An agent flings a promising work against the wall. When asked why, she rages about all the times she has read entire manuscripts only to be disappointed in the end. She softens as she explains how, by the time she reaches the final quarter of the story, she longs for the work to succeed. If it fails, disappointment stings all the more.
Agents, editors, directors, audiences, and readers alike expect the scenes of a story to add up to something meaningful in the end.
The End is the Beginning
T.S. Eliot said, "The end is in the beginning."
The beginning of any entertaining and well-crafted story tells as much about where we are headed as to where we will be at the end. This means that until you write the end you will not truly know the beginning.
Which comes first? Does a writer labor over the first three quarters of a project where the groundwork is laid for the end? Or, does one write the climax itself first?
Before a writer can lay the groundwork about the character and the situation to build to a climax in a way that makes the highest point of the story seem both inevitable and surprising, doesn't the writer first need to know the climax? At what point do we surrender our idea of the story and our will, and let the story have its head?
Whichever which way you get there, the choices you make for the end of your story deserve attention.
Connecting the Dots
A finished draft allows the writer to stand back from the story and think both forward from the beginning and middle, and backwards from the climax. In other words, the beginning defines the end and the end defines the beginning.
As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs says, "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." Of course he was referring to students at their commencement, but it applies to plot as well. For the end to be meaningful and convincing, first specific character emotional development must be established through the use of dramatic action.
What is your story really saying? What do all those words you wrote add up to? Your story is a reflection of a truth. Not necessarily true for all time, but true for the story itself, and likely for yourself, too. What is the deeper meaning? The truth beyond the physical? The protagonist has undergone a transformation. What does that mean? Jot down the ideas that come to you.
The protagonist introduced in the beginning 1/4 of a story spends twice that time in the caldron of dramatic action of the middle. In both the beginning one quarter of the story and up to the next three quarter mark toward the end of the middle, the character's emotional make-up is revealed through successively challenging events that are linked by cause and effect.
The dramatic action and the details and interpretations of the story hold the reader's interest and at the same time show the reader what they need to know to follow the story to its climax.
The climax hits close to the very end of the story. It is the point at which the story turns from being an interrelated deliberately arranged set of scenes to gold. "Any event that seems to the given writer startling, curious, or interest-laden can form the climax of a possible story," writes John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.
The Climax serves as the light at the end of the tunnel. In the final quarter of the work, the protagonist moves toward the light -- one step forward toward the ultimate transformation, three steps back, a fight for a couple of steps, being beat backwards.
The Climax spotlights the character as she comes into full transformation and demonstrates full mastery of the necessary new skill or personality, gift or action.
The protagonist "shows" herself in scene acting in a transformed way -- in a way she could not have acted in any other part of the story because she first needed to experience everything she does to get to the final stage.
When the dramatic action of a story changes a character at depth over time, the story becomes thematically significant. Ask yourself which scene most dramatically shows your protagonist demonstrating her transformed self?
When you know the answer to that question, you have your climax.
The Climax, in turn, informs all the other scenes in the entire project.
The happily-ever-after endings of the 1950s were replaced in the '60s and '70s by darker works like A Clockwork Orange, Coming Home, and Midnight Cowboy. The next decade brought in the era of Wall Street.
By the late '90s and early 2000s, we could afford to produce books and movies that depicted great loss and enduring hardship. As in the The Horse Whisperer and Cold Mountain, the reward in the end often came in the form of a new life.
Today, the shadow side of survival in these later films is fast becoming the reality in more and more book buyers' and moviegoers' lives.
Darkness or Hope
Of the two kinds of people who go to film festivals, view popular movies, and read books, one kind believes the universe is orderly and expects us to act morally responsible. These people usually find stories that end on a hopeful note enjoyable and inspire enthusiasm.
Then there are those people who accept a more random view of things. These people are often more at peace with stories that end by reinforcing a grudging acceptance that life is hard.
Both sorts of people are affected by the increasing connectedness of scenes and emotion in a story. In both cases, if unable to find enjoyment in a story or grasp a deeper acceptance for life, people will ultimately stop reading or opt to leave to the movie early.
While writing and rewriting the final quarter of the story and the climax itself, a writer looks hard at the meaning of things. An exploration of deep-rooted ideas for the fundamental meaning of events reveals thematic significance, which in turn dictates the final layer in the selection and organization, nuances, and details of the story.
Filmmaker Halidan Hussy, co-founder and executive director of Santa Cruz Cinequest Film Festival, says, "You go to find films that get you thinking, that open you up."
Stories that get you thinking resonate with meaning. Stories that open you up create opportunities for a shared experience with others. A promising story with a thematically rich climax leaves the reader to ponder the deeper meaning and, in that way, is sure to deliver success.
Excerpts of this article were taken from Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple by Martha Alderson, M.A.