How Does the Story End?

October 23rd, 2007

As part of the planning process for how I’m going to wrap up my Jump 225 trilogy of novels, I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure of story. I think it’s useful for us writers and readers to occasionally step back from the process to remind ourselves of one crucial thing: stories are artificial. They’re constructs.

I’m not just talking about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I’m talking about the very idea of storytelling itself. It’s an art form, which means it’s a product of the human intellect, which means it doesn’t exist naturally in the world.

‘Batman Begins’ posterSometimes readers get so heavily focused on plot mechanics that they mistake the plot — which is simply one element of the art, albeit a crucial one — for the story itself. What happens at the end of the Jump 225 trilogy? they ask me, as if that’s the only question worth asking. Let’s say I tell you what happens at the end: Natch vanquishes his enemies and learns to live in peace with himself. Or, Natch dies heroically. Or, Natch and his enemies join forces to take on a different enemy altogether. You know the broad strokes of any ending I could possibly think up, and you’ve seen them all a million times before. So obviously the important question is not what happens at the end of the story, but why and how.

I just watched Batman Begins for the umpteenth-plus-oneth time the other night. Spoiler alert: Batman defeats Ra’s al Ghul. He chats with Lieutenant Gordon at the end, only to discover that there’s a new villain named the Joker out there causing trouble. Roll credits.

So what happens after the cameras stop rolling? We assume that Batman goes on to defeat the Joker (and indeed, we’ll find out next summer when The Dark Knight hits theaters). And then he defeats another villain, and then another, and then another, until Bruce Wayne dies in battle, hangs up the cape, or hands the keys to the Batmobile down to the next guy in line. We can safely assume that Batman will never completely succeed in vanquishing crime, that there are certain villains that will always elude his grasp.

If you were to stand back at the end of Bruce Wayne’s life and try to chronicle it from the beginning, chances are that his balance sheet will show a number of defeats alongside his victories. How often does Batman defeat the Joker, and how often is the Dark Knight thwarted by him? Well, let’s be charitable and say that Bruce collars the bad guys more often than they elude him. If that’s the case, why chop up the narrative the way we normally do — starting from stasis, going to crisis, ending in victory? Couldn’t we just as easily tell a series of Batman stories the other way around, where we begin with him triumphantly nabbing the Joker and end with the Joker escaping and creating more murder and mayhem?

If we took the naturalistic approach, narrating events as they “really” happened, certainly we’d have to take a more nuanced view of who the central character is in this saga and how successful his life of crime-fighting really is. If you wanted to narrate the “real” life of Bruce Wayne, if you wanted to know what really happened, you’d have to include all sorts of information about the kind of food he eats, how he pays his taxes, what his doctor has to say about his ulcers, etc. I mean, no human being has the energy to fight crime for more than a few hours a night, right? How does Batman fill the other 20 hours of the day?

But we don’t tell stories from a naturalistic perspective. We might try to simulate nature’s point of view or use it as a tool in our own story-telling, but by and large we construct an artificial framework on which to hang our stories. We have a point of view. The protagonist’s experiences are filtered through a set of moral questions or psychological dilemmas. We focus on Batman’s efforts to stop the Joker from poisoning Gotham’s water supply rather than the audit of his 2003 taxes because it’s a convenient metaphor. Can Batman overcome his feelings of despair and hopelessness to face a challenge? Will Batman press ahead against overwhelming odds when it’s very likely he’s going to fail anyway? Does Batman believe that he’s fulfilling his mission to act as an instrument of justice? And so on.

When does the story end? It ends when the moral or ethical or psychological question is answered, whether in the affirmative or in the negative or some combination of both. Bruce Wayne finds the strength to put on the mask one more time. Bruce Wayne chooses to follow his convictions, even though they clash with society’s. Bruce Wayne perseveres when a lesser man would have given up. Whether he actually succeeds in capturing the Joker or not is of secondary concern.

So as I plan to wrap up the Jump 225 trilogy, I have to go back to the primary questions facing these characters since the beginning. For our main protagonist Natch, the question is whether he can reconcile his extreme selfishness with the dictates of society — and whether he should. For our secondary protagonist Jara, the question is whether she can overcome her self-loathing and become an actualized person capable of taking control of her own life. These are the questions that have been facing Natch and Jara since the very first page of Infoquake, and all of the plot that happens in Infoquake, MultiReal, and Geosynchron is in service to answering those key questions.

How will the Jump 225 trilogy end? It will end with a resolution of these key questions. Spoiler alert: the answers are yes and yes. Why and how are these questions answered? That you’ll have to read the books to find out.

31 Responses to “How Does the Story End?”

  1. Lois Tiltonon 23 Oct 2007 at 10:30 am

    What you say is why I am usually irritated by the people who complain about “spoilers”, which is often a hobble on a reviewer.

