The End Justifies the Means

Story post #2! And really, I was tempted to skip this part. When I asked some friends what problems they run into when developing stories, I got some really awesome feedback, and I’m ready to dive right in. But when I start to try and puzzle my way through their problems, I always go directly to one place.

The end.

The ending is arguably the most important part of the story. In fact, I think this and the problem are tied for the spot of most important.

The ending defines your mood when the story is over. It defines the emotional journey throughout the entire piece.

The ending tells you how to feel.

It is your proof of concept. It is your concept, restated. It is the whole reason for the story.

The ending is the moral.

Yes, your story should have a moral. Your story has to have a moral, or else, why write the story at all? The moral can be described as your story’s concept statement. The beginning of the story asks a question. The middle of the story sets out to answer that question. The end is the point where the story turns to the audience and says, “See what I mean?”

You’ve got your problem. I assume by now you’ve got at least the very basic of idea of what character(s) are going to set out and solve this problem. Now’s the point to decide what your characters are going to learn at the end of the story. (This is also a stepping stone to developing your character.)

Ironically, the problem and the ending are the points I struggle with most. When I begin a story, I tend to start with an over-arching concept. To borrow examples from my school days: a baker witnesses something in his kitchen disappear, or a little girl and a little zombie become friends. I know what the problems and the endings to both those stories are now, but when I first conceived them, tying down those details was difficult. I couldn’t commit. I didn’t know if I wanted the baker to be happy or sad at the end. I knew I wanted the zombie and girl to be friends, but I didn’t know how to get to that point.

These are also two areas where I like to complicate things. I’m all about complex stories, so from the very start, I’m thinking in terms of mood and themes and symbolism and seemingly random elements that interconnect like a web of emotionally charged awesomeness full of wit and meaning. But I can never come up with any of that stuff, and after I recover from the mental collapse brought on by the very attempt and I take a step back to analyze the situation, it always boils down to not having a clear problem or a clear ending.

Think of it like map. Your starting point is A. Your ending point is E. At the moment, there are no obstacles. Our path is a direct line.

Now, when we begin to build the middle, that’s when obstacles will be thrown in, and that direct line might become a zigzagging mess. But for now, we’re going to start with the path of least resistance.

Your ending doesn’t have to be complex. You just need a general idea of where the story’s going. I’m going to turn to The Simpsons for help on this one. I watched two episodes recently. Two Bad Neighbors and Lisa the Iconoclast.

In Two Bad Neighbors, former president George Bush moves in across the street from the Simpsons. The episode quickly throws us into the problem. The Simpsons and the Bushes (primarily Homer and George) don’t get along. There’s a feud between the families. The question presented could be, “Can George Bush survive as Homer Simpson’s neighbor?” In the end, Homer wins the feud and the Bushes move out. The question is answered: no, he cannot.

Oh yes, there’s definitely more to it. There are a lot of fun hijinks, and a lot of parallels illustrated by how Homer and George both relate to their various neighbors. What made old-school Simpsons so great was how it built layers of complexity in a half-hour show. But in order to develop the fun stuff, you need to know where your story’s going. In the development of this episode, it’s conceivable that the writing team entertained a lot of endings – but they probably knew that, at the end of the episode, some level of normalcy must be returned to the Simpsons’ lives (this is a common format in sitcoms). That meant the Bush family would have to leave Evergreen Terrace. With the ending locked down, writing the rest of the story only becomes a matter of figuring out why George and Barb leave.

Now, Lisa the Iconoclast was an interesting scenario, and the episode itself is a great example of several different elements: significant setting, building tension, the importance of reaction, interconnecting subplots, and theme. Here we have an emotionally-charged situation. On the eve of Springfield’s big celebration of their founder, Jebediah Springfield, Lisa Simpson discovers that Jebediah was a murderous fraud. But when she tries to reveal the truth to her town, no one believes her.

There are a lot of things at stake for Lisa. Because Lisa is a moral and honest character, she feels obligated to tell the truth. She has her pride to defend, as well as the pride of her father, the only one in town willing to support her. We become emotionally invested as well. We know Lisa’s telling the truth, and we see how pained she is when her peers and role models turn on her. We see her resolve being broken when her father, who supports her unconditionally, is punished for his faith. We have to see her succeed. If she can’t prove the truth, it will change her very character. In the town’s eyes, she will be a liar. In our eyes, she will be a failure.

And yet, at the end, Lisa chooses to preserve the lie.

That’s a very interesting choice. Why not have Lisa reveal the truth? That’s what she, and we, want. Well remember, this is a sitcom. At the end, everything must return to normal. We can’t have Jebediah being discredited as the town’s founder. In the end, the secret must not be revealed. But the creators find a way to turn this moment into a victory, anyway. Moreover, the ending justifies the episode’s larger theme.

It is a “Do the Right Thing” story, and through Lisa’s journey, we understand why lying was the right thing. Also note how Lisa’s solution is drastically different from what she wanted at the start. This is a character arc. Lisa changes throughout the story. What she wants at the end is not what she wanted at the beginning. I’ll discuss this episode in depth in another post.

The point being, knowing your starting point and knowing your end point are the first steps to plotting your journey. Once we know how a story will end, then we can determine how it will begin. We can determine who our characters are and how they will change over the course of the story. We can determine what roadblocks must be thrown in during the characters’ journey, how the conflict builds, what symbols appear that guide the characters and us on the way, and how our hero discovers the information that will ultimately lead him/her to solving the problem. The story is a journey, and the end must be different from the beginning. By the end, everything is changed. Now we can go back and add in the details of how and why we are led to this change.

So, how does your story end? Does the guy get the girl? Does the heroine defeat her nemesis? Will everyone live happily ever after? Does you bumbling hero end up in an even bigger mess than before? Maybe the hero learns his lesson too late? Or maybe the lesson flies right over her head and she goes right back to doing things the same way as before?

Simpsons images from TV Goat and bobbysketch.

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