In my last two posts I explored two parts of a story’s structure:
- The beginning, where we encounter main characters, the setting, and the challenges the characters face.
- The middle, where things become complicated for the characters and tension mounts.
Now we’ve reached the end.
Like the beginning, the end is a relatively short, but for a different reason. Whereas the beginning hooks readers and draws them in, the end resolves the conflicts that carried the reader along. Actually, let’s qualify that. Some conflicts may be resolved in the middle. But the primary conflict can only be resolved at the end. Often a few lesser conflicts stick around until then, too, particularly in a novel. Short stories may only present a single conflict, but longer works will have more.
By definition, the resolution of the primary conflict is a story’s climax, it’s most important and exciting moment. All the tension built up through the middle is released in the climax. In action/adventure stories, this moment is the point when the threat posed by the primary antagonist becomes overwhelming. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed right here and right now, an irreversible catastrophe will result. The terrorists will blow up the building or the aliens will take over the world or the meteorite will crash into the Earth, triggering a mass extinction. In a mystery, the climax often pairs the resolution of the principal crime with mortal danger for the detective or for someone close to them. In a drama, the climax could even be triggered by the protagonist’s own flaws; if they fall victim to their failings, they will loose something important or others will be hurt. In all cases, the climax is the biggest, baddest, most danger-fraught moment in the whole story.
The story’s lesser conflicts can trigger moments like this, too, but generally they are less critical, less intense, and therefore not climactic. They can therefore be resolved in the middle of the story, but if so are usually replaced by larger conflicts or an intensification of the main conflict. The author can give the reader a moment to breath, but only a moment. Tension can’t decline for long, or the reader will wander off in search of a sandwich. But what happens when a lesser conflict persists right up to the climactic moment? Must it be resolved before the main conflict, or can it wait?
In some cases it can and indeed should wait, but order is important. Bear in mind that once the tension is gone, the reader has no reason to keep reading. Conflicts that persist beyond the climax have an inglorious name: “loose ends.” They must be tied up, but because the principal source of tension is gone, they must be tied up quickly. When the business of tying up loose ends drags on, readers rightly get bored and feel that the book should have ended sooner. In the worst case, they may suspect the book was “padded” to make them pay more for it–a feeling that also arises from middles where too little happens for too many pages. Conversely, a book that suddenly ends after a strong climax may leave readers feeling like they were dropped off of an emotional cliff. The less intense resolution to a loose end or two affords us time to “come down” gracefully rather than plummet. On the other hand, the author of a series might leave something unresolved as a “cliffhanger,” a way of inviting you to the next book in the series where, one hopes, the remaining conflict will eventually be resolved.
You may sense a theme here: writers play on your emotions through story structure. The good ones do it so well that you’re left clamoring for their next book!
By way of illustrating these concepts, I’ll invoke my novel The Fibonacci Murders. Therein, a series of murders takes place, with tension ratched up through an increasing body count, the cryptic nature of the killer’s notes to the police, a mathematical switch he pulls mid-stream, and the discovery that his final crime must be one of horrific proportions. Along the way, a second series of crimes occurs. Less severe than the murders, it nevertheless causes a PR nightmare for the police and is resolved only when the murderer kills its perpetrator. That’s one conflict removed, but it hardly decreases the tension–just the opposite. And then a new wrinkle develops: Tom Kaneko, the mathematician who has been assisting the police, privately devises a plan to find the killer and strikes out on his own, unwittingly placing himself in mortal danger. The killer captures him but must execute his final crime, so he trusses Kaneko up and dumps him in the woods, planning on dealing with him later. Now the climax arrives: the killer is stopped mere seconds before committing a mass murder.
End of story? Not quite. Kaneko is still out there in the woods, injured, bound, and gagged. That’s a loose end: I couldn’t leave him there. Moreover, the detectives had a couple of loose ends of their own to tie up. Keeping Kaneko in hot water until after the killer is foiled allows the tension to drop somewhat less than precipitously and transitions towards resolution of the other, lesser, loose ends. The result, I hope, is that when you’ve read the final sentence, you feel that order has been restored and all is right with the world.