8 Rules for Writing The End

Writing the ending of your story can be as difficult as coming up with its opening lines. After all, the ending is the part that will (or should) linger in your readers’ minds. It’s important to craft an ending that satisfies, intrigues, and leaves readers hungry for your next book.

The EndWhat should you do to create a memorable and striking ending? Here are 8 rules to follow, distilled from great posts you should also read by Dee White, James V. Smith, Jr., Brian Klems, Crista Rucker, Joanna Penn, and the folks at Creative Writing Now and WikiHow:


  1. Resolve the story’s main conflict(s). Even if the external conflict isn’t fully resolved, the protagonist’s internal conflict should demonstrate growth in that character.
  2. Ensure the final events result from the protagonist’s actions and decisions. For better or worse, the hero must bring about the ending, not stand by and watch it happen. Do not allow a Deus Ex Machina.
  3. Strive for an ending that’s inevitable, yet unexpected. I’ve always found Beethoven’s music to be like that. “Yeah,” you’re asking, “but how do I do that?” Take the expected ending and give it a twist; that’s how to give readers something they don’t expect. The way to make that ending inevitable is to go back and drop foreshadowing hints into the story. If these hints are subtle, then your ending can be both inevitable and unexpected.
  4. Allow only a brief resolution after the story’s climax. The end should be a rapid relaxation of tension as I depicted here.
  5. The end should refer to story’s theme, but not be preachy like a morality play.
  6. If you’re unsure how to end your tale, write several draft endings and either choose the best one, or combine elements from two or more of the best. You may end up with as many drafts of the ending as you wrote for the beginning hook.
  7. You needn’t fully wrap up all the story’s loose ends (except those pertaining to the protagonist and the main internal conflict), but they should be addressed or hinted at.
  8. The end should reflect back to beginning, but in a spiral manner, not a circular one. By that I mean that things can never be as they were in the beginning of the story; too much has changed. By referring back to the beginning, that will emphasize this change to the reader.

Adherence to these rules should help you end your stories in a manner satisfying to your readers. At last, riding off into the sunset on his amazing rocket-powered pen, goes—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Before You Write that Scene

What are the things you should be thinking about before you write a scene in your story? Pantzers and Plotters will approach this question differently in the first draft, but in subsequent drafts, the questions will be the same.

Whether your work is a novel or short story, it is a sequence of scenes. A novel’s chapter can have one or more scenes, as can a ‘part’ or ‘section’ of a short story.

I’ll look at two approaches today, and you can combine them or pick the one you like. When I researched the topic, I found an approach used by Larry Brooks and a different one used by Dr. Randy Ingermanson. I’ve mentioned Ingermanson before in connection with his snowflake method of writing.

Larry Brooks’ View

My picture of Larry Brooks’ method shows the story as a sequence of scenes. If written well, each scene serves an important purpose in the story. If written poorly, a scene can seem out of joint, or even seem like a side-trip out of the story.

Scene Structure -BrooksI’ve drawn a single scene as a system with inputs and outputs, but Brooks hammers home the importance of having a mission for the scene, a mission that advances the plot somehow. The scene’s mission must also support the overall strategy for the story.

He discusses ways to choose the point to start the scene—the cut-in point. He suggests you think about sub-text to put in the scene, those unstated inferences that show the reader a character’s true thoughts, or make some metaphorical thematic point. Brooks says that all scenes should develop or reveal characters, but that should never be the sole point of the scene.

In Brooks’ view, a writer must align every scene with one of the four parts of a story. These parts are the Set-Up, the Responder, (where the protagonist is responding to the First Plot Point), the Warrior (where the protagonist grapples with the main conflict), and the Resolution.

Lastly, the scene has to end in a way that urges the reader on.

