Here's a typical conversation I have on occassion:
Someone Else: Can you help me, please?
Me: Sure. How can I help?
S: I'm working on a story. It's a war-time story about two brothers . . . blah, blah, blah.
Me: Okay. So what's the problem?
S: It keeps turning into hard porn!
Me: Have you figured out the ending, yet?
S: Why would I do that?
Walters Rule of Writing: Never write one word until you know your ending.
The ending is the most important part of any story. If you just start writing, you could go off in any direction at any time. If you have your ending, it will give you direction. With each word, you should be on a path toward the final resolution.
When Margaret Mead wrote Gone With the Wind, she wrote the last chapter first, then worked her way backward. It was one of the best selling books of its time.
If you have to write the ending first, do so. If not, have it solidly in mind, including some of the dialogue. Every word of the story should be leading to that one scene.
The first time I ever heard this advise, I thought to myself, "No! That can't possibly be right!" Two weeks later, my easy-going dramatic adventure had turned into a Wild West shoot-em-up. I took the advise from that moment on.
Sometimes, you can tell a book without an ending. It looks like it's going one way from the start, and it ends up someplace that doesn't even fit the opening scene. The prologue? Maybe. Or perhaps you can just pick up an issue of Glimmer Train Stories and see exactly what I mean.
Now, it is possible to have a beginning and an ending that look completely unrelated, but a story that connects the two. Two brothers talking about the family reunion can, feasibly, end with the Earth exploding. But the conversation (A) about the family reunion (B) must lead to the destruction of the Earth (Z). In other words, it must be a contributing factor to the resolution: A leads to B, which somehow leads to Z.
The climax is when the ultimate plot element is revealed, the decisive moment in the story. Next is the resolution, or falling action, which ties up loose ends. This is when either the protagonist or antagonist wins. After that is the denoument, the final scene, which summarizes the theme of the story.
Another serious issue is that of good and bad endings.
A good ending makes us think about the theme without saying it. It gives us the idea, but we have to figure it out ourselves. The Wizard of Oz was not a children's story. It was about money, and how heartless many with money can be. The cowardly Lion, the heartless Tin Man, and the stupid Scarecrow all lived on the Yellow Brick Road (yellow brick representing gold bars), and Dorothy met them all on the way to Emerald City (emerald being the color of money) to see the Wizard of Oz.
Notice that "Oz" is the abbreviation for "ounce", the measurement of gold. There's tons of symbolism in the story.
At the end, Dorothy discovers that the Wizard, whose symbology I have never figured out, is not the Big Booming Head it appears to be, but a mirage created by a sniveling, wimpering man in a booth. The result is that the coward gets courage, the heartless gets a heart, and the stupid gets a brain, but after the truth is exposed.
Once Dorothy wakes up from her dream, which is revealed in the final scene, the astute realize the theme of the story. Dorothy realizes that all the characters were people she knew, and she's just happy to be home. The theme is that friends, family, and love is more powerful than money.
I just wish some people would get that through their heads and realize they're living a lie.
And no jokes about the Scarecrow being a blonde. I've heard them all.
And as for bad endings, just pick up any Ashley Judd movie before 2001. You'll probably be wondering what happens next after the final scene. One movie with a name I can't remember (the one about a photographer) had the last scene too obvious. When the last scene took place, I thought the movie was about to take off full steam. Nope. Cut to black. Roll end credits. The end.
Always have an ending that releases your reader and leaves them satisfied.
One final note. Occassionally, there's a story that has a great start, middle, and final scene, but skips the climax. This leaves a hole in the story, making people wonder what in the blue blazes happened. A great example is the movie Across the Moon starring Christina Applegate and Elizabeth Peņa. The movie was about two newlyweds dealing with the fact that their husbands have been sent to prison. We see everything but how they were released. A great movie for what's in it (and Christina's makeout scene was still better!), but not worth it because of what was left out.
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