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Resolution—Tying up the Ends

June 23, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 12, 2011

We’ve all read perfect stories, novels that end on a high note with satisfying action and just the right amount of explanation and with a punch to our emotional centers.

We’ve also read novels that ended too soon, without allowing us a moment of reflection to appreciate all that had happened, or that went on for too long and dragged out a satisfying ending until we lost all the good feeling the story had raised in us.

How do writers do it, how do they craft their final pages to be just enough without either under- or overwhelming the plot or without deflating the bubble of satisfaction the reader enjoys after a great read?

We’re talking resolution here, the few pages that follow the climax of a story. A resolution can either highlight how truly enjoyable a story is or it can so ruin a good story that readers forget how much they enjoyed everything up to that point.

At story’s end, the warrior protagonist has found victory or defeat, hero and heroine have declared their love, the detective has caught his murderer, and the lone wolf of an agent has saved the world.

But what happens next?

Win or lose, we can’t leave our warrior on the battlefield, bloodied sword in hand. The lovers need a moment to reflect on their love and the trials they faced and overcame to reach that love. The detective considers what his latest case has cost him and whether he can face another when the stakes are so high. The government agent discovers those who helped him in his quest to best the world’s worst villain.

How do you move from the battlefield or the declaration of undying love or the unmasking of the murderer and go to “The End”?

You write a resolution.

You tie up loose ends and bring completion to all the threads you so carefully laid out for the reader’s entertainment. You finish the story. You give the reader enough explanation that he’ll be fully satisfied by your tale.

What should you include in the final pages? What must you include? What should be skipped?

Because each story is different in terms of length, tone, intensity of final scenes, genre, and number of sub-plots and story threads, there is no one answer to these questions. The resolution must fit the story, each element of the story. And as no stories are alike, no resolutions will be alike. Not in every way.

You will come closest to conformity within genres. Thus series romance may recommend a five-page final chapter for the resolution. A political thriller might allow for a longer resolution in order to tie up major story threads involving several characters.

Yet, even with multiple options, writers can learn the skills necessary for writing strong resolutions and learn how to adapt those skills to make the resolution of every story a satisfying one that fits, that completes the puzzle, that answers the vital questions.

No one wants story gaps in the final pages. Readers want to know what happened and how and why. And they want those answers for each of the major plot threads and characters, including protagonist, antagonist, and any other characters they’ve come to care about.

If the writer has done her job, readers will care about one or more characters. Readers will need to know how the characters’ lives play out, how all that they’ve faced will change them.

No, they don’t need to know everything about everyone; with solid hints and a clear presentation of characters, readers will be able to fill in a lot of blanks. But if you gave a plot thread importance in terms of event or motivation, then you need to resolve that plot thread by story’s end. And you need to show how major characters have been changed by what they’ve faced and what they’ve done, activities far outside what they’re accustomed to in their normal lives.

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Keep in mind that not all characters will be satisfied at the end of your novel. But readers should be.

That is, not every character will get what she wants, what she’s been striving for throughout the book. But readers should feel that the end was inevitable and that you fulfilled your part of the writer/reader contract by providing a satisfactory and logical resolution for the situation and the characters you created.

What, then, should you consider as you write your resolution?

Length
A novella or short novel doesn’t need a resolution 30 pages long. An epilogue of two or three pages should be sufficient and allow the ending to feel balanced.

A novel with few secondary plots or plot threads also won’t need a complex, detailed, or long resolution.

A story with a complex plot, however, requires a longer and more detailed resolution in order to satisfy the reader. You want readers to know what happened as a result of the actions of story events and climax without them having to guess.

Resolutions shouldn’t be so long that they leach the emotion from the ending.

It’s better to leave readers wanting more than to undo a good story by boring readers right at the end. But better still is giving readers just enough in the resolution.

Resolutions should be sufficiently full for their novels. It’s jarring, almost a slap to the reader, to come to the end of a novel only to find you’ve been cheated of the true ending. The protagonist might have succeeded at his quest, but what does that mean for him and those close to him? If you don’t show the impact of the final actions, both character and reader are cheated.

Thus the protagonist might win, but how will that affect him? What has he learned? How will his life be different? In what ways have his adventures changed his outlook?

The answers to these questions don’t need to be addressed directly—you could show the cost of a hero’s quest when he returns home victorious only to find that home burned to the foundations, his family dead at the command of the very men he defeated.

Or, you could actually spell out what the protagonist learned, allowing the reader to hear his thoughts, understand what his actions and the actions of others mean for his life and his future.

Breathing Room
You give the reader an opportunity to come down from the high of the climax by including an appropriate resolution. Provide a few moments so the reader can ponder all that has happened and what it all means for the characters and for the reader himself.

Use the resolution to give both characters and readers a place to breathe, to relax, to adjust to what has happened. Characters will need a break from the emotional ups and downs of the climax. Readers will need a moment of reflection and adjustment before stepping back into their own lives

Emotions
Readers will come away from your novels feeling something. And what that something is, is created in great part by your resolution.

Readers may feel relief that your main character succeeded at his goals. But they also may feel a sense of vindication or that justice has been done. If your hero has lost a lot, even if he ultimately wins, they may feel his pain.

When you write your resolution, be sure to include the impact of choices on your protagonist and antagonist. This impact, the realization of what happened to the characters because of their actions, can stir strong emotions in the reader. Control your resolution by steering reader emotion in the direction you want it to go.

