I began this series on Essential Elements of Plot way back at the beginning of the summer, but I never finished it.
Because I found my own life completely yo-yo-ing as my husband underwent a major medical crisis, and I found I couldn’t write a piece on “resolution” when my own life was in the midst of crisis, in fact, my own “crisis moment.”
Thankfully, he’s finally home (after 83 days in the hospital – 45 in ICU – and 26 surgeries). And now, I’ve found I can happily write about resolutions, or endings, because this difficult episode in my life is (hopefully) coming to a sweet end.
And that’s what a resolution is, the end to a story.
That sounds easy enough, right?
By the time you’ve written your whole story, taken your character through trial after trial, gotten him through the climax, bloodied but alive, you want to type “The End” and call it good.
Sometimes it’s that easy, but more often than not, our endings, or resolutions, need much more thought. It’s the last part of your story that your reader will remember, so you want to make it great.
What, exactly, is the resolution in a story?
The resolution is the entire ending of the story that gives the reader a sense of calm and finality following the action and excitement of the climax.
It takes up roughly the final 5-10% of your entire story, or maybe even less if you’re writing a short story, and comes right after the climax.
All the loose ends of the major plot are tied up in this section. Hopefully you’ve tied up some of the loose ends of your sub-plots (plot elements related to minor/secondary characters) or plot layers (plot elements related to your main character but not the main plot) prior to the resolution, otherwise you’ll have far too much to tie up.
And, a story with lots of loose ends frustrates readers.
We can all think of films and novels where the final credits roll or we reach the last page, and our first thought is, “WHAT?!? That’s IT? But, it’s not over.”
And then when someone asks about the movie, no matter how good the middle was, what do we say? “Oh my gosh, the ending sucked! Totally left you hanging.”
Ack, this is not the response you want someone to have to your story.
What should you include in your resolution?
1) An answer to the question: What happens now that your character has reached, or failed to reach, their goal?
At the beginning of your story, your main character has some sort of goal. This goal is what drove the action, and yes, this goal often changes as your character develops and learns more.
The climax answers the question of whether or not they achieved their goal. We know if they’ve had success or failure, or even a mix of both. The resolution explains what happens after that.
The Fault in Our Stars and its predecessor Romeo and Juliet provide two great examples, but I’m warning you now – I’m going to give away the endings.
In TFIOS, the main character, Hazel, has several goals at the beginning of the novel. First, she wants to stay in her room and deal with her cancer, but she also wants to ease her mother’s upset at having a sick daughter which she does by going to Cancer Group. There she meets Gus. Her new goal is to get to know Gus. Together, their goal is to enjoy life, live a little by falling in love, and to meet Peter Van Houten.
She meets every single one of her goals – yay, success! However, (spoiler alert) Gus dies at the novel’s mid-point.
In the novel’s resolution, Hazel finds out that Gus had written a letter asking her hero, Mr. Van Houten, to write her eulogy. He refuses because he finds what Gus wrote amazing and a much more appropriate eulogy for Hazel, and he has his assistant send it to Hazel.
Wow, in the last few pages, Hazel’s great love manages to “contact” her after his death with an amazing letter in which he declares his deep love for her.
And we cry.
We know that Hazel probably dies young, but she experienced life and true love. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Romeo and Juliet also has a great, if tragic, resolution. Six people die, and it would seem that the main characters have tragically failed in reaching their goals, but alas, they have not! Throughout the entire play, beginning with the Prologue, the two main characters want their families’ feud to end.
Even though they die in the climax, in the resolution, the feud ends. The entire conflict is resolved, and the two lovers are honored.
Another great resolution, albeit a sad one.
2) Evidence that your character has changed through the events in the story and accepted the lessons.
Most stories (like 95%) will have a character reflect their change or growth which is also known as the character arc. Some like Romeo and Juliet will have everyone die and other characters reflect the change. In their case, it was their parents who finally ended the feud.
For Hazel, in TFIOS, she has learned to embrace life, even though she’s still has cancer. She’s no longer merely waiting to die, now she’s living.
Some stories will reflect a character’s total lack of change if the character stubbornly refuses or rejects the lessons from his adventures.
In either case, your main character will not go back to life as it used to be. Even if they reject their lessons, life will somehow be different or changed and your resolution should reflect that.
3) Not every question needs to be answered.
Your story needs to end, but we can still wonder what happens to the characters in their lives as they “ride off into the sunset.”
Readers know that character’s lives “continue” even after the story, so you can allude to the continuation, but you don’t need to let the reader know exactly what happens to them. It’s when authors don’t give enough information that readers get annoyed.
John Green’s novel Paper Towns has a resolution with a good example. Q manages to track down Margo only to discover that she didn’t really want to be found. We know that she continues on but we don’t know where. Nor do we really even know if she and Q keep in touch despite their friendship.
But that’s okay. Q reaches his goal on the last page of the story. Green answers the main question, and that’s enough.
I’ve found in writing, that I generally start a story with the end in mind. The resolution is a beacon or guidepost that I aim for.
Occasionally, I won’t end up there, or even close because I realize that there’s a much better way to end a story, but keeping the resolution in mind definitely helps guide my writing.
The key is to go back through your story and make sure you’ve tied up all the plot points. You don’t want to leave your readers hanging, wondering what the heck just happened.
When you’re writing, do you start with the end in mind? Or does the resolution to your stories surprise you?