Sunday, 22 May 2011
On Endings (Apocalyptic or not)
Well, despite rumours to the contrary, the world is still intact and didn't come to a biblical end yesterday as predicted. But there is an appetite for the apocalyptic judging by the volume of fiction devoted to the subject. And if Revelations is any guide this is not a new phenomenon. Mankind has always speculated on how the story will end. For that reason Endings are perhaps the most important part of any story. It ain't how you start, it's how you finish, as the saying goes.
I'm revisiting some study notes I took from talks given by screenwriting guru John Truby. I won't bore you by waxing lyrical on his advice about structure, except to say his book Anatomy of Story is one of the few I'd recommend you read if you haven't already. But what's interesting in his talks is the fact that the ending or final revelation, as he puts it, is so crucial to story structure it must be decided even before character or setting. The ending determines everything in the story.
In the past I might have fought shy of this idea. Let the characters loose and they will find out the ending by themselves, I'd say. Well, maybe they will, but they're just as likely to wander off down to the pub because of the wrong decisions you made along the way. Plotting a novel is not simple and there are lots of blind alleys you can find yourself wandering into. My early attempts dried up because of this and once you've wandered too far off course it's almost impossible to find your way back. You end up giving up in frustration and having to start again.
And when you think about it, the ending is the point of the whole exercise. Just as joke writers craft the build up to a punchline with the punchline already in place, a story is the build up to the final scene, whether it's the confrontation between the hero and antagonist, or the blissful surrender of lovers in a romance. The ending determines who and what your characters are, what they want and what they have to do to get it. So it's worth the time to figure out what the ending of your story will be, even before you've figured out how it will start.