Direct the emotion by your word choices, by character reaction and thought, and by the choice of issues to focus on at the end of the story. What you turn the reader’s attention toward is that which will be important. Be sure to direct reader focus here at the end. What do you want the reader to remember? What emotion do you want her feeling when she closes the book? What deserves place of honor in the last pages?

Balance
Resolutions should be in balance with the rest of the story—not too long, not too short. Not overly detailed, not overly cryptic. Humorous if the story has been humorous, short on humor if the story hasn’t been funny.

Look Ahead
Should you include an epilogue detailing what happens over the next few years in the life of the protagonist? You can. Some readers will love knowing what happens down the line. But others won’t want to know. Some readers want to envision the future without further prompting from the writer. Others don’t like to imagine the characters changing, growing older. They often want to remember characters as they’ve been presented in your story, in their moments of glory and fear, at those times most meaningful to their lives.

Decide how much of and how far into the future to include in your resolution.

You may only give the reader a summary of events of the next couple of days. But you could tell readers what a character will be doing 60 years in the future.

You could paint a complete picture of the main character’s life as a result of his actions and his involvement in his adventure.

Style
The style of a resolution should match the other parts of the story, yet by its very nature, a resolution is different.

Most novel resolutions are written not in the dynamic phrasing of unfolding events and vibrant scenes but in exposition. And the resolution is typically summary.

You’ll have used exposition in your story in other places, but you’ll have followed it in those places with increased tension and conflict.

With the resolution, you are purposely reducing tension. Think of resolution as a means of settling the reader after making him undergo the drama of your story.

You settled the characters’ conflicts and the characters stood down and eased back, and so now the reader can relax as well.

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After deliberately crafting your story for greatest impact, don’t destroy your painstaking work by tacking on a long, drawn-out section of summary.

Use your resolution to conclude the story you began on page one. Give it the right balance and choose the words and images you want readers to take away with them after they turn the final page. 

Take one last opportunity to focus the reader’s attention exactly where you want it. Spotlight the key elements from the story. Spotlight the lead character’s realizations and conclusions. Maybe his new goals and his personal resolutions.

Remember reader emotion in the resolution.

Ease back on conflict. Reduce tension. Slow the story without stalling it. Use word choices to keep summary lively.

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Make your resolutions work for you; in them are the last words and images readers will see.

Choose those words and images with care and an eye toward impact.

Be deliberate in what you include and in what you exclude.

Write resolutions worthy of your stories, worthy of the 90,000 words that precede them.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

3 Responses to “Resolution—Tying up the Ends”

  1. Amber says:

    Great article!
    Something I’m wondering about, though: How does this apply if you’re planning to write a sequel to your book? How much should you “leave” for the next? How many plot threads can you leave untied?

  2. Great questions, Amber.

    I would first suggest that you make sure you’ve given readers enough of the protagonist or antagonist of the next book in the current book so that those readers will be hoping for the next book. Weave in hints about future books by giving characters who’ll be featured in those books a mysterious back story or some unresolved issue that they mention but don’t really get into. This catches the reader’s attention, but doesn’t become such a part of the current story that it needs to be resolved.

    You can have the characters from the next book distracted by their own problems, so much so that they almost mess up their part in the climax. Of course they don’t mess up, but it costs them something to come through for the protagonist of the current book. Thus the reader is again intrigued by this character.

    And in the final pages, you’ll want to show the characters from the next story looking off—or riding off—eager to get back home or to a problem that needs solving in their own lives. Or you have them excited for their friends and their victory, but sad about or distracted by some unnamed issue.

    You don’t want to overplay, but you do want to tantalize. Get the reader interested by appealing to her emotions or to the part of her that can’t resist a puzzle when it’s introduced.

    If the same characters will be in a follow-up story, hint at the story dilemma in the final pages. Again, don’t overplay the problem because readers will expect a resolution. Instead, give a bare hint of an issue that’s calling the character into his next story. Satisfy the current story, but allow the character to peer ahead.

    You could always repeat an element that got the protagonist started in the current story. Say a mysterious letter prompted the protagonist to dive into the current story. At the end, show another letter being delivered. This could be done with humor or in seriousness, but the repeat of the opening element—and the character’s reaction to it—would lead toward another story to come. And because this is done at the very end, there wouldn’t be any threads left dangling. The look on the character’s face or his final words would be the transition from this book to the next.

    Of course, when you get to the next book, you don’t have to use the device you used to close the first book. It could have been simply a letter, nothing mysterious to it at all.

    As to the number of plot threads you can leave unresolved . . .

    I wouldn’t leave any major threads unresolved. Not if they have to do with the current story. Even minor threads, if they touch major characters or characters the readers have come to know well, should be resolved. Or the promise of answers in the next book has to be made clear. But you can’t guarantee that another book will be finished or that readers will ever read it. Satisfy the parts of the current story that you used to keep the reader interested in these characters and their problems.

    I hope that gives you some ideas. This topic might need an article of its own . . .

    • Amber says:

      Thanks, Beth! I totally understand what you’re saying, to satisfy the main plot, but you can leave some small details or sometimes back-stories or conflicts open to solve later on.
      In my story, the characters have the main conflict to deal with, (an evil sorcerer from destroying a certain world, yeah, very fictional) but along side all this, they are all supposedly “connected” through an event, and also seem to be drawn to this issue. Of course, the villian isn’t completely defeated, and to draw a continuation to the story, I would leave the event still undiscovered to the characters.
      I think it closes some of the issue, yet leaves the readers paying attention the side-plots saying, “Wait! What about this?!” And what I want is involved readers, after all :).
      The only things I still have questions about is the whole “hanging plot threads” part, but besides that, you answered all my questions! Thanks!

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