Finding Your Story’s Ending

I watch a lot of Hollywood and independent films, and what I’ve come to notice is that way too often writers and/or directors don’t offer endings that match the quality of the rest of the film. Don’t get me wrong. There are many different ways to effectively bring a film to a close. Sometimes the narrative is an exploration of uncertainty or unfairness or despair and then offer an open-ended closing. And of course, there are those films where the guy saves his family from the burning hotel. Or the rag-tag team of misfits finally manage to destroy the magic ring. Or the perfect-for-each-other couple manage to overcome the odds and wind up together. You probably get the idea. There are some pretty familiar ways to end a narrative.

But short, personal digital stories don’t tend to work like feature films, so it can be challenging to know how to write an ending. Ira Glass (host of This American Life) would have you believe that terrific stories should have some sort of explanation for what the story means or why it matters. While I love This American Life and a lot of Glass’s other work, I mostly disagree with him on this notion. At the risk of over-simplifying, he suggests that good stories have a moment where the narrator (or interview subject) pauses, takes a step back and says, “Looking back at it now, what I realized is that…”

A lot of digital storytellers don’t have enough confidence in their own skills to trust that the audience will “get it.” And so they come right out and tell their audience what they should be taking away from the story.

I don’t think this sort of rhetorical device is necessarily lazy or that it ruins an otherwise good story. Sometimes, it works. But I it’s rare. You’ve probably heard one of the oldest and most common pieces of writing advice: Show. Don’t Tell. Generally pretty good advice. But it’s not always easy advice to follow when you’re working on your digital story. Sometimes it can feel like there’s just not enough room in such a compressed form to introduce the materials necessary to make the heart of the story clear to the reader. Also, I think a lot of digital storytellers don’t have enough confidence in their own skills enough to trust that the audience will “get it.” And so they come right out and tell their audience what they should be taking away from the story. I’m going to write a long post about why this is a bad idea. For now, if you trust me at all, do everything you can to not tell your audience what they’re supposed to think about your story. Instead, create a story engaging enough to draw the viewer smack into the middle of the story right alongside you. The more you’re able to do that, the more likely it is that the audience will experience the same realization that you did, without having to tell them explicitly. This strategy will foster a much stronger bond between you and your audience. It will also make your story more memorable to your audience.

Instead, I think it’s important to go back to the question about what’s at stake in your story? What is the conflict? What are the characters after? What do they want? Any one of those questions manifests in your story as a sort of door opening, and the rest of the story either moves your audience closer to your resolution of the question, or intensifying it. Every part of your story pushes closer and the tension or curiosity grows until you get to the moment of resolution itself. This way of thinking about storytelling is a variation on the classic setting-conflict-intensification-climax-resolution. But instead of the events playing out on a battlefield, or wedding reception, or enchanted cave, the conflict-to-resolution plays out as an internal phenomenon. Once you’ve reached that moment of resolution (or reconciliation, or acceptance) it’s time to end your story.

Do you have any examples of stories the ended in a way that completely surprised you?

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