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Satisfying Resolutions

You owe your readers resolution, so make sure to write the end before you write, "The End."

You owe your readers resolution, so make sure to write the end before you write, "The End."

One cold Christmas Eve when I was little — let’s say twelve — my dad got home from work and the whole family rushed to pack the van with all our bags, and all our presents, so we could get down to Dallas at a reasonable time. We were leaving from Wichita with a six hour drive ahead of us, and it was already dark out, so we threw our stuff in and then scrabbled for seats so we could get on the road.

Mom and Dad had the front seats, of course, and my sisters grabbed the captain’s chairs in the middle, so that left me sharing the back bench with big boxes wrapped in crinkly paper. That far back, I couldn’t really participate in any of their conversations, or even really hear the radio, so I wedged myself in the back corner, leaned my head against the cold window, and fell asleep.

An hour down the road, Dad pulled into a truck stop on the turnpike to top off the tank. Before he went in to pay, he called into the car, “Anyone wants anything to eat or drink, you better get in and get it now.” My sisters sprang to their feet and headed to the door, but when he heard nothing from me, he called back, “Hey Aaron! You coming?’

“He can’t hear you way back there,” Mom reminded him gently, as she headed inside.

“He’s sleeping anyway,” my older sister said, so Dad just shrugged and went in with the rest of them.

I woke up a few minutes later, probably startled by the sudden silence, and my eyes were killing me. I wore contacts in those days, the flimsy disposable kind, and they had a bad habit of drying into a crisp torture device if I ever drifted off with them in. So I ran inside to change them in the bathroom, while the rest of my family was browsing the junk food aisles.

While I was taking them out, though, one of the contacts fell on the floor — in a truck stop men’s room. I’d heard such horror stories about eye infections, I just left it there, and went ahead and threw the other one in the trash, too. After all, I had a new pair out in my bag. I could make it through the night without them, and just put in fresh contacts for Christmas morning. I nodded to myself, satisfied with the plan, and headed to the van.

But the van wasn’t there.

I found an empty spot where it was supposed to be. My vision was bad enough that I second guessed myself, and turned to the next spot over, but it had an old rust-red Cadillac in it, and the spot on the other side had a Jeep. I stepped back up onto the curb to make sure I’d come out the right entrance from the convenience store, but I felt a rising panic. It was dark, and I was alone. I told myself I was being silly, that I’d just miscounted the parking spots. I imagined them sitting in the van two spots down, watching me, laughing.

They weren’t. They were at the far end of the lot, pushing forty as they rushed up the on-ramp onto the interstate. Just to be safe, Dad called back over his shoulder, “Everyone in?” He didn’t count quite enough yesses, so he called again, “Aaron? You back there?”

“He can’t hear you way back there,” Mom reminded him gently, as she settled in for the long drive.

“He’s sleeping anyway,” my older sister said, so Dad just shrugged and headed for Dallas.

Resolution: Climax and Denouement

Last week we talked about the Conflict Resolution Cycle, and the structure of a story. You’ve got all of that, in the story up above. The Big Event was Dad’s arrival for our hasty trip to Dallas. My first obstacle was finding a place to sit, and my second was waking up to an empty van with crusty contacts scraping at my eyes. The third, the climax, was the realization that I’d been abandoned, forty miles from home with my family rushing toward the state line.

So what’s missing? The end. The end! That’s the most important part!

Every story is, in a way, a contractual agreement between the writer and the reader. Your readers give up their valuable time to read your story, and in exchange they expect you to give them a story — a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. That means you’ve got to do more than make interesting characters and conflict. You’re responsible for building a valuable conclusion, too.

There’s basically two parts to the end, the climax, and the denouement. Climax is easy — it’s an obstacle. It’s usually bigger than the others, but it behaves in exactly the same way as all the obstacles you’ve been working on since page one. The denouement is a little trickier, though.

It’s a big fancy French word, and everybody’s heard it at some point. To keep things simple, “denouement” is often described as resolution of the plot. It’s everything that comes after the climax. It’s tying up loose ends. Essentially, it’s everything you have to say, after you’ve finished telling your story. This, again, is where “get in late, get out early” comes into play. There’s inevitably some information that has to be added, for the reader’s sanity.

The climax allows the protagonist to resolve his conflict, but it rarely happens instantly. If your Big Event was a proposal, then your climax could just as easily be a wedding or a breakup — or even just a conversation, but it had better be a good one. Let’s say it’s a wedding, and that big, dramatic, scene-ending “I do” packs a lot of punch and gives the protagonist the chance to stop worrying about all the obstacles that have been faced for the last three hundred pages.