Randy Ingermanson’s View

Randy Ingermanson takes a more structural and prescriptive approach. He encourages writers to view scenes at a Large Scale and a Small Scale. In discussing the large scale view, he uses terminology from Dwight Swain and suggests that all scenes are either scenes or sequels. (I prefer to use the terms tension and relaxation.) These alternate in sequence, to allow the reader to catch a breath between points of high drama or action.

Scene Structure - IngermansonThe tension (scene) scenes each include a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. The relaxation (sequel) scenes each include a reaction, a dilemma, and a decision. That sets the write up for the next tension scene.

Turning to the small scale, Ingermanson says good writers construct each scene from a series of MRUs – Motivation-Reaction Units. The motivation is some external happening sensed by the point-of-view character. The reaction is the internal emotions or thoughts experienced by the POV character as a result.

Final Thoughts

I’ve condensed the thoughts of both Brooks and Ingermanson, and I encourage you to read each of their full posts. There is much to learn from both views, and they are not contradictory, so it’s possible to do both.

If you consider their approaches before and during your first drafts of any scene, and during the rewriting and editing of subsequent drafts, I’m betting your stories will be more focused, more readable, and more enjoyable.

Time to split this scene and return to the other never-ending duties of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Formula for Success

Have you ever written formula fiction? Is it good or bad to do so?  What is it, exactly?

formula 2If your story re-uses the plot, plot devices, and stock characters of other stories, then you’ve written formula fiction.  It’s different from the term genre, in that genre fiction makes use of the same setting and style as other works within the genre, but genre fiction may vary plot and characters considerably.  I termed such writers formulists in a brief discussion here.

Although literary critics tend to dismiss formula fiction, there are so many published stories, it’s difficult to come up with entirely new plots and characters.

Usually there’s a good reason why a writer chooses a formula.  It works!  It’s a curious thing that readers enjoy reading formula fiction.  They’re comfortable with the character types, and although they know how the story will come out, they follow along anyway.  Readers can forgive a great deal if the author tells the story in an interesting way.

I’ll discuss plot types in a future blog post, but with formula fiction there’s no real attempt to vary from a proven plot line too much.  Just re-use what’s been done before, perhaps with slight deviations in setting or style, or specific plot events.

The use of stock characters frees the writer from having to include a lot of explanation or description.  After only a few words, the reader understands all there is to know.  Again, it’s possible to vary a bit from the standard character type, but there’s little need.

I said it’s a curious thing that readers would enjoy formula fiction, but perhaps it’s not so mysterious.  Before there was a formula, there was an enterprising writer (or oral storyteller) who conveyed the story for the first time.  It struck a chord.  It was successful.  After that, why not just do variations on a popular and effective theme?

Examples of formula fiction include romance, horror fiction, and space opera.  Each of these has withstood the test of time because each has appealing characteristics that really reach an audience, and keep on reaching generations of new readers.

In the case of romance fiction, readers enjoy the odd or awkward meeting (the ‘meet-cute’) between man and woman characters who seem opposite or ill-fitting at first, then they warm to each other, only to have a parting of the ways, and finally reunite in love at the end.  An overdone plot line?  Apparently not yet, since this formula sells more books than any other by far.

In horror fiction, at least the cinematic type, the audience sees a mixed-gender group of characters who are isolated in some way and face a horrible entity bent on their destruction.  One by one the characters are killed until only a lone female—the so-called final girl— is left to either defeat the entity or escape.  Another plot line that has not run its course.

For space opera, readers are treated to a heroic character in the distant future, somewhere in outer space, confronting a menace threatening the survival of the hero’s people.  The hero strives against the evil force, and just when it appears all is lost, the hero is able to defeat the menace.  This formula continues to work.

Despite what critics might say, there’s nothing wrong with formula fiction, particularly if you’d like to sell your stories.  There’s plenty of room within the constraints of the formula to display your creativity as a writer.  So, like a mad scientist (Mwahahaha!), go ahead and use your (fiction) formula to take over the world!  Good luck, says—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

Ay, Now the Plot Thickens

When George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham wrote those words for his play “The Rehearsal” in 1663, I believe he had today’s blog post in mind.  For, ay, I intend to discuss how to plot a story.

