Many writers, even professional ones, struggle to write a story ending. You might be able to create deep and rounded characters, put them into an extraordinary situation, and generate all the plot twists but still have no idea how to write your ending. Sometimes writers don’t know what to do with the world they’ve created.
When authors fail to write a proper ending, the audience sees it. The weak final of Game of Thrones (2011-2019) undermined the value of the entire show while Breaking Bad (2008-2013), with its logical resolution to all established storylines, is widely remembered seven years after the release of its last episode.
One tip to avoid struggling with your story’s ending is to think about the end during the early stages of the writing process. However, even with that strategy, you might find yourself unable to connect the ending to the rest of the story. Thus, this tip, however logical it might seem, is incomplete.
Instead of creating the ending before writing your story, you should first understand the purpose of your ending. To answer that question, we’ll need to find a crucial element shared by most stories. All stories are indeed unique, but most of them could also be crafted from existing storyline structures. We’ve explained in previous articles how to read stories through the three-act structure and how to write them based on Propp’s narrative structure. In both articles, we showed how all stories share similar elements like: character types, particular plot points, and the order of the events.
Based on the formation of the three-act structure, we can make an analogy that a story is a roller coaster. The parallel between the structures appears when you visualize the beginning of your story like the first seconds on a trolley. The race begins at a comfortable point. You start going up and slowly familiarize yourself with the new situation. Your position escalates until you reach the first turning point, which is a fall. Now, the pace drastically changes from a calm introduction to the eventful body of the race.
Throughout the writing process, you move up and down, with a mixture of unexpected and memorable turns. All of it finishes with your return to your starting point. During the race, you’re scared, you’re shouting, you’re uncomfortable, and so on. Technically, the race hasn’t changed anything for anyone but you. Similarly, most stories focus on a hero and the hero’s change throughout a story. This concept is called a “hero’s journey.”
Joseph Campbell, American author and literature professor, reintroduced and popularized this concept in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). In the book, Campbell presented the idea of a “monomyth”, a universal story that we can find in all world myths and legends from the Bible to comic books. As a result of his analysis, Campbell structured all stories into 17 main steps (usually only 12 steps get used), most of which share similarities with Propp’s work. One of the points of a hero’s journey is that the hero must endure a set of events designed to not only change the hero’s surroundings but also spark inner changes.
Usually, people visualize Campbell’s monomyth as a circle. It begins with the call to adventure, when conflict disrupts a hero’s comfort zone, and finishes with the freedom to live, when a hero returns as a different person. After the journey’s completion, a hero enters a new comfort zone and waits until the next story starts with another call to adventure.
Using the analogy of the roller coaster and the concept of a hero’s journey, we might argue that most stories try to bring a hero from a point A at the beginning of a story back to the same point A, but as a different person, at the end of a story. This is the case for many characters like Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008) and Walter White in Breaking Bad. Thus, the purpose of your ending should be to express a change in your main and all supporting characters.
A variety of directors have widely used this idea. Dan Harmon, one of the creators of Rick and Morty (2013-) and Community (2009-2015), even established his own eight-step story circle inspired by Campbell’s work. If you watch any episode of Rick and Morty, you’ll notice how the characters in each episode experience the process of a hero’s journey and in the end, they return to the same point but as different people. Harmon applies this strategy to the plot of each season and show. Therefore, if your character doesn’t change throughout a story at all, you should rewrite it.
All of the mentioned structures focus on different steps, characters, sequences of events, and the importance of particular elements. However, all of them share a single idea that a story reveals a hero’s change. Based on that, you might assume that all other steps prior to the end of a story, disregarding their number and order, must serve the single purpose of changing a hero. So, if you’re writing a story, and you get stuck on its last pages, the issue most likely comes from what you’ve written in the earlier pages.
If we take Walter White from Breaking Bad, we clearly see the difference between him in the first and the last episode. All the values he believed in have evolved throughout a story. However, all these changes seem logical to the audience because of all the episodes in between that led to the last episode. The same statement can apply to any other character of the show. So, don’t only think about the story final but also think about how all the other steps can help you reach and write the proper ending of your story.