Finding the Finish Line

Sat Mar 25 2017

I have experienced few things in life quite so joyously satisfying as completing a novel. Of putting down word after word, piling them into carefully constructed paragraphs, pages, and scenes, until the story is told.

Typing that last period on the last sentence and clicking Save is a feeling of accomplishment and pride like no other. The ordeal is long and, for all its exhilarations, arduous. The comparison to running a marathon is apt.

But that feeling when you reach the end makes it all worthwhile.

I want you to have that feeling. And when you cross that finish line, I don't want the moment to be tainted by doubts. I don't want you worrying that you took the wrong route somewhere in the last mile.

A novel's last mile

We all know that our novels need a climax. The moment the whole story has led up to. The moment when the story's central conflict is resolved. It's the big fight scene, the lawyer's closing arguments and jury verdict, the declarations of undying love that clear away whatever held the lovers apart, etc. I won't belabor that.

Less well understood is the novel's denouement, the part after the climax, and what you're supposed to put in there.

The denouement

Just as a novel's opening scene must accomplish certain jobs, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, so too the denouement has specific work to do. It must wrap up any loose ends, and re-orient the characters.

Wrap up any loose ends

The climax by definition deals with the story's central conflict, but chances are your story has some other lingering questions that haven't yet been answered. The last few pages after the climax are your chance to do it.

You don't necessarily have to wrap every single thing up in a nice neat bow--after all, real life rarely works that way--but you should wrap up the major lingering questions. Minor questions, especially if readers can imagine plausible answers of their own, don't need to be dealt with.

If you intentionally choose to leave some question unanswered, consider at least having the characters wonder about them. That way readers know the ambiguity is intentional, and not just something you forgot to take care of.

Take Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, for example. The climax was of course the scene at the Mirror of Erised with Professor Quirrel/Voldemort. But what happened after that? J.K. Rowling still had to wrap up questions like

Re-orient the characters

For the majority of the story, the characters have been in some state of disequilibrium in which their ordinary lives have been disrupted due to the novel's central conflict. The resolution of the climax typically results in some kind of permanent change to the characters' lives: if their lives were on a certain track when the story started, they're usually not on it anymore. In many cases, the old track may no longer even exist.

This leaves readers with what amounts to a new mystery--what are they going to do with their lives now? If readers don't have a sense for that, the book's ending may feel incomplete or abrupt, as though the story has ended mid-thought.

But you can't solve that mystery in full. For one thing, you're at the end of the story and have no space left in which to do it. For another, the answer would probably be pretty boring compared to the high-point of the climax.

What to do? You can't show us the answer, but you can't leave us in the dark either.

As it turns out, we don't actually need to see the next phase of the characters' lives. We just need an idea of what would be there if we did see it. Therefore, instead of taking the characters all the way into the next phase of their lives, all the denouement has to do is re-orient the characters toward that next phase. Then stop.

Again, the first Harry Potter book is a good example.

After tying up the loose ends, the school year at Hogwarts is over. Students will be returning home. But what about Harry? If it's your first time reading the story, you're uncertain about what awaits him. Will he go back to live with the Dursleys? Can he still even do that? And if he does, must he go back to the same miserable existence as before? These are the questions in the fresh reader's mind.

To answer them, we need to see what direction Harry is now pointed. This happens with a quick scene at King's Cross station, in which a gruff Uncle Vernon is there to meet Harry. While saying goodbyes to Ron and Hermione, Harry confides that the Dursley's don't know he's not allowed to do magic over the summer, and predicts he's going to have a lot of fun with Dudley over the summer.

That's it. That's the re-orientation. It informs readers of a change in the balance of power between Harry and the Dursleys. Now we know what track his life is on, and the book ends.

The "and stop" is the trick

In novels I have analyzed for clients, the most common error I've seen is forgetting to stop.

These writers carry the characters forward into that next phase, stretching the story for page upon pointless page, long after the climax has ended. Somewhere in that anticlimactic material, I always have a moment of wondering whether the climax was in fact the climax, or whether it was just a prelude to something larger.

It never is. The climax always turns out to have been the actual climax, even though these stories run aimlessly for a while, until—either from boredom or exhaustion—the writer ends them at whatever random place they happen to land.

If you take only one thing from this whole article, let it be this:

Re-orient, then stop.

Let the characters live on

A proper denouement is more powerful than you might imagine. Done right, the denouement allows your characters to continue living in your readers minds, long after they've read the last page.

After J.K. Rowling re-orients Harry Potter, she stops. The story does not continue on to show us Harry's summer of terrorizing Dudley with the threat of his wand. It does not need to, because after the re-orientation readers can envision the summer all on their own.

In the end, that's a denouement's real job: to leave the reader in a state where they can carry on the story for you. At least until the sequel comes along.

Standalone books vs. series

Speaking of sequels, there is more to say on the subject of how endings concerning series versus standalone novels. But this post is long enough, so I will save that for a Part 2 next Saturday.