First, what is a plot?  It is simply a series of connected fictional events.  Here are two rules about these events:

1.  In a non-humorous story, the connections between events should be logical, with a minimum of lucky coincidences; the events should be related by cause and effect.

2.  To make your story appealing to readers, there should be a certain structure to these events.  That is, experience has shown this particular plot structure (sometimes called a “dramatic arc”) to have a maximum emotional impact.

But how are rules 1 and 2 related?  What does it mean to have a cause-and-effect chain of events that rises and falls?  Think of it this way.  Your story must have a protagonist with a problem, a conflict of some kind.  Often there is both an external and internal conflict.

I’ve said before that stories are about the human condition.  More specifically, stories show human ways of dealing with problems.  It may seem strange to generalize that way, but without a problem or conflict, you have no story.  Even if there are no humans in your tale, your non-human characters are really just standing in for people.

Plotting diagramsBack to plotting.  Think of the series of events (Rule 1) as events showing your protagonist encountering an initial obstacle, overcoming it, then encountering a worse one, overcoming that one, etc.  Each obstacle thrown at her causes her to struggle against it.  Her struggle causes the antagonist (which may be a person or nature or anything) to oppose her even more.  That’s what Villiers described as a plot thickening.

Think of the dramatic arc (Rule 2) as a portrayal of the increasing difficulties for your protagonist as she contends with her problems. Tensions should increase in this section, culminating in a climactic turning point.  There she must confront both her external and internal problems.  The remaining events convey the resolution of the conflict and represent a decrease in tension.

Although I’ve geared this discussion to short stories, all fiction is similar.  Screenwriter H. R. D’Costa has written a wonderful blog post providing the secrets of movie plot structures.

Oh, one more thing about problems and resolutions—if you have a problem with what I’ve said in this blog post, leave a comment and I’ll try to resolve it.  I also accept praise by the heapful.  I’ll close by saying, Ay, now the plot’s been thickened by—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

September 1, 2013Permalink

Tightening the Screws

Today I’m discussing why and how writers increase conflict in their stories.  Long-term fans of this site with keen memories will recall that I promised to get to this topic in a previous blog entry.  Far be it from me to let you down.

Conflict is a necessary part of all stories and it’s a good idea to ramp up the level of conflict as your story proceeds, both to hold your reader’s interest by building tension, and to subject your protagonist to a progressively more difficult test of character, forcing him or her to confront inner fears or character flaws.

220px-Jurassic_Park_posterLet’s look at a couple of examples.  In the 1993 movie “Jurassic Park,” directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, we see a gradual step-up in conflict.  The central protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant, is persuaded to leave a paleontological dig to conduct a review of a theme park.  Once there he is awed that the park engineers have re-created living dinosaurs.  He is put in close contact with children, which he dislikes.  When part of the park’s security system is deactivated, a Tyrannosaurus attacks the group.  Grant and the children must spend the night in the park, with predatory dinosaurs on the loose.  They encounter cunning Velociraptors, and finally both Velociraptors and the Tyrannosaurus.

Fiddler_on_the_roof_posterConflict need not be physical, or even dangerous.  In the 1964 musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, the conflict is of a different nature but also increases.  The village milkman, Tevye, must first contend with the fact that his eldest daughter has chosen her own husband against tradition and his wishes.  Then his second daughter likewise makes her own marital match, but with a political and cultural radical.  Later his third daughter seeks to marry outside the Jewish faith.  Finally, on orders from the Tsar, Russian authorities expel the Jewish villagers from their town.

