Sometimes, you do things and you do them not because you’re thinking but because you’re feeling. Because you’re feeling too much. And you can’t always control the things you do when you’re feeling too much.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
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I usually imagine this ending happening after some great, destructive plot twist or long-kept secret has been revealed to the narrator and/or reader. There is shock and awe and maybe some betrayal. This is where you fully feel the effects of what has changed, the beginning versus the end. And in this case, the end is not ideal.
Maybe the resolution’s scene has been set, but that’s not offering enough closure. How to tie up the loose end? A short (and I mean short) piece of dialogue. It usually involves a sense of resolve and acceptance, even if the resolution at hand is otherwise displeasing or harrowing. The gut-punch comes from that acceptance, that acknowledgment of what has been lost in the quest to fulfill their goals. Doesn’t always mean defeat or a pyrrhic victory, but all protagonists must lose things while trying to gain others. This is where that character and the reader feel the loss in the wake of a resolution.
2. A Question and an Answer
This is a lot like #1, only there’s a different setup. Instead of a scene being laid out and then one line of dialogue, there are three components. The scene is set, a question is asked, then an answer is provided. The end. The question and answer usually revolve around the reflection of what has changed. A “what now?” for all intents and purposes. Can be used for a mysterious ending to a standalone or a setup for the next installment in a series.
It is worth noting that the answer does not always have to be dialogue. For example, a character could ask: “So this is what we have left?” and then a (brief) description is given of a ragtag crew that’s survived the whole story. Play around with it.
3. The Full Circle
There are a couple ways to go about this ending. Two, in particular, are my favorite.
A) The story begins with a scene that has a very specific tone and attitude of the main character(s). The end of the story is a very similar scene (through setting, circumstance, characters, etc. as long as it’s obvious the last and first scene parallel each other). However, the last scene has the opposite tone and the opposite attitude. If the first scene is hopeful and the MC is full of naivete and energy, then the last scene is melancholy and the MC has been washed away into tired hopelessness. Or vice versa. Offers sufficient closure to standalone works. For a series, it would be quite satisfying to take the first scene from the first installment and mirror/flip it for the last scene in the last installment.
B) The story comes full circle through setting (or circumstance) only. In this case, the first (or inciting incident) and last scene share a setting. But the scenes do not mirror each other overtly or consistently. The significance relies upon the setting and the changes that have been made to the setting because of what has happened. It’s a good way to symbolize similar changes in the character(s). Maybe the story begins in the MC’s childhood home, where it is bright and full of life, but when the story ends in the home, it has become desolate and empty. Something has happened to the home over time, just as something has happened to the character over time.
Note: there is also the divergence from these two examples where the character in the beginning is not the character in the end. Most everything else remains the same. It’s been used to show succession, defeat, loss, and the passage of time.
The Full Circle allows a nice platform to approach the reflection, the resolution, and the changes all through subverted scene similarities and symbolism.
4. The Joke
Pretty simple. The last line is a comedic remark. It should still involve a level of reflection and/or resolution for closure and cohesiveness. And please make sure it matches the overall tone of the story (not just the scene).
And now #5, the long one…
5. The Cliff-Hanger (But it’s actually used to its full potential)
So many times, especially with TV shows, I see a story end with a dull, exploitative cliff-hanger. Sure, it works. But it doesn’t work as well as it could. These endings usually rely upon a plot twist that has no previous setup or mild, unbelievable danger. So let’s fix that and use the crap out of a cliff-hanger’s potential.
The plot twist with no previous setup is boring and unfair. The reader (or watcher since I brought up TV) should be thinking “oh my God” not “what the hell?”. The difference is “what the hell?” equates to confusion and sometimes the fracture of their suspension of disbelief necessary for all fictional stories. “Oh my God” equates to excitement, shock, and enthrallment. ENTHRALLMENT is the key word here, as a cliff-hanger should reel you in further just as the story ends and you become impatient for the next installment. So how do we get “Oh my God” with a plot twist (there are other ways to get “Oh my God” but since (bad) plot twists are common, we’ll use that as an example)? The answer is: we build it up, we add foreshadowing and clues for the reader to find. Let them feel like detectives as they fill in informational holes and fall down rabbit holes of speculation, even if they don’t know what they’re looking for exactly. Let them get close, but not close enough. Add red herrings. If the plot twist is a shock to the narrator, make sure they miss things the reader doesn’t miss and make sure they aren’t super reliable. It all adds to that cloud of mystery around the reveal. It keeps the reader inside the narrative, not thrust out by a plot twist that comes from thin air. Trust the reader and trust your ability to manipulate the illusion of reality.
