Sunday 15 September 2019

Endings Part II:structure & turning points - by Rowena House

Last month I shared some notes I’d made for a writer friend who'd asked me about story endings. Here’s the link to that blog about the “what” of endings: what’s going to happen, and what that implies for the rest of the story.
This post is about another side of endings, the “how” part. It covers some of the tips I’ve picked up over the years from editing and writing courses, and also from a range of advice guides and writing blogs. I hope it might be useful for anyone struggling with their ending or wondering how to plot one.

Of all the structural guides I’ve studied, the most helpful terminology I’ve come across is in The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. In it, he provides a helpful label for each of the three acts of classic “Aristotelian” storytelling.
Coyne calls Act 1 the Set Up, Act 2 the Progressive Build and Act 3 the Pay Off. 
These labels signpost the content for each act; they also flag up the all-important turning points which spin the story into the next act and, finally, The End.
For example, the main turning point of the Set Up is an Inciting Incident: the event or call to adventure which gets the central plot going.
The Progressive Build ends at a Worst Point for the protagonist, the turning point which precipitates the story into the final act. A midpoint epiphany is another great practical turning point for Act 2. I’ve blogged about epiphanies here.
The Pay Off brings to a head both the plot and main character arc. As the pace and tension accelerate, there are (typically) two major turning points in Act 3: a Crisis and a Climax. The story is then wrapped up with a final beat, usually called the Resolution. Each of these three scenes gives shape, direction and energy to a climatic ending.
For writers who follow this schema, the Crisis is the deepest dilemma the protagonist faces; the toughest choice s/he must make throughout the story. 
One tip I’ particularly like is to make this Crisis decision as horribly, gut-wrenchingly dramatic as possible by forcing the protagonist to choose between two highly prized, but mutually exclusive alternatives (AKA “irreconcilable goods”). Imagine a parent on a dangerous cliff path: their son is being dragged towards a 100-foot drop in one direction, their daughter is being kidnapped by a madman in the other. Which way do they turn? Deciding between two such irreconcilable goods is much more difficult and character-defining than a choice between the lesser of two evils, or between right and wrong. 
If the story is focused on character, then this Crisis decision can be the defining moment of the whole thing: the “obligatory scene” as some creative writing teachers and editors term it. It is the point in the story where the protagonist decides to transform from the person they were to the person they need to become in order to fulfil their role in the story, or (by failing to change) to become a tragic figure.
To give the reader the maximum insight into this pivotal moment, the Crisis decision needs to be fully developed and emotionally powerful, and can take quite a few pages. 
The Climax is the action initiated by the protagonist as a result of their crisis decision. Classically, it’s the scene where they confront their biggest force of antagonism: the top villain if there is one, or their worst nightmare if that’s what’s been holding them back. 
The Climax is the final turning pointing for the plot; in it, the actions of the protagonist reflect a deliberate choice to change or transform in order to achieve their story goal. The outcome of this climactic conflict is profoundly meaningful for the protagonist; it is also irreversible. 
For more plot-orientated stories, the Climax is widely considered to be the “obligatory” scene and can be the longest one in the book. Climaxes don’t have to be explosive or action-packed. In The Goose Road it’s a slow-burn, escalating scene stretching over three chapters. In the film, Ordinary People, Robert McKee in Story notes that the Climax is the wife packing a suitcase and walking out on her family: a brief, simple action but with enormous meaning within that story world.
The Resolution is a final chapter or scene which cements this character transformation in the reader’s mind. The action shows how the change-through-conflict of the story, which led to the Climax, has altered the protagonist’s underlying behaviour and attitudes for good (and/or how that change impacts on their community). 
Plot-wise, the Resolution might wrap up a subplot or dramatize a reconciliation. The way the protagonist achieves this scene’s goal manifests their new persona.
Over the years, I’ve read quite a few variants on this theme of crisis-climax-resolution. In Into the Woods, John Yorke talks about “mastery” being the final beat within his five-act structure. In stories with deliberately “open” endings, the Climax and Resolution might be implied, rather than shown.

For Christopher Vogler, the “return with the elixir” is the last, and potentially extended stage of the hero’s quest, as detailed in The Writer’s Journey. 
With this style of ending, the protagonist brings back to their troubled home community some sort of boon (a life lesson learnt or an actual physical elixir). In the archetypal quest ending, this boon helps the protagonist to win one final battle.
While some writers follow Vogler’s road map in its entirety (or Yorke’s Five Acts or Coyne’s Story Grid etc.), I prefer to cherry-pick, keeping an eye out for recommended structural beats as I plot or going back over a first draft to identify missing elements.
After a draft of The Goose Road was rejected by Andersen Press, for example, fellow Bath Spa MAer Chris Vick (whose new book Girl. Boy. Sea looks fantastic, by the way) pointed out that Angelique’s journey contained many elements of a quest. In light of his insight, I re-read The Writer’s Journey and found a host of structural beats I could add, which in turn helped me to deepen Angelique’s character arc during a full development edit for Walker.
There are, hopefully, an almost infinite number of ways to end a story. Structurally, however, the advice I’ve read and heard supports one underlying tenet: at the end, change must be demonstrated by a “character-in-action” (to borrow a phrase from Emma Darwin’s brilliant This Itch of Writing blog.) 

The protagonist must do something to show the reader they’ve become a different person due to the events of the story. In the end, they’ve got to walk the walk.

PS In case anyone’s free on the evening of Oct 2, Tracey Matthais, Matt Killeen, Liz McWhirter and I are talking about our protagonists’ “Interesting Times” at Waterstones, Uxbridge. See our social media feeds for details. I’m @HouseRowena on Twitter



Pippa Goodhart said...

Really interesting and insightful. I must read it again and take notes. Thank you!

Rowena House said...

You're so welcome, Pippa.

Rowena House said...

Oh, lawks. That's Tracey Mathais and Liz MacWhirter. Sorry, both. xx

John condon said...

This is excellent, Rowena. Thank you so much.