Notice how, in each case, the author chooses plot events that begin with small conflicts and then escalates, figuratively tightening thumbscrew devicethe screws as with the medieval torture device, progressively challenging the characters with more taxing situations.  Just as the protagonist resolves or comes to terms with one disaster, a worse one occurs.  Moreover, the nature of the conflicts is such that they strike at a character flaw.  In Dr. Grant’s case, it’s his dislike of children.  In Tevye’s case, it’s his over-reliance on tradition.  The protagonists are forced to grapple with their own weakness and try to overcome it.

It’s sad, in a way, that writers must put their characters through the torture of increasing conflict intensity, just for the sake of reader enjoyment.  But as long as the characters stay imaginary, it’s all legal, so ease your mind about that.  You’re welcome to comment on this topic of increasing the level of conflict.  I’ll return now to my Work in Progress (WIP).  Please don’t mind any screams you might hear as the screws get tightened by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

What? I’m Supposed to Learn Structure, Too?

Yes, you should know about short story structure to be successful in selling your tales.  Luckily, it’s not difficult.  To learn about structure, I mean.  The actual writing of successful short stories takes some effort, but so does anything worthwhile.

Let’s start with the basic structure of any story.  This structure is true for novels, movies, plays, even comic books.  We’ll then see how the structure applies to short stories in particular.

1.  The Hook.  This is an opening section meant to grab the reader’s (or viewer’s) interest.  I’ll have a few things to say about hooks in a future blog post. The hook needs to introduce your protagonist and his or her conflict.  It should set the story in a particular time or place.

2.  The Middle.  Here the protagonist tries several times to end the conflict, but fails.  It can even be the case that his or her attempts actually make things worse. In any case, the protagonist is tested in some way, either to physical limits or emotional ones, or both.

3.  The Resolution (or Dénouement).  In this section the conflict is resolved.  This usually involves the protagonist learning something, perhaps something about himself or herself.  The conflict could also be resolved by the protagonist’s death.

Aristotle called these parts the protasis, the epitasis, and the catastrophe.



The novelist Gustav Freytag later introduced the concept of the dramatic arc containing five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.  Essentially Aristotle’s epitasis includes the middle three elements of Freytag’s dramatic arc, though the falling action could be part of Aristotle’s catastrophe.  For simplicity here, I’ll stick to a three-part structure and use my titles for them.


In many story forms there will be no breaks or signposts separating these sections.  Even so, a reader who is looking for these sections will find them.  If you think back to novels you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, you’ll be able to recognize this structure.

With short stories, everything gets compressed.  The main feature of short stories is, in fact, their shortness.  This benefits the reader, since she or he can enjoy the story in a single sitting, thus remaining immersed in the world of the tale without interruption by the real world.  However, this brevity becomes the driving constraint for the writer.  The writer has to convey all three elements of story structure, but in very few words.

A short story needs a hook, like all stories.  However, an author of such tales cannot include a long description of the protagonist, other characters, or the setting.  Short stories have bare-bones hooks that just (1) introduce the protagonist, (2) introduce the conflict, and (3) set the story in time and place.

The middle section of a short story is likewise compacted down to the bare minimum.  There are fewer characters to interact with, few or no subplots, not even very many protagonist-testing events.  To keep the middle section short, some events or actions can be implied, letting the reader fill in the gaps in his or her mind.  This implication technique seems to contradict the “show, don’t tell” commandment, but it’s different, and it’s something with which I still struggle.

A short story’s resolution section also is a trimmed-down version, in comparison with longer works.  The section needs to resolve the conflict, possibly by having the protagonist learn something or otherwise grow as a person, or defeat the antagonist.  Nearly all the loose ends of the story need to be tied up in this section.  I say nearly all because it’s okay to leave some things unresolved or open to question–that’s life.

Throughout the writing of the short story, the author must take pains to keep a laser-like focus on the theme of the story.  Delete anything not directly supporting that theme, or necessary to having a meaningful story.

As you read more short stories by authors you enjoy, you’ll see how they employ the three-part structure I’ve described.  Soon you’ll be using it in your own stories, too.  As always, please send a comment if this has been useful to you, and address it to–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe