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Saving the Day, Solving the Problem

June 25, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 25, 2017

After readers have followed your protagonist through the adventure and events you devised for your characters, after readers have laughed at, wept over, feared for, maybe even dreamed about your main characters, what do you give them at the end of the story?

Do you satisfy the reader by showing how the main character defeats his nemesis? Do you satisfy the reader by devising a particularly clever way for the protagonist to solve the story problem?

Do you bring your story to a crescendo by allowing your main character to reveal what he or she has learned after working through the many rough patches and dilemmas you put between the beginning of the adventure and the end? Do you allow your protagonist to use the knowledge and wisdom he’s gained as he finishes his quest, as he saves the world, as he declares his love? Do you use all that has come before the end to show your lead character digging deep to hold on at the black moment and in the climax, even when hope may be gone and he’s hanging on only due to stubbornness?

Do you make your lead character solve the riddle or conquer his foes?

Or do you let an outside force or some minor character resolve the story issue?


When you’ve done a good job of writing strong and memorable characters, readers identify with them. They root for the protagonist (in most stories), wanting to see success—or at least resolution—for the character that they’ve followed through ups and downs and problem after problem.

Yes, the protagonist may pay a high price for success, but readers want to see that character resolve the story knot. They want to see him reach his goal. Readers aren’t going to be satisfied with the cavalry riding in to save the day.

Check your story’s climax and ending—who is involved? If your protagonist isn’t the star of the scene, something’s not right. If the main character doesn’t use the gifts, talents, strengths, and knowledge you’ve written for him, something is out of whack.

If an outsider or circumstances do the work of the protagonist at the end of your story, it’s time for rewriting.



One of the reasons we give major characters certain skills and characteristics is so that they can use those skills and traits when it counts, when they have to rely on them to pull out a victory. No, all stories don’t end with the protagonist on top, but even if your main character fails, he must still show up and show out at the climax.

Readers don’t spend hours with a book only to see the story problem resolved through coincidence or accident or the interference of a god-like being. The main character needs to be the one who determines the outcome of the story. The protagonist should win or lose, live or die, succeed or fail based on his strengths, on his ability to overcome his weaknesses, on all that he’s learned from the other characters you included in his story.

Prepare for your ending by giving your lead character the back story he’s going to need when he gets there.

Who is he? What experiences did he undergo before we ventured into his world? What skills had he developed? What natural gifts does he have?

What are his weaknesses? Why hasn’t he strengthened those weaknesses before now? What can you introduce as a means of changing weaknesses into strengths?

Who is he, this man? Did you show readers enough of his strengths that they’ll believe that he can be victorious against the deck you stack against him?

Have you given your main character sufficient motivation to see him through what are likely to be the darkest and most difficult days of his life?

What traits does the character have that will keep him on task, no matter what the cost? Have you shown the readers these traits in action?

What would make the character keep fighting even when the outcome looks bleak? Have you hinted at the character’s personality in multiple situations?

Have you made the antagonist or another character do or say something guaranteed to make the protagonist stay the course no matter what?

Does the antagonist push the protagonist’s buttons in a way guaranteed to make the protagonist respond?

The protagonist has to be involved in the ending, but he also needs to be primed to face that ending. He needs to be equipped as well. And that means that you need to put all the elements he’ll need in place before he needs them.

You can’t reveal a character’s judo expertise after he defeats the bad guy in the climax. You can’t withhold a protagonist’s personality traits and the keys to his motivation, only revealing them in the final chapter of the book.

To make the climax and ending satisfying for the reader, you’ve got to weave the elements your characters will need for the showdown into the story before the end. And that takes planning.

It also takes restraint since you don’t want to simply tell readers on page 1 what a character’s skills are and what motivates him to stay steady when the challenges are greatest. You’ve got to show the character in action and reveal him through his actions, thoughts, and words. You’ve got to allow other characters to describe him. You’ve got to lay a foundation strong and wide enough for your climax to easily sit atop without any danger of either crumbling.


A Checklist

~  Make sure the protagonist plays the major role in the climax

~  Make sure that the story problem isn’t solved by a coincidence, an outside force, happenstance, or a minor character

~  Make sure that the protagonist is equipped for the climax with skills and traits that he then actually uses to resolve the story problem

~  Make sure that you’ve shown readers the main character’s strengths and weaknesses before the climax

~  Make sure that characters and circumstances goad the main character into a response—put his strengths and weaknesses into play

~  Give major characters friends and mentors who offer wise counsel—counsel that the protagonist can call on when he’s in a jam

~  Make sure that the main character’s back story provides motivation for the character’s behavior


Unfortunately, it’s quite easy to get to the end of a story without having inserted all the back story, character motivation, skills, and other elements necessary for the protagonist to believably succeed when faced with his enemy or overwhelming circumstances. Fortunately, you get plenty of chances to add in those elements that you left out.

Planning for the ending ahead of time might be the best option, giving you the opportunity to weave supporting details through the story. And yet until the ending is sketched out, you may not know exactly what skills and back story your character might need.

Whether you write the ending first and backtrack to add the supporting details or you brainstorm the kind of character you want to write and then devise an ending worthy of him, be sure to include all the layers that make your character whole and believable in the role you’ve cast him. Make your ending fit your main character and make your main character fit your ending.

Make the ending—the one ending out of dozens of possibilities that you attach to the story—not only an end, but a completion. Make it surprising but inevitable. Make it fit at every level and from every angle.

Make your protagonist save (or lose) the day and solve the story problem.

End your story with a bang and not a thud.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699


Tags: , , ,     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Writing Tips

4 Responses to “Saving the Day, Solving the Problem”

  1. Phil Huston says:

    “And then they all got run over by a bus” is out? Darn.

    Actually the wrap is the most difficult bit. Especially if it’s been a wild ride of a fairy tale. The old movies and the ride off into the sunset is the easiest. But take something like “Captain Blood” where he’s been off pirating and she’s been waving a hankie and going to garden parties and after a wild sword fight they hop on the boat ad sail away and I don’t think readers will buy into that. But it would sure be nice if they did…

    • Captain Blood—Errol Flynn in his iconic role. I loved that movie as a kid.

      Yes, the wrap-up is difficult too, but some stories require much less than is needed in other stories. Sometimes a few lines will cover it. I admit that I don’t like to read too much about what happens to the characters once the current chapter of their lives is over. I like remembering characters as they are when the events play out.

  2. Another excellent post! Thanks, Beth! I’ve shared this online. Depending on the genre and length of story, the ending ties up loose ends. But I agree that the ending shouldn’t go on forever. Close the story, not the lifetime.

  3. Darien says:

    You always give great advice, Beth! I’ve used so many of your helpful blogs to do revisions on my stories.

    I often use the search feature to find past ones too. Perhaps you could consider re-posting some of them as a “flash-back” Thursday feature. Some of my favorites are ones like above where you encourage us writers to dig deep and inspire us with ways and examples!

    Thanks as always!