A simplistic way to put this is: make sure the reader feels like something or someone is off, it/they just feel off, but the reader can’t put their finger on it. Then confirm the bad feeling with a relatively unexpected twist of events.
The mild, unbelievable danger that the cliff-hanger so often relies upon is an idea that easily triggers examples. Again, mostly TV episode endings are guilty of this. What this involves is a life-or-death situation involving a main character that the reader knows (or at least believes wholeheartedly) cannot die. Therefore the cliff-hanger’s life-or-death danger becomes the opposite because the reader believes the character will leave the situation alive. How to combat this? Easy. Don’t put them in a life-or-death situation (this also goes for scenes that aren’t cliff-hangers). It’s boring if you think or know the character will live no matter what. However, hopefully by this point, the reader is invested in the character fully and cares about their wellbeing (because their life is safe). So, exploit that. Offer up a situation where the character’s fears, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses are played against them. Because even though they may escape this situation alive, the reader will (probably) begin to wonder what other things are at risk. The character’s happiness, significant other, assets, stability, et al. Those things become muted points when the danger is heavily reliant upon an unbelievable life-or-death situation.
However, there is an addendum to this. If your story features a rather large MC cast and you have proven your willingness to kill off some of them in the past, then a life-or-death cliff-hanger could still maintain its intended effect. Just… don’t overuse it.
tl;dr TORTURE YOUR CHARACTERS AND DON’T PLAY YOUR READERS FOR CHUMPS.
If you take away only one thing from these 5 examples, let it be this:
The key to a satisfying ending is reflection.
It doesn’t have to be overt reflection (trust me when I say subtle reflection is usually better), but the ending should show in one way or another the changes that have taken place over the story and the resolution that has befallen the characters. The ending wraps it all up into a bite-size piece of text and is the last thing you leave your readers with. Proceed with thoughtful consideration and caution.
Also a quick Q&A:
Q: “I don’t know how to choose the right ending.”
A: Do a couple different things while brainstorming:
Imagine the ending of your story using each of these examples as well as others you think of
If the story is first-person or heavily driven by the MC, ask “how would this character end the telling of their story?”
Consider the overall tone and themes of your story– some endings fit those better than others
Ask “what ending offers the amount of closure I’m trying to give?”
Look at works of fiction similar to yours and their endings. Which work and which aren’t fulfilling?
This was a long post. Whew. You’re a peach if you read it all the way through. Hopefully this helps you on your writing journey.
Taking the bullet out does nothing to help the person, and if your characters are in the field instead of a hospital, may actually cause more harm than good.
Imagine for a moment that you (for reasons unknown to all) decided to turn your sink on wide open, pick up a handgun, and shoot the pipes under your sink.
Maybe it hit the drain pipe, which would be bad, since all the water coming through the faucet is now dribbling out all over the floor. But even worse would be if it hit the water intake pipe, right? In that case, water under high pressure would be spraying everywhere!
Two bad options if you for some reason shoot your sink:
The vascular system of the human body is essentially one big set of pipes. The drain pipe? Those would be veins—under low pressure, but still very bad to leak from. The water intake pipe? Those would be the arteries—under high pressure and VERY dangerous to puncture.
But back to the sink example. Say you shot the pipes and hit the drain pipe (vein). Now there’s water pouring out onto the floor. Your roommate says “Quick! Wrap your hand around the pipe to hold the water in!” (“Put pressure on the wound!”) And you do! Water is still slipping out from under your hand, but it’s leaking a lot less than before! Right now, you COULD find some duct tape (bandages) and secure the pipe further so you don’t have to keep holding it.
Instead, however, you say to your roommate: “Hold on! I’ve got to find the bullet!” You let go of the pipe (stop putting pressure on the wound) to dig around in the cabinet (body) for the bullet. Seconds, maybe even minutes pass, and that pipe is freely gushing out water the whole time.
Finally, you find it! You pry the bullet out of the wood, hold it up to your roommate, and drop it in a little metal dish with a ‘clink’.
“Job well done,” you tell yourself. “We’re out of the woods now.”
Except that, you know, the pipe is still damaged and gushing water out onto the floor, and the bullet wasn’t actually doing anything harmful inside the cabinet. Also, while you were rummaging around for little Houdini, you weren’t putting pressure on the pipe, so that sink (patient) lost a whole lot of water (blood) that it didn’t need to. Can you imagine how much more it would have been if you’d hit the water intake pipe (artery) instead?
I know what you’re thinking. “But in movies—!!” And I know. But here’s the thing: Hollywood? It’s a bouquet of lies. I’m sorry. I really am.
In fact, even that distinctly bullet-shaped thing you usually see pulled out of people in movies may not always be true. Many times the bullet mushrooms out or becomes malformed. Depending on what that bullet ran into (like bone) it might have even broken into a dozen pieces. Try digging those out of your protagonist!
Now sometimes, but not always, doctors WILL remove the bullet (or fragments of bullet). For example, if they’ve already got the patient in surgery, and AFTER they’ve already repaired any veins, arteries, and organs to the best of their ability. Or if the patient doesn’t need surgery (if it didn’t hit anything major and is just lodged in the muscle or fat) but doctors notice that the bullet or fragment is likely to cause damage if left inside the patient.
More often than not, however, the bullet isn’t doing anything actively damaging while inside the patient, or the removal of the bullet would be more dangerous than leaving it where it is. This is why most bullets don’t get removed at all.
This is true if your characters are at a hospital, but ESPECIALLY if this is a field job. If trained physicians with all the tools at their disposal, blood transfusions, and a sterile environment most likely won’t take the bullet out, then Dave McSide-Character should DEFINITELY not be sticking his filthy, 5-straight-chapters-of-parkour fingers or his I-just-stabbed-a-guy-but-I-wiped-the-blood-off-on-my-pants knife inside the protagonist to fish around for some bullet that isn’t even causing harm. The recommended way to deal with a gunshot wound in the field? Pack it with gauze (or yes, even a filthy we’ve-been-on-the-run-for-two-weeks-in-the-same-clothes t-shirt if that’s all you have. Wound infection is a different post) and keep constant pressure on it.
Remember: stopping the leak in the sink is the most important thing. Not rummaging around in the cabinet for the bullet. Taking it out does literally nothing.
Two perfectly realistic reasons why you might have a character take the bullet out:
Now, sometimes, depending on the characters or the world you’re writing in, this might be different. In some instances, you might want to write the lead-scavenger-hunt scene in!
The first reason is if they just don’t know
And that’s really important when writing realistically. Not everyone is a professional in emergency wound care. Most people get all their knowledge of emergency medicine from Grey’s Anatomy and House M.D.
If your character has any medical training? Probably don’t do it
If your character has any military or police training? Some know, some don’t, so writing it either way is believable. It’s a toss-up, but they DO have more experience with gunshot wounds (either personally, witnessed, or in training videos and word of mouth)
If your character is a 17-year-old art student who saw blood for the very first time two chapters ago? Well now that character might just try digging for the bullet
And hey, maybe they’re like “I’m gonna get the bullet out!” but another character (the one who was shot, another character in the room, maybe even a 911 operator) steps in and says “No, no, no! Just put pressure on it!”
But regardless, injured characters in movies are always suddenly on the mend after the bullet is taken out. The vitals start to rise, they aren’t gasping for breath, their hand closes firmly around the love-interest’s hand, etc. And this doesn’t happen. Regardless of what your character does, the rules of biology are still in play.
In the end, though, that bullet’s just minding its own business in there. The #1 priority is fixing the damage it caused on the way in.
The second reason is if the bullet is special
This is more for the SciFi/Fantasy writers.
If your character is a werewolf and was just shot by a silver bullet which is stopping their healing process and is slowly killing them? Yeah, take it out
If the bullet is actually some sort of tiny robot designed to burrow into their organs one by one? Yeah, take it out.
If the bullet had a spell or curse placed on it? Yeah, take it out.
If they need to get transported up to the med bay, but the bullet would cause some kind of issue with the transporters? Yeah, take it out.
But in all of these examples, the bullet has to be inherently dangerous. For normal humans with normal bullets, its just a hunk of lead.
Hope this helped some of you action writers out there!
Good luck and good writing!
Disclaimer: In the event that you or someone you know has been shot, the best thing to do for them is call for an ambulance and follow the instructions provided by the operator. This post is intended to give accurate writing advice to authors and script writers, but I am not a medical professional. While I do believe that the research that I’ve done on this topic is factually accurate, it should not be taken as actual medical advice.
I hope you’re all doing ok, you lovely people. So I was reading a fic this morning, and I was thinking DAMN am I grateful for the work those people do. Do they get enough love? I think not. Let’s change that. So, here’s the deal.
For one week, we’re going to shower them in love, by showing how much we appreciate their hard work. Every day, you make a post with a quote of the story, and you link the story and the author. If the prompt doesn’t ask for a quote, just a title, feel free to write down why you picked that story and why people should read it!
The goal of this little event is to prove how much we value fanfiction authors who allow the Naruto fandom to keep thriving after all these years. Share this around so that many people participate and many authors have a nice surprise for the last week of summer!
You don’t have to @ me but I’ll track #awesomenarutowriters during the week!