It doesn’t end them all, though. Some of the arguments between bride and groom still have too much lingering effect, some of the relationships with family and exes are still up in the air. The resolution of the climax slows things down, but the denouement gives you the chance to let your readers know how it ends up.

This is your chance to shine as a writer, because you want to tie up as much as possible, in as short a space as possible. I can’t tell you how, exactly, because it’s different story-by-story, but focus on keeping it short and sweet. Tell what has to be told, and then put that “The End” stamp on the page as soon as you can.

Choosing Your Climax

I skipped over it above, but to be fair, the climax can be tricky, too. If you don’t know where your story is going, if you don’t know from the start what the end is going to be, it can be hard to find that perfect moment that brings everything crashing back to normal.

Generally, if you’re having trouble, it’s a good idea to try to balance the climax against the Big Event. A proposal and a wedding balance well. A proposal and a conversation about how screwed up our life has become in these last few months…it’s going to be tough to make that balance. It can be done, but you’ve got to manage your narrative a lot more effectively.

Don’t get me wrong, you can go wherever you want with your story. It’s true that most of the time a Big Event forecasts a Climax. A proposal forecasts a wedding, and alien warships showing up over his townhouse forecast an unexpected and unlikely but truly heroic victory over superior technological forces. You can see the balance there, and that’s easy to write to. If your characters are strong enough, you can make a unique and interesting story out of even the most cliché plot formula, but you don’t have to be bound by that. Tell the story you want to tell. I only point out balance because it can help you find your structure if you don’t know where to look. Looking closely at your Big Event can often recommend a Climax for you.

Your Goals Aren’t the Same as Your Protagonist’s Goals

The most important thing to remember as you build your story’s plot is this: your protagonist isn’t in it for the sake of the story. Your protagonist isn’t making the decisions that will make for the most interesting tale or the most spectacular climax. He just wants this story to be over.

In my story above, I didn’t slip stealthily past my parents on my way to the bathroom. That would have made an interesting story far more likely to happen, but it wasn’t my goal. I certainly didn’t want to be left alone out there. All I wanted was to get to Dallas, and get that trip over with. Of course, that story wouldn’t have been very interesting.

When you’re making up a story, the obstacles you create are the things that force your protagonist into an interesting story. I mentioned this principle last week, but it bears repeating here because, the closer you get to the climax, the easier it is for you to get caught up in your own story and forget it. If you allow your character to casually participate in the drama of the story, shouting his challenge for a hand-to-hand fight when he could just as easily shoot the villain dead, you’re going to lose your readers.

If you want him to do that, you’ve got to build it into his character — make it an honor issue for him, and the fact that he has superior arms becomes an obstacle. Or have him run out of ammo, have his gun jam, and that’s an obstacle he overcomes with a challenge (maybe playing on the villain’s honor).

Just remember, we’ve all seen enough bad movies, and read enough bad books, that we know how the story is supposed to go. Your story can follow the formula to the letter, or it can break every convention. Either way can make for a really good story. Either way, though, make sure your character isn’t just going along with the formula. It’s unnatural, and it undermines everything you’re doing.

Because, in the end, your readers are going to connect with the protagonist. Your readers should feel empathy and sympathy for him, and they should be just as troubled by the conflict as he is. They should be hoping for resolution, and it’s your job as a writer to provide them a description of his honest, dedicated search for resolution, including every obstacle along the way, every effort that went wrong, and what he did to overcome them. The better job you do telling that story, the more excited your readers will feel when he gets past that last obstacle and returns his life to normal. Even if it’s not a happy ending, it’s a great relief to have the conflict over and done with.

And, in case you’re wondering, they did come back and get me. It took them twenty miles or so before they realized I was missing, and that meant another twenty miles back to the rest stop, and by the time they showed up I’d pretty much resigned myself to living out my days as a half-blind truck stop hobo. But we made it to Grandma’s around two in the morning, and I lived to tell the tale (which I do, frequently, as the only fitting punishment).

3 Responses to “Satisfying Resolutions”

  1. Your story made me laugh because my brother has a story very similar. (Minus the contacts). Fathers leaving sons at truck stops in the middle of nowhere must be a common occurance. 🙂

  2. Carlos Velez says:

    Ha! That’s the half blind hobo alluded to on Twitter! I was waiting for it.

  3. Aaron Pogue says:

    Your brother has my sympathy, then, Becca. It’s no fun at all! It does make for a good story, though, and I’ve got a certain appreciation for that.

    And yeah, Carlos, there’s something about that phrase just rolls off the tongue. I’m profiting from the Pre-Writing Challenge already!