    Most works worth reading are just as worth reading if you know in advance how they end.

  2. Charleson 23 Oct 2007 at 11:29 am

    Thanks for this post. This is something I am working through. I generally know the fate of each of my POV characters. That part comes easy.

    The harder part that I am working on now, isn’t what happens to them but how and why, and even more importantly: how this changes them. Because, if someone resolves a critical aspect of their life — be it personality or environment — they will be changed. If they aren’t, then the supposed obstacle wasn’t really an obstacle at all, just an inconvenience. And then, what was the point of the story to begin with?

  3. Stacyon 23 Oct 2007 at 11:36 am

    How do you get to the point that you can write on both levels consciously, both the plot-point-to-plot-point level and the moral/psychological level? Or do you always have to start with one or the other, get the first draft, and then pick apart to see what you were really doing?

  4. Jesson 23 Oct 2007 at 12:28 pm

    My question is a little different: how does a trilogy have four books? :D

    Great post.

  5. christopheron 23 Oct 2007 at 12:53 pm

    “What happens at the end of the Jump 225 trilogy?”

    this is a bit of semantics. what happens, how it happens – it’s the same thing to most of us. and it can be as simple as – he dies in the end. which depending how much is already known about the circumstances near the end might prompt the question – “well, how?”

    i completely and totally disagree with your idea that knowing the ending doesn’t diminish the story. it most certainly does. sure there are folks that read the ending first and a good book holds up under multiple readings. but that doesn’t mean the experience of not knowing what comes next, or how it comes, isn’t a completely valid aspect of experiencing a story.

    which is why spoilers, though such an arduous stumbling block for reviewers (please observe dripping sarcasm there), are important.

  6. David Louis Edelmanon 23 Oct 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Stacy: I think if you just start with the actions that “feel” right for the characters, you’ll find that they feel right for a reason. You don’t always realize what’s going on in the moral/psychological level even while you’re writing, but then you’ll go back and discover that you did have that deeper level in mind all along.

    Jess: Did I miscount somewhere? (And hey, Douglas Adams had five books in his Hitchhiker’s trilogy. :-) )

  7. Stacyon 23 Oct 2007 at 1:43 pm

    Darn – I was really hoping one magical day I could do it all in one step! Thanks.

  8. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 23 Oct 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Well, speaking of spoilers, I’ll relate what happened with a movie night many moons back with myself, another author and a bunch of friends who were not authors but were readers: We sat down to watch Silverado and the other author and I began to prophesy various plot elements as we saw them, giving them percentage chances of occuring.

    One plot element? Enter character holding lit oil lamp.

    Me: “100% chance that oil lamp does not make it intact out of this scene. It’s here to cause a huge fire.”

    Friends: “Hah! Kevin was finally wrong! The oil lamp is intact!”

    Me: (silence)

    Movie: Action cuts back to scene with oil lamp. Oil lamp dramatically smashed across bookcase. Wild conflagration ensues!

    Friends: “Aww….”

    Me: “I’m not responsible for what the film editor does to heighten dramatic tension.”

    Spoilers basically exist for the people who would be surprised or at least want to be surprised by the oil lamp smashing. Authors and reviewers already know the oil lamp is going to smash–they’re just concerned with how stylishly it’s smashed. And generally speaking, the oil lamp has to be smashed because nothing heightens dramatic tension or puts in a ticking clock sans clock like the simple physics of the building burning down around you.

    I think the simplest answer to “How does the story end?” is “Whatever makes for a satisfying ending.” The hero or heroine gets the love interest of choice, which can be anything from a domestic partner to the lonely road, at which point the credits roll, the curtains fall and the last line on the page reads And they all lived happily ever after. Or everyone noble and honorable dies and the mere mortals left on the stage and in the audience gets a moment of catharsis.

  9. Carol Bergon 23 Oct 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Stacy wrote:

    How do you get to the point that you can write on both levels consciously, both the plot-point-to-plot-point level and the moral/psychological level? Or do you always have to start with one or the other, get the first draft, and then pick apart to see what you were really doing?

    Sometimes you don’t really understand the moral/psychological arc until the plot arc is done. Or you find that it isn’t exactly what you thought it was early on. But I find that they’re converging maybe a third or halfway through the story, and as I “spiral edit” along the way, I complete both arcs at the same time. As David said, the more life your characters take on as they move through the events of the plot arc, the closer you are getting to that inner arc.

    As for my own “rule of endings”: big events have big consequences–both good and less good, on both a grand scale and a personal scale. Going back to “the way things were in the good old days” is rarely an option. And if your characters have changed, then their concept of happiness has perhaps changed as well, and you’ll want to consider that.

    Carol

  10. Matton 23 Oct 2007 at 8:33 pm

    “Most works worth reading are