For those writers still fighting their way to publication, we tend to believe—or at least we want to believe—that publishing our first beautiful book means we’ve finally crossed the finished line. We’ve won. We’re now authors. But the truth is that the race has just begun. One of the biggest things that will determine if you’ll be a one-hit wonder or a lifelong author is how you leave your reader feeling at the end of your book. As Larry Brooks says in Story Engineering:
[The ending] is where the protagonist earns the right to be called a hero. The more the reader feels the ending through that heroism – which depends on the degree to which you’ve emotionally vested the reader prior to [this] – the more effective the ending will be. This is the key to a successful story, the pot of gold at the end of your narrative rainbow. If you can make the reader cry, make her cheer and applaud, make her remember, make her feel, you’ve done your job as a storyteller. If you can cause all of those emotions to surface, you just might have a book contract on your hands.
The ending of a novel is called The Resolution and it’s the fourth and final cog in the story structure wheel. (Remember the first three? The Setup, The Response, and The Attack.) Lucky for us, there’s only one rule for writing The Resolution:
No new expositional information may enter the story after the second plot point that commences it. If something appears in the final act, it must have been foreshadowed, referenced, or already in play. This includes characters – no newcomers allowed.
Why is this rule so important? Because readers hate being duped. If they find out that you the writer have been withholding information from them that would’ve allowed them to solve whatever looming questions you’ve posed in your story, the honeymoon is over. Readers want to feel like they’re in on it. So if you do want to put a twist at the end of your story, all of the clues leading up to it have to be staring your readers in the face – like Rowling did with her plot and the seemingly innocent character Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Of course it would be too easy if the only thing you had to worry about was one little old rule, right? So on top of that there’s a few “guidelines” for The Resolution that Brooks also highly recommends (e.g., ignore them at your own peril). They are:
- The Hero as Catalyst: “The hero of the story should emerge and engage as the primary catalyst in the Part 4 resolution. He needs to step up and take the lead. He can’t merely sit around and observe or just narrate, he can’t settle for a supporting role, and most of all he can’t be rescued.”
- The Hero and Personal Growth: “The hero should demonstrate that he has conquered the inner demons that have stood in his way in the past.”
- A New and Better Hero: “The hero should demonstrate courage, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, even brilliance in setting the cogs in motion that will resolve the story.”
How did Rowling implement these three guidelines in her ending of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?
First off, Rowling leads her readers into Part 4’s resolution with several last bits of information that come tumbling in one after another. It starts with Harry realizing that Voldemort is actually the one that wants the stone stolen with Snape as his henchman (at least that’s what Harry and we the readers believe). Then Harry discovers that Hagrid, in a drunken moment of gambling, accidentally told a disguised stranger how to get by Fluffy. It appears that Snape has everything he now needs to steal the stone for Voldemort – there’s no time to waste. But of course when Harry tries to pass off this newfound knowledge, Dumbledore has been suspiciously called away on last-minute business and no other adult is willing to believe Harry. Now Harry is on his own; Rowling has forced him to become the primary catalyst.
Harry’s personal growth in this story is more subtle simply because this novel is part of a series and not a stand-alone (Rowling has six more books in which to flesh out Harry’s character). That being said, Rowling still wisely chooses to have Harry conquer an important inner demon in this book, which Dumbledore aptly summarizes in Chapter Twelve, “The Mirror of Erised”:
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.
Simply put, Harry cannot keep wishing he has the life he’s always wanted (two loving parents and no scar on his forehead). He has to learn to deal with the hand he’s been dealt. In fact, Rowling brilliantly takes it a step further and intertwines Harry’s inner growth with his ability to solve the external conflict (stopping Voldemort from stealing the stone). If Harry hadn’t learned how to accept his present life, he wouldn’t have been able to save the stone by looking in the mirror and seeing it appear in his pocket – instead he would have simply seen his deceased family again like in Chapter Twelve.
And to fulfill the last of the three guidelines, Rowling obviously has Harry (and Ron and Hermione) demonstrate a great deal of courage, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking by sneaking past Fluffy, fighting their way out of the Devil’s Snare, catching the flying key, winning a life-sized (and life-threatening!) game of chess and choosing the correct potion. But notice that Rowling has Harry alone continue on to the last room to face Quirrell and Voldemort. His friends cannot save him. Ultimately, he and no one else can be the hero.
And if I could tack on an additional guideline to those three, I’d add that a successful and satisfying ending also gives its readers enough pages to unwind after the tension of the climax (in hoity-toity terms, I’m referring to falling action and the denouement).
This post-climax part of the plot is an extremely cathartic moment for the reader, like enjoying a runner’s high after a marathon. To ignore that or cut it short would risk leaving the reader feeling sour. Rowling obviously understood the importance of this because she dedicates fourteen pages to her falling action and denouement. She no doubt put a great deal of work into these pages because there’s a lot of humor (“What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrell is a complete secret, so, naturally, the whole school knows.”), some thought-provoking wisdom (“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”), and some classic feel-good moments (“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”).
The Resolution of a story is the writer’s last opportunity to win over her readers and convince them to give her another chance with her next book. It’s no time to tip-toe around or exit quietly.
More posts on story structure:
And check out my latest story structure analysis of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.