The resolution of a work is critical for its success.
The theme and message of the work need to carry through to the end of a story. Even for fiction writers who focus on mere entertainment, a resolution provides satisfaction to the audience.
Without a resolution, a story feels incomplete, and that’s undesirable in all but very specific circumstances.
This is the fourth part of my series on how to narrow down subjects for writing (see the rest through this link).
Remember that the goal here is to come up with the bare minimums to write a story.
The resolution serves as a source of closure. It doesn’t necessarily need to close the whole story off–especially if you have plans for a sequel or want to leave some matters ambiguous–but it should answer the big questions of the story.
There’s a theory that what draws readers to a story is a promise: essentially that you are going to tell a particular story about a particular character or event.
So with that in mind, the general guidelines I have for a satisfying resolution are this:
- Do I have a resolution that fits my promise regarding story type?
- Do I have a resolution that fits my promise regarding the characters or events depicted?
If you can answer those two questions, you’re probably going to do well.
Most of the time, you will have a happy ending for a heroic character. Writers have to deal with serious questions if they force a hero through a climactic struggle and the result is nothing. That doesn’t mean that a resolution can’t be subversive.
Gilgamesh doesn’t achieve immortality, but he establishes his empire (and therefore a legacy that will outlive him). That satisfies this step even though it doesn’t naturally follow the objectives of his quest, and it has a thematic message that the writers of the epic wanted to put out to readers.
You may have further genre or convention derived obligations regarding how a story ends. There is usually a reason for this, and as with anything else you can subvert the requirements if you understand the reasons for them and provide a valid alternative.
Another thing to consider is that if you’re setting up a sequel or universe that you are planning to follow-up with other works you may wish to consider the resolution as a way to unveil a hook or element for another story.
This is a delicate balancing point: you want audiences to feel the closure and make good on your promises while leaving an opportunity to have unanswered questions.
Last week I talked about not using a cliffhanger as a climax.
A much better place to worry about cliffhangers is in the resolution stage.
A cliff-hanger is a grand point to end a story on, but there needs to be something that comes after it.
To lean on Christopher Nolan’s Inception, there are two very obvious possible endings: either the protagonist is in the real world, or he is in a dream world. We know that he had a chance of getting caught in a dream, but we’ve also seen some things that lead us to believe he’s in reality. His angst and psyche make it difficult to be certain that he’s not just imagining what’s going on around him.
But we don’t get those endings. Instead the audience gets just enough information to choose whichever ending they suspect.
The astute reader will note that there is a tie-in here to the earlier idea of promises: particular types of stories (e.g. thrillers and mysteries, especially those with a psychological bent) and characters are more prone to having a good cliffhanger ending.
If you can answer your promise with a cliffhanger and that’s what you want to do, go ahead. If not, avoid them.
The first and greatest purpose of a resolution is to make good on the promises you’ve made in your story.
If you can do that, then you have provided something that will provide your audience with closure and value.
But if you can’t think of a resolution, you should proceed with caution in further developing a story. It’s possible to write a lot of text without having a full story in it, and a lackluster resolution leaves an audience disappointed at the very moment they finish your work, which is a pivotal moment for attracting loyal followings.