‘Endings?’ you snort derisively. ‘What would you know about endings? You’ve spent nearly two years working on the same novel and you haven’t finished it yet, distracted as you are by day jobs, video games and watching Japanese tokusatsu shows on YouTube!’
That’s true, Hypothetical and Unpleasantly Confrontational Reader, although I’ll thank you not to drag my burgeoning interest in Kamen Rider into this. Raven’s Blood is taking too long, but I am drawing close to the end of it, and endings are on my mind, especially after last week’s post on beginnings.
More to the point, that’s not my only project, and last weekend I wrapped up Exile Empire, the 4th ed D&D game I’ve been running for the last 3.5 years. (Only 24 sessions in that time, true, but so it goes.) After adventures throughout Stormreach and against a variety of enemies, the party of heroes ventured into Dolurrh, the Realm of the Dead, to rescue the soul of another adventurer. It was pretty damn fun, lemme tell you – you can read the details here, if you want a bit more context for what follows.
Now, running a roleplaying campaign ain’t like
dusting crops boy writing a novel, but there are things each can learn from the other, as I’ve written about before. Plus, story is story no matter how it’s packaged and delivered, and a satisfying end to a narrative has certain elements no matter whether it’s communicated through deathless prose, dice rolls or a dance battle.
So with that in mind, here are four things that, based on my experiences with good endings and bad (and with the end of Exile Empire as an example), make for a satisfying and engaging ending to any story.
The payoff, the big finish, the wrap-up; the ending needs to resolve the core line of the story. That’s not necessarily the same thing as ‘resolve the story’, especially since you might have multiple plotlines going on in a big story and this book might only be the first instalment. But the start of your book is a promise of what the story may hold, especially if you use the start of the story to make your mission statement (and you should); the end of the book is where you need to make good on that promise. In other words, you need to finish, not just end; don’t just come to a sudden stop and say ‘well, book’s done now.’ You might think that would go without saying, but any number of novels make this mistake, including up-to-that-point good ones like Neal Stephenson’s early books.
The premise of Exile Empire was ‘heroes forge new lives in Stormreach and have adventures’, and that’s a formless enough thing that there are many ways I could have ended it. But in those first few sessions we lost two PCs, and that brought up a plot hook where someone stole one of the bodies, and it’s that plot thread – along with arcs that tied back to that hook at some point, and a couple of stand-alone why-the-hell-not side treks – that formed the spine of the campaign; it didn’t start as the mission statement, but it certainly became one soon enough. If I hadn’t made that the central element of the last arc, if I’d dropped that and brought up something new to cap off the campaign, then it might have been enjoyable in and of itself but it wouldn’t have been satisfying. To say nothing of not being as cool as going to the afterlife and beating up a dracolich.
More books should end with dracolich fights. Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you.
Closure and breathing room
As resolution is to story, closure is to character; the time to bring their personal arc and growth to a head and draw a line. Imagine for a second the ending of your favourite big action/adventure story – and then it stops right at the climax, with no glimpse of how the characters feel or cope with their victory (or defeat). Sounds pretty dull, right? Right? (Come on, agree with me.) If you hit all the crescendo notes in the climax (or anti-climax, if that’s your thing) and then stop, it’s like coaxing the audience into a sugar high and then telling them to go to bed right now. The dust needs to settle, the wounds need to heal; we need to see how the fulfilment of the story’s promise has changed the characters and how they move on from where they were. Without that character focus, it’s like seeing fight scenes in a loop; cool at first, sure, but eventually boring. And to do that, you need some time post-climax (stop sniggering) to focus on your world and characters, even if only for a quick scene; enough breathing room for everyone to settle into the new equilibrium.
The odd part of Exile Empire’s climax was that it was all about a character who was dead and who didn’t have a strong relationship with any of the surviving PCs. So to make it satisfying I had to give them reasons to care about saving his soul and to brave Dolurrh. Slaine’s master had been hurt when the corpse was stolen; Ash and Spark were caught up in the Prophecy motivating things; Caleb turned out to have a secret connection to the other dead PC, Jin; and Kaddik… okay, he was mostly along for the ride. I backed that up with encounters with the dead villains they’d defeated, plus chances to see how they’d changed Stormreach for the better, so that the players felt invested. And once the dracolich was defeated, we had quick scenes of everyone’s personal aftermath, giving players room to define for themselves how their characters had grown (or not).
The thing about the 100% dramatically appropriate ending is that after you see a few of them they become kind of dull. All those expected character and plot ‘beats’ (god I hate that term) sounding at the expected time – even if they’re beautifully crafted, the gloss wears off. And if they’re not beautifully crafted, you get the same ol’ Hollywood ending we always sigh and roll our eyes at. So mix it up some when you get to the end and throw in something no-one expected, maybe not even you. Kill off a major character! Transform an enemy into an ally! Reveal that Rosebud was a sled, but it’s a talking sled and it’s come for revenge and oh god the sled is calling from inside the house! Or something else that isn’t perhaps so crazy. In my defence it’s very hot in my study and I think my brain has curdled.
The big surprise at the end of Exile Empire was that someone would have to stay behind in the Realm of the Dead in order for Alarich’s soul to leave. I hadn’t foreshadowed or suggested that (although it’s a classic ‘journey to the underworld’ trope), and so even though they knew this was the final session, the players had to wrestle with the notion that it would be very final for one of them. That led to earnest discussions and volunteering to stay behind, but when Spark elected to stay it felt both surprising and right – a shock (including to me) but a satisfying one. The other, smaller surprise was learning of Caleb’s connection to Jin and the secret plot he’d been working on all along – again, no real foreshadowing on it, but it felt right nonetheless.
A few loose ends
The other thing about Hollywood endings, while I’m badmouthing them, is that they can feel pat and contrived; they always wrap everything up neatly at the end. So too do some other stories, especially large ones with lots of subplots and hooks (comics/serial fiction is a particular culprit), and for me that rarely feels genuine. At best it feels too easy; at worst it feels rushed and super-forced. I think there’s value in a slightly messy ending to a big story, one where not every prop introduced in Act One gets used in Act Three (sorry, Chekov). Obviously you have to wrap up the core and most important things, but leaving a couple of things dangling, in a way that doesn’t interfere with the resolution of the main plotline, can make an ending feel that little bit more real. And leave room for a sequel.
Like most ongoing/serial games, Exile Empire had a bunch of story hooks and lines that came and went. The last arc of the game wrapped up the main ones – the Storm Hammers, the Prophecy, the trip to the Underworld – but I deliberately left others undone. Whatever happened to Janda-Shen and Ballast? Will Ash’s demonic relatives ever come for him? Who were those people chasing Spark? What was the real story behind Jin, Caleb and Jaris Cantar? What of the Prophecy and the power behind the Emerald Claw? We don’t know, and it’s okay – it didn’t hurt the story to leave those fallow at the end. (In the case of Spark’s story, in fact, the sudden twist of him staying in the Underworld made dropping those threads all the more dramatic.) I have material to work with if I want to return to the campaign (not any time soon, but it may happen), and the players have that sense of being part of something larger, messier and more interesting than the snippet we saw over 24 sessions.
Well, this was meant to be a short and punchy blog post, but that plan has obviously collapsed and died in the heat. Take a note, RPG writers – examples always eat up the wordcount.
What are your thoughts on a satisfying ending? Leave a comment and tell us what you think, even if – especially if – you disagree with my take. And come back next weekend for a look at one way from getting from the beginning to the ending without losing your readers’s attention.
It involves fishing. Yes, really. Metaphorically. Sort of.