Bring It To an End

Swain gives five steps for a dramatic conclusion to your story. Obviously, not all stories adhere to this rather simplistic and slightly rigid structure. However, many of the great stories of all time do follow these steps, which is why Swain recommends them.

1) Set up a situation where your character is boxed in and forced to choose between two very specific, alternate courses of action.

The previous articles on The Sagging Middle discussed ways to Make Things Worse for your character and box him in until he’s forced to these two choices.

Principle: Why two choices? It tests the character’s principle. Does he adhere to principle and forsake the other choice left to him, or does he abandon principle and pursue the other choice available? Either way, the character sacrifices something important and precious. That’s the definition of a climax.

Swain teaches this way to set up a climactic scene. The two choices are either:

(a) An easy way for the hero to attain his external goal, but in doing so he sacrifices his principles
(b) Sacrificing his external goal—what he’s been striving for the entire story—in order to do what’s right and act on principle

Disastrous: Make sure that each choice is sufficiently disastrous. If the character has the morals of a snake, then him choosing to sacrifice his principles isn’t climactic. If the hero’s external goal wasn’t that important, then him choosing to sacrifice it isn’t climactic. You want the consequences of either choice to be horrendous, especially for choice (b). A moral decision should sacrifice everything and gain absolutely nothing for the hero—in fact, it should put him in dramatic, hopeless danger.

In general, people react favorably to unselfishness. You as the writer can manipulate the reader’s emotions or make a powerful statement by what choice the hero makes at the climax.

2) Force your character to choose, resulting in some irrevocable climactic action.

True character: Who is the hero, deep down, when forced into a tense choice between two things? The protagonist will choose what is most important, revealing his true character. This is truly who he is, in this moment of crisis.

The hero will then act on his choice, because talk without action is nothing. A climax is always an action by the focal character.

Will Indiana Jones continue to try to get the Grail (and money and power and fame) or sacrifice it because it’s not his to take, and he respects the power of the Grail?

Action without principle: If the character acts without some sort of choice or principle involved, the action lacks punch. The combination of internal conflict (choice) and external conflict (action) in this moment of climax makes for more dramatic storytelling—manipulating your reader’s emotions.

Urgency: The aspect of forcing the choice creates the story tension. Make the situation at the climax absolutely urgent so that the protagonist has to choose right at that moment.

Believable: Make it believable to your reader that the hero would make the choice he does.

If your hero is going to sacrifice or adhere to his principles in the climax, then make sure you set it up beforehand. For example, throughout the story, Joe’s bombarded more and more by the hopelessness of his life, so he decides to abandon his family and run off to Jamaica to be a cabana-boy.

To set up the character for their choice, Swain suggests a gimmick that triggers a character’s emotional response. For example, a song that reminds Joe of his mother’s sacrifice in his early years, which comes back to him at the climax and prompts him to make the more self-sacrificial choice.

3) Reward or punish the character for the action, in accordance with poetic justice.

This will answer the question of what your character deserves from the choices he made at the climax.

If your hero chooses to sacrifice his external goal in order to do what’s right:

(a) Let the character suffer through a black moment of anguish after the climax. All Hope Is Lost. The reader worries about the character.

(b) Suddenly reverse the situation with an unanticipated development. The tide turns, or things the hero didn’t know come to light. Make it unanticipated and logical or believable. This reversal could also be an act of nature or God—since the character has already made his choice, any divine intervention would be acceptable and believable to the reader.

(c) Reward the character. Give the reader a satisfying ending—the character’s true emotional need being fulfilled. Sometimes that results in success for their external goal, even if they had originally sacrificed it in the climax. Sometimes that results in failure of the external goal, but fulfillment in some other area that ends up being more important. This can be a good time to show the hero what he really wanted all along, or what he needs.

If your hero chooses to sacrifice principle instead:

(a) Still allow your character to suffer a black moment—maybe realize the enormity of his decision, or see a vision of what could have been.

(b) The character shakes off the emotional moment, succeeds in his task.

(c) The character receives the consequences of his actions. He loses something vital and important in choosing to abandon his principles.

4) Tie any loose ends.

Check your plot development. Often it’s better to have subplot story threads tie up before the main climax, in order to make the climax more dramatic and unencumbered.

5) Focus the finish on a fulfilling punch line.

End with a bang. With that last paragraph, last sentence, leave the reader with a strong emotion. Hope or hopelessness. A hint of the character’s future.

Tie it in to an earlier event or significant detail. Or finish with a comedic line.

Next: A Brief Overview of Characterization

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

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