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David Farland's Daily Kick in the Pants:
Many Happy Endings


For the past few months, I've been thinking a lot about story endings. Have you ever watched a movie, and then wondered at the end, "Is that really all that there is? Am I missing something?" Not only have I watched those movies, I sometimes feel that in one of my own early series, a middle book suffered from not having a strong conclusion. After all, it was a middle book in a trilogy, right? It wasn't supposed to have a strong ending.

On the other hand, I liked the ending of IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS. I watched a couple of readers, and I know that I kept them in tears through the last hundred pages. I'd like to do that more often. So the question I've had in mind is, how can I do that consistently?

The truth is, most novels have several endings.

I've written before about how to create successful endings, and about the three major types that work. These include the happy ending, where the protagonist gets what he most desires. For example, if the protagonist is seeking love, he ends up with the love of his life. But there are other successful endings. The "conversion" ending occurs, where the protagonist discovers that he really wants something else in life more than what he'd originally hoped for. He becomes a convert. You've seen this in stories about, for example, a thief who wants to knock over a bank. But in the process of the story, he discovers that he's in love with a beautiful woman, and so he becomes a changed man, and trades the thing that he thought that he wanted—the thrill of the heist—for the thing he now wants even more, the love of a good woman. The third successful ending is the "complex" ending, where the protagonist gets what he wants, but only after paying a very high price.

Of course, there is the "failed" ending, where your protagonist is destroyed, and fails completely. Not only does the protagonist not get what he wants out of life, he learns no lessons. In most cases, the "failed" ending will win the outrage of your readers. However, this ending can actually work sometimes if you've got a "protagonist" who is really an "antagonist," a character that we grow to dislike.

So last week I was talking to a friend about the ending of LORD OF THE RINGS, and he asked, "Which ending?" He pointed out that it had multiple endings—which is precisely what I have been thinking about. I suggested then that just about every good story has at least three endings.

You see, if you want even a simple story to have a successful ending, you almost always need to have multiple endings. Why? Because you usually have multiple storylines.

First, you almost always have an "external story," the story of how a character seeks to achieve a certain goal. For example, your protagonist might be seeking to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War, or outwit death, or escape from a prison.

But then you usually have at least one internal goal for your protagonist. Perhaps your character wants to become a better example to his children, and so he wants to teach them to have the courage to stand up to injustice. So he has to balance his need to be a good father with the need to be a strong example. He may have other things going on internally, as well. He might have his own internal demons to overcome. So your character will have inner growth that will need to be dealt with in the conclusion of your novel. That means that you'll deal with at least two "endings"—one internal story and one external story. Indeed, normally your character might have several "internal storylines" to deal with.

Your character might also have romantic entanglements, so that might be a third ending that you will need to plot.

You might have a love interest who also grows, or you could have secondary characters with their own plot lines.

Indeed, you might have two or three external plot lines. Perhaps your character wants to defeat the British, but he has a secondary goal of stealing a shipment of gold from them.

Do you see how, as you begin dealing with multiple characters and plot lines, a novel might end up having a dozen "endings?"

In fact, in most cases, you'll find that the ending of your tale takes on interesting complexities as you begin writing out the various endings—the happy endings contrasting with the failures and the prices that must be paid, the internal growth in one area overshadowing a minor failing that yet remains, or the character's conversion to higher values. In short, the way that you weave the conclusions to each of these conflicts, the ways that you juxtapose the endings, can lead to powerful conclusions.

Add to that the fact that if you have a character change, it usually works best to underscore this with repetition. Take a look at the ending for A CHRISTMAS CAROL. We see the protagonist grow for the better at the end, but the author gains more power by proving to us that the character has changed by showing multiple examples of it. Scrooge is shown throwing gold to a boy in order to buy a goose for an orphanage. He then rushes out into the street and promises to talk to his nephew about how to feed the widows in a distant county. He then rushes to the home of Bob Cratchett in order to take care of his friend and employee. In short, we're given much the same ending in each case.

But the endings also can gain power by raising the stakes. We don't know most of the characters that Scrooge is giving his money to. It's not until we go to Tiny Tim, that this becomes very personal.

A similar things happens in It's a Wonderful Life. In the movie, at the end, we have a character who realizes what a blessing his life has been to others, and he embraces life, even through the dark times. He's in a pickle financially, and is relying upon the goodness of neighbors to keep him out of prison. So what happens? Dozens of neighbors bring him money and make donations in larger and larger amounts, saving him from prison, but also ensuring that he recognizes what good fortune friends can be.

So here we see a couple of examples where very similar incidents are used repeatedly in order to "reinforce" the ending.

Algis Budrys used to teach that "that which I say three times, you will believe." In other words, by repeating these incidents, we prove to the audience that, for example, a character has really changed. But something more happens.

When we have those strong "ending beats," we are in effect telling the reader that the story is over. If you give only one ending beat, then the reader may wonder, "Is that really the end?" If you give them two beats, they'll look on for another page. But if they've gotten three strong ending beats, it signals to the reader on a visceral level that, "Yes, indeed, the story is really over."

One powerful way to conclude your tale is to extend the temporal sphere of the tale. Remember the ending, "And they lived happily ever after?" It works well because the story moves from moment to moment, but in the end, we're assured that not only does the hero succeed, he remains a success forever.

So how many endings can you have? Well, even a simple novel could easily have half a dozen conflicts that you'll need to tie up, and when you factor in things like repetitions and escalations, the endings can become long and complex.

So when you're plotting your novel, have fun with that ending. Look for ways to make it more satisfying, deeper, and more final.