“Who determined which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end…? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he whispers to the audience: “Expect an up-ending” or “Expect a down-ending” or “Expect irony.” Having pledged a certain emotion, it’d be ruinous not to deliver.” -Robert McKee, STORY
For the past many months, I’ve been working and re-working my way through a great book on story aptly titled STORY, by Robert McKee. Writers and publishing types are often familiar with Mr. McKee for his enduring legacy of writing and teaching within the Hollywood film industry. And though his book STORY is admittedly geared toward screenwriting, I believe the concepts of what makes a powerful story discussed within the pages of STORY apply to novel-writing as well.
One of the essentials for a good story is the ending. No matter how well a story unfolds and how much we love the characters, if we get to the end and feel a sense of loss or disappointment, that is what we remember … how the story didn’t live up to its promise. Since this month and next, I’m first-drafting my next novel, I’ve been reading writing craft books with vigor. It always fuels the creative process for me. And one thing that struck me recently in reading STORY is the concept of what makes a good ending.
What makes a good ending?
Some people say they need a happy ending to feel good about the book. Others prefer a dark story with perpetuating bleakness, and want the down-ending. I prefer an ending that simply lives up to its promises. So, to me, Mr. McKee’s statement about endings (above) holds well.
Whatever the writer whispers into the story, all the way from the beginning, then that is how the story must end to have satisfied readers.
The ironic ending is my personal favorite, in its complexity and higher level of satisfaction. Life never has easy answers. Though harder to write, I like the twist at the end. “There’s nothing ambiguous about irony; it’s a clear, double declaration of what’s gained and what’s lost, side by side,” says McKee.
As Aristotle said, endings must be both “inevitable and unexpected.” Which means at the beginning, everything seems possible, but at the end looking back, the path the story took is the perfect one. McKee says, “An artist gives us the emotion he’s promised.”
So what separates the Artist-Writer from the Amateur-Writer?
In the words of Robert McKee, continued from the first quote: “So we give the audience the experience we’ve promised, but not in the way it expects. This is what separates artist from amateur.”
The amateur gives the cardboard cutout ending, the formulaic answer to the story he has told. But the Artist-Writer can weave a delicate story that breathes near-silent truths, and delivers on those at the end.
What do you think? What kind of an ending do you like on a story? How do you know if your ending lives up to its promise?