Advanced Storytelling


End of Your Story

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 99–104)

As to ending a story, especially a novel, the words we said earlier about fiction dealing with a moral equation are crucial here. The mechanism is as old as storytelling. Perception of the universal chord it strikes in humankind, and analysis of how it works, were best done by my departed colleague at the University of Oklahoma, William Foster-Harris, whose book on the subject (The Basic Formulas of Fiction) still stands like a rock in the literature of writing technique.

Let's review and elaborate on what I said earlier about story and the moral equation, as explained by Foster-Harris. At some level, Foster-Harris said, every story deals with an internal, as well as external, struggle. The tension inside the viewpoint character is a war between opposing ideals or loyalties. As the title of his book implies, this struggle can be expressed as an equation:

  • Value 1 + Value 2 = unknown outcome

Or, as it could be expressed in more nearly mathematical terms:

  • V1 + V2 = ?

Example: A story of struggle might involve an old man who, far past the age for fathering children, had a son whom he loved beond all else on earth. But the old man, who had spent his long life loving and honoring his God, might be called by the voice of God one day to take his son to the top of a mountain. And, once there, God might have told the old man to sacrifice the son to show love for the God.

In this case (roughly the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible), the old man was confronted with the cruelest dilemma: he had to make a choice between love of his God and love of his son.

In Foster-Harris's terms: Parental love versus love for God will end with—? Or:

  • PL + LG = ?

It was Foster-Harris's contention that most of the great stories of all time somehow take part in this archetypal pattern of having plot finally devolve to a moment where the central character is forced to the ultimate moral dilemma where no choice looks good and circumstance absolutely forces the character to make a decision in action, now, and based on who and what he ultimately is.

Such a test in the climax of a story (of whatever length) is the final crisis and test of the worth of the character. Surely, if the story has been of a sympathetic character, we as readers want the character to make the good choice. But, as in the case of the Hebrew readers of the story of Abraham, the good decision may appear to be sacrificial—in Abraham's case, literally so.

There is no doubt that to early readers (or hearers) of the Abraham story, the good decision was to sacrifice Isaac. But this was also clearly a sacrifice in more ways than one. Abrahanm evidently stood to lose everything by so doing: his beloved son, his future as a progenitor of the race, his daily happiness. And what could he see that he might get? Nothing!

This moral equation became Abraham's ultimate test, the final proof (in the story) as to whether he is admirable, lovable, worthy of our reader concern. In such stories, we writhe in agony with the character facing such a dilemma.

Abraham, you will recall from the Bible, tried to delay a decision about his dilemma. God would have none of it, and demanded a decision at once. At this moment, Abraham became the sum total of who and what he was, and made no speeches, consulted no standard references, gave no sermons, but simply showed his decision in action.

He raised his hand to slay his beloved son, Isaac.

At which point his Hebrew onlookers must have been filled with love and admiration and horror. After all, here Abraham was, doing the right thing, and he was surely about to lose everything.

Such a moment of horror and fear in the reader is the ultimate goal of the writer at the climax. We know now that the character is admirable and deserving. He has proven it. But in this dark moment after the decision, it appears he will lose all precisely because he has made the right choice, given us the morally and spiritually uplifing and affirmative answer to his story equation:

  • Parental love + Love of God = Love of God

But now, says Foster-Harris, if Abraham slays his son and loses all, then what has the story proved about the human condition? That good choices mean nothing; that life is random and cruel; that selfishness is better than principle. And none of that is good because most fiction, based on a moral equation, is at some level an affirmation of traditional values and a statemnt that life is worth living truly and honestly and that good is rewarded. Art, like religion, is life affirming.

Therefore—as in the story of Abraham—there must be a reversal.

In the Bible story, God stays Abraham's hand. He says it was a test of Abraham's love for Him.

So we breathe a sigh of relief at this reversal of our expectations, this unforseen turn of events. Isaac is spared. And then we think, "But of course! I didn't see it before, but Abraham's God would never have really asked him to sacrifice Isaace! I should have seen that it was test!" The sacrifical decision is followed by a dark moment, which is followed by a reveral, which is both logical and unanticipated. And this in itself is tremendously satisfying.

But note, please, that the ancient teller of the Abraham tale did not stop there. Abraham not only gets what he thought he was about to lose—his son—but God tells him, in effect, that since he has prvoven his great love for God, God will name him to lead His people, and his seed will endure forever.

Kingship and immortality.

Rewards far beyond Abraham's wildest dreams—and far more than he thought he would have if he earlier chose the "bad" decision about sacrificing Isaac—and all because he made the right instinctive choice.

So life and decency are affirmed, and the human condition is validated.

All novels may not work with plot and character materials that lend themselves to a climax involving sacrifice and reversal. But if you will analyze any dozen popular novels on the stands, you are sure to find elements of sacrifice by the major character throughout the novel. In at least half of those books, the climax will involve the viewpoint character with his back to the wall; forced to an ultimate, cruel moral dilemma (which illustrates the equation); making a decision shown in action (which makes the decision concrete and dramatic). There will be a dark moment (which shakes the reader's confidence), and a reversal that is simply wonderfully satisfying (bringing out the affirmative theme).

In bad fiction, you can see that the plot and people have been manipulated to bring about the desired end. In good fiction, it seems inevitable.

What's the difference? Author skill and hard work.

Look at your plot materials, how you plan to end your story. Find the ultimate test. Set up the background and the characters goals, needs and assumptions so that, hidden inside the seeming disaster, lie the fruits of glory. Play the scene for all it's worth—which is everything, since this is your ultimate proof that the character is worth saving. And then bring out your theme, without preaching, by showing the dynamic reversal of expectations, both the character's, and your reader's.

The process is funamental to how we learn all the most significant things in our life. Fantasy, some think, is the process by which we remember our yesterdays, and story is the process by which we create a unity out of the chaos of existence.

Does the idea of a happy ending worry you? It needn't. People read for affiirmation, inspiration, escape, assurance that life is basically worth living—at least some of the time—and they do not read to learn more about the humdrum, the routine, the dull, or the discouraging. None of those things are what art is about. So you needn't worry, and your ending needn't be phony if you exercise your judgment, compassion and skill.

You may assuage your worry about happy endings by turning the equation upside down, by showing a less-than-admirable character making the selfish choice in order to win everything. And then, of course, that character loses because, hidden in the situation, were the seeds of destruction he could not see through his selfishness.

Let me repeat: all stories are not told this way, but most of the best ones are.

Consider the implications of the philosophical point of view and its technical implications. Don't, please, think you're too cynical, smart, worldy wise or sophisticated to use as best you can this view of how a story ends. For surely by now you understand that smart sophisticates never write good novels. They are all too busy being superior to their readers.

Take a day off. Think about it.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.