Sometimes my writing students ask how to end their stories. I give them my best piece of writing advice: start with an explosion and end with a bigger explosion.
I know it sounds a bit facetious, especially because the “explosion” part only works with certain genres (although, in my humble opinion, many romance novels could only be improved by the addition of a fireball or two). Even so, there’s a kernel of truth in the “explosion sandwich” writing model, because it shows that the ending (whether it contains an actual “kablooey” or not) should be connected to the beginning.
The key is to set up some kind of question in the beginning so that you can resolve it at the end. For example: how will we stop the mad bomber? Does anyone know where he’ll strike next? And why is this unmarked package ticking?
If (for some strange reason) you prefer literature with less collateral damage, you could do the same thing without explosions. Will your main character ever learn to love? How much will the mother sacrifice for her family? Where will this average Joe draw the line? Once you have the question, you know the answer is the end, and the end is the answer.
Nobody knows this better than Disney. Watch any of their classic animated movies and within the first five minutes or so you’ll see the princess singing about her heart’s true desire. To find love. To explore an unknown land. To use home-made robots to save the world from an evil scientist’s doomsday machine. Okay, maybe that last one is less Disney and more Mad Science Institute, but the basic pattern is the same, and the audience is always left asking whether— and how— the princess will ever achieve her dream.
If you know how you want your story to end, set it up that way from the beginning. If you know how you want your story to begin, think about what question you’re asking and what difficult decisions it will force your characters to make. The key is not just to ask a question, but to ask a question with no clear answer. That’s a Kobayshi Maru, to you Trekkers. Whatever you call it, your readers will keep turning those pages as long as they can’t see how things can possibly be resolved.
Of course, you shouldn’t give your characters an easy path from the beginning of the story to the end. If it’s the story about falling into a hole, don’t throw a ladder in there with them. Make them claw their way out, inch by inch. Make them fall back in, break an ankle, and end up worse off than when they started. In order to get out, they’re going to have to sacrifice something important to them, or grow in some way, or learn to live in the hole. Their choice shows character, and character is what drives the story.
If it were one of my characters in that hole, they would most likely concoct some kind of improvised explosive and launch themselves, rocket like, into the sky… before landing in an even deeper hole. Hey, look at that—another story that starts and ends with an explosion. Maybe I need a psychiatrist.
Be good, and dream crazy dreams.
Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on SechinTower.com, Facebook, or Twitter.