problem?” but “how come the protagonists are able to solve the story-problem after they’ve spent three-quarters of the story NOT solving the story-problem?”

    Or, the part of the end that’s particularly Hard for me is the beginning of the end.

    • @Deep Lurker – I suspect that’s why quest fantasy is so popular. “You can defeat the evil overlord with X. But in order for X to work, you first need to acquire A, B, and Q.” Gives the characters something to do for three-quarters of the book so they can’t just walk up to the overlord’s door and shove X through the mail-slot.

      • @LizV – Quests are one way to handle it.

        I suspect that it’s also why there is so much advice about having the protagonists change & grow: A changed protagonist can do what would have been impossible or completely out-of-character beforehand. This gives the story something to do for all those pages while it is un-possible for the protagonist to just shove X through the mail-slot of the evil overlord. Then the protagonist changes so that he can just shove X through the mail-slot, and the story comes to an end.

    • In the real world – a problem that takes a long time to solve is often just taking a long time to DO the solution. Or to do the math. Or the accounting audit. Makes for a boring book tho if the main character spends a hundred pages solving math problems.

      In realistic settings I often read the character working on sub plots while they work their way through the main issue.

  2. If you know what your central story problem is, you have the end point of the story

    That’s certainly true in a “defeat the bad guy” kind of story, but what if your central story problem is a figure-it-out scenario? If the main character’s goal is something like “figure out why weird stuff is happening”, and the why is a blank slate according to the data the character has, the resolution is not implicit in the problem!

    It could be argued that the above is only half a story; once he figures out what’s causing the weird stuff, the character may have to go and deal with that cause, which is a whole ‘nother goal-and-resolution. But he can’t get to the second one without answering the first.

    (I may actually have hit on an answer for my own particular what’s-going-on that I’ve been bashing my head against for so long. But I still want to find some better process-tools for this kind of scenario, in case I run into it again.)

  3. “You aren’t stuck with your decisions.”

    This is something I have a lot of trouble with. Once I’ve written something down, it becomes sacrosanct and inviolable. The words form a whole by being inextricably linked together, like a hologram where every part contains a mirror of every other—and changing one necessitates changing them all.

    At least that’s how it feels. It seems that if, for instance, I change a character’s name, the tenor of the phrasing demands that I rewrite everything. I find it difficult to believe that if I’ve written myself into a dead end, I don’t necessarily have to live with it.

  4. In one of my novellas, the story orbited around a thing that had Great Significance, and the principles had to overcome difficulties in getting the thing from point A to point B. My problem as the writer was that I had no idea what the significance of the thing was—yet I somehow managed to go ahead and write the story.

    Because I was wrong. The thing was just a MacGuffin, and the nature of its importance did not affect what anyone did; the plot and theme were really about something else. It helps to know what problem the characters are actually trying to solve.

    (To this day, I still don’t know why the thing was so damned important. But it doesn’t matter.)

  5. I love how you’ve laid out so many angles to look at the ending. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that there’s always more than one way to do things and this is a good reminder.

  6. It just struck me that this post is full of good advice on figuring out WHAT the story-problem and it’s resolution might be, but my big problem is figuring out HOW the story-problem might be solved-at-the-end-but-not-the-beginning. And that there is loads and loads of writing advice out there on giving characters obstacles and problems, but hardly any advice out there on giving characters enablers and solutions.

    So I’d like to beg and wheedle a post on that subject: How to give characters enablers and solutions during the course of a story.

    • One thing I like to think about is the romance writer’s idea of Wants vs Needs coming into conflict. This is really great for a character story, but it can also be used for other types of stories. If you think about the need as the thing that has to get done for the story to end, DON’T make the character’s goal that thing. The narrative is about the character learning, realizing, finding out that what they want is unsatisfying and what they really need is to solve the plot.

      If you do want them to want the main goal of the plot, then you just need to come up with three different strategies to get it, the first two are tried and then fail, and the last either succeeds or it too fails and your character gives up forever.

