The ending of your story is a loooong way away from the beginning. Three hundred pages or 100,000 words is an extraordinary journey. Contemplating the ending from the vantage point of the beginning is like looking up at the top of Mt. Everest and imagining yourself, in all your windblown, frostbitten glory, standing there with your hands on your hips and your foot propped on a rock. It’s all a bit hard to grasp.
And by the time you do make it to the top of the mountain, it’s going to be almost as difficult to peer down the rocky slopes and try to remember the base camp you left way back at the beginning of your trek.
This is a fact. But it’s also a fact that the only way to achieve a strong ending is to remember the beginning. “No need to watch where I’m going. Just need know where I’ve been.” So says Mater in Pixar’s Cars. Although writers need to pay as much attention to the road ahead as the road behind, there’s a lot we can learn from a good rearview mirror.
The beginning and the ending are two halves of the same whole. In some senses, they’re mirror images of one another. The beginning asks a question, and the ending answers it. This is the key. If the ending fails to answer the specific question set out in the beginning, the whole book will fail.
Your Story’s Beginning: Asking the Right Question
What is this question your beginning is supposed to ask? We’ve talked before about the necessity of hooking readers with an opening question. But this hook question may or may not be the question that is answered in the ending. The purpose of the hook question is to grab reader curiosity. Once it’s done that, its primary purpose is accomplished, and the question itself may be answered later in the same scene (so long as another question—and another reason to keep reading—is promptly raised in its stead).
The question that will be answered in the ending is your story question. This is the question that will fuel the entirety of your plot:
· Will the heroine find true love?
· Will the anti-hero be redeemed?
· Will the bad guys suffer justice?
Of course, your story’s own unique question will be even more specific:
· Will Margie stop her self-destructive lifestyle of drugs and liquor before she loses her soulmate Tom forever?
· Will mercenary Mike learn to fight for a cause more worthy than just money and power?
· Will the Mafia be taken down by the intrepid undercover work of FBI agent Neal?
Your story question might be a plot question or a theme question—or both. But it must be presented in the beginning of the story in order for the ending to resonate.
Your Story’s Ending: Answering the Right Question
Once you’ve set up a powerful question in your story’s opening, you have to follow through by deliberately answering it in the finale. Finding that answer in the story’s ending is the only way to create continuity and resonance.
If your story about Neal’s undercover work in the Mafia ends by answering a question about Neal’s marriage or his daughter’s autism or his newfound talent for breakdancing, it’s going to fail. These answers may tie up loose ends on subplots, but they ultimately don’t matter to the story arc unless the main story question is answered as well.
When you choose to answer the main story question is also important. The moment you answer this question, your story is going to be effectively over. Answer it too soon, and what’s left of your plot and your character’s arc will die a slow and lingering (and boring) death.
Figuring out how to properly link your beginning and ending takes a little forethought, but once you’ve identified your main story question, you’ll not only know what your story is about, you’ll also be able to strengthen your plot, your theme, and your character development all the way through the book.
Photo courtesy of K.M. Weiland.
Originally published on Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors