The Omega Protocol: Writing a Satisfying Ending to your Story
A great story ending is a paradox: it has to be the inevitable consequence of everything that has gone before and at the same time it can’t be predictable.
- If the ending isn’t the inevitable result of the story, the reader feels cheated.
- If the reader guesses what’s coming, the story becomes dull.
But relax: it’s much worse than you think.
If you’re writing within a genre, you also owe your reader an ending that’s within genre conventions, or again, your readers will feel cheated, but writing within genre conventions makes it even harder to prevent the reader from guessing what’s coming.
So, writing a great ending to a novel is an impossible mission and, if you have to stay within genre conventions, “this mission just got whole lot more impossible”.
If we want to achieve the impossible and find a great ending, then we’re going to have to invoke The Omega Protocol…
It’s All About the Ending
The success of our stories absolutely depends on crafting a satisfying ending. A story without a satisfying ending is like a long joke without a punchline. In the audience’s mind, a weak ending will override anything good we have achieved earlier in the story.
The climax of the last act is your great imaginative leap. Without it, you have no story.
Robert McKee, Story
Achieving the Impossible
So, are you ready to achieve the impossible? Because I think we’ve lost enough wonderful stories to weak endings already, don’t you? Here’s what we are aiming at:
The ending must be both inevitable and unexpected.
Or, to put it another way:
The key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not in the way it expects.
Let’s give our readers what they want, but not in the way they expect. Now, light the fuse, and let’s invoke The Omega Protocol.
The Two Components of a Satisfying Story Ending
All the conflicts in the story, internal and external, converge at the climax. Depending on the story, the climax could be a choice, or a battle, or both; whichever you choose, the protagonist should fight for the prize at the climax (see the definitions of protagonist and prize).
The protagonist might win the prize (perhaps at substantial cost) or lose it (perhaps with consolation), but the climax is absolute and irreversible. That victory or defeat delivers the emotional and physical consequences of the story for the characters.
The resolution is a chapter after the climax that ends the story. It shows the effect of the story on the world, tidies up any loose ends and emphasises the effect of the story’s events on the characters. Keep it simple, but not abrupt.
If the resolution is open-ended, ultimate consequences might not be shown, leaving the reader with doubt and ambiguity. There could even be a last surprise for the reader. Whatever happens, it shouldn’t take too long or the resolution will become an anti-climax.
Basics: What Any Story Ending Must Do
- The climax of the story has to be shown, not told.
- The writer owes the reader a story ending within genre conventions, although they might push the boundaries.
- For example, if there’s a mystery at the heart of the story, the solution to the mystery should be clear by the end.
- Our story should have raised a question (perhaps using the One True Sentence technique), and the ending must tell the reader the answer to that question.
Making Your Story Ending Inevitable
Make sure you set the ending up through earlier events: it can’t come out of nowhere or be due to luck, coincidence or a deus ex machina.
Once you’ve discovered your ending, work backward to make every part of the story support it. Even if you have a twist ending, set it up earlier, so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. The reader should go ‘ah-ha!’ not ‘huh?’ when the ending arrives. The clues that foreshadow the ending must be there. If you haven’t already planted them, go back and do so.
Resonance comes from repeating images, motifs and phrases from throughout the story, making the reader recall characters and events and underscoring the theme of the story. If you have symbols that occur throughout the story and reference them during the ending, it will help to satisfy the audience.
What the audience wants is an emotionally satisfying ending, and the writer can deliver that and make it seem inevitable by using resonance.
Making Your Story Ending Unpredictable
One way to make the ending unpredictable is to set up several possibilities. It should seem to the reader that the probability of failure is high, giving a ‘how can they get out of this?’ feeling.
This was a trick Agatha Christie used. She didn’t decide who the murderer was until she wrote the final chapter. Because she didn’t know herself ‘whodunit’, her stories had built-in unpredictability.
Another way we can add some unpredictability is to write several alternative endings, and then go through the novel and add pointers to all the possible alternative endings. Even if you stick with the original ending, the pointers to the alternative endings will remain.
They’re Running out of Time!
Another way to maintain unpredictability all the way to the climax is to use a ticking clock or ‘time-bomb’. The audience knows the bomb is going to go off at the climax and the protagonist is going to have to stop it or fail. Of course, in some genres, the time-bomb might be a literal bomb, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be any kind of deadline, naturally occurring in the story or imposed by the author.
The key to using the ticking clock technique is to
- Set it running early.
- Keep the reader updated on the clock’s progress.
- Make it seem like the protagonist is falling behind the clock.
- Increase the frequency of updates as time runs out.
One of the great examples of the ticking clock in action is The Day of the Jackal. Many of the chapters of The Day of the Jackal end with the author, Frederick Forsyth, mentioning how long it is until the assassination attempt. He also frequently mentions exactly how far behind the Jackal the police are. The gap starts as days, then hours, and finally comes down to minutes.
Tips to Boost Your Story Ending
- Don’t rush the ending, either when writing it, or on the page. Take your time and get it right.
- Don’t pull your punches: the climax is where you turn it up to 11. Think big.
- Resolve as many loose ends as you can before the climax and resolution, to avoid anti-climax.
- Try to emphasise the premise of the story during the ending by emphasising its universal significance.
- Push the language: the closing paragraphs are the place for the rhetorical flourish and the poetic phrase, and attention to meter and rhythm.
Examples of Great Story Endings
The master of the great spy fiction ending was John le Carré. His novels had a message, and the climax delivered on it. They had emotional impact, and he was a great user of the resonance technique: deploying images, motifs, and phrases from throughout the novel.
His self-declared ‘best’ books are
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
- The Constant Gardener
Personally, I’d rate Smiley’s People and The Little Drummer Girl above The Constant Gardener, but who am I to argue with the master?
Le Carré’s books start slowly, but he’s a master of creating sympathetic characters, and the slowness is part of that. During the climax, the stories move rapidly and he structured them almost perfectly to deliver an emotional punch. Because the reader has developed empathy for the characters, the impact is much higher.
The Omega Protocol: Activated
So we have made our ending:
Inevitable, using foreshadowing, clues and resonance
and made it:
Unpredictable by setting up alternative possibilities and a ticking clock
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