      In a three act story, you need just goal 1/tactic 1– achieves and is disappointed, or fails and changes tactics, goal 2/tactic 2– achieves and is disappointed, or fails and changes tactics, and goal 3/tactic 3– achieves and is glad, or fails and is tragic.

      • @Cara M – that’s just another version of figuring out “What” the story problem really is (as opposed to what the characters want, or what they believe their problem is). It doesn’t address “How,” other than in the most frustratingly hand-wavy fashion.

        I don’t need to know how to delay my characters from succeeding – I can already do that. I need to know how to enable my characters to succeed after their delays have put them on a collision course for failure.

        “Well, just have them finally do the thing that succeeds” is not much of an answer.

    • On Writing Excuses once, somebody asked what to do if you’ve written yourself into a corner. One suggestion was to think of the least, smallest change you could make to enable them to get out of the corner; e.g., give them a razor blade. Then go back in the story and arrange things so the whatever-it-is is available; e.g., they find a razor at an inn three weeks before the incident. Or maybe they find out that the little old lady they helped across the street a while back does laundry for the Evil Overlord.

      You might approach the problem more obliquely. One time, someone asked me if I had a bottle opener. I asked if they wanted a bottle opener or the bottle opened. I didn’t have a bottle opener, but I could and did open the bottle (with my back-door key).

      May I ask what sort of problems your characters are facing?

      • My characters are having a different story-problem with every story.

        The thing is that I want to deal with “how the characters succeed in the end – (but not at the beginning)” before I start writing, rather than after I write my characters into a corner. Because if my back-brain senses that I’m starting to write my characters into a corner, it blocks my forward progress.

        Maybe the “figure out the least, smallest change” technique can be adapted to the planning, pre-writing, plotting stage rather than applied afterwards to fix the infamous “With a mighty leap” flaw. But if so, it does need to be so adapted.

        • I think a lot of us are finding your story difficulty to be quite interesting. I hope our kind hostess might give it some thought, since I find her analysis of storytelling in general to be insightful and helpful. I’m sure I could learn from her ideas about this.

          I almost had a difficulty similar to yours when I wrote my novel Troll-magic. The protagonists were facing a difficult societal problem that also affected them personally.

          I kept wondering why no one had ever solved this particular societal problem before, given that it was serious and pervasive. And what resources did my protags have that would enable them to be the ones who solved it? Why them?

          I eventually realized that of course the problem had been solved in the past, by other people, who devised their own unique solutions, but those solutions had been lost – found and lost more than once.

          Just as the ancient Romans had running water and plumbing supplied by their aqueduct system, but all that was lost as history marched onward, and people lived in much more squalid circumstances in medieval times.

          But it sounds like your story problem is more personal, without the societal scope, and thus will require a different approach.

          Although, as I think about it logically, your characters will need to be lacking some critical resource in the beginning that they have my the end, whether it is knowledge, skill, inspiration, physical supplies, or some combination of those things.

          I’d love to hear what Pat would say about it. Pat? 🙂

          • But I’m not having a story difficulty with any one particular story. I’m having a generic difficulty with plotting in general.

            The one “current” example (shopping trip on an alien planet) is something I’ve now worked out by virtue of brute hammering my head against it. My other examples are either hypothetical or from things I’ve written in the past.

            What I’m looking for here (in addition to doing a bit of therapeutic whining) is general how-to advice for the place I always get stuck in in all my stories, not specific advice for a WIP that I having current problems with.

          • What I’m looking for here…is general how-to advice for the place I always get stuck in all my stories, not specific advice for a WIP that I [am] having current problems with.

            I realize that. But sometimes looking at one specific instance of how someone solved a problem similar to yours (which seems to come up persistently and afresh) can serve as a starting place for figuring out the general parameters for solving it each time it crops up.

            That’s the only reason I shared my specific solution for my specific novel. I didn’t expect that my solution would become your solution. Just that it might spark some ideas. Or maybe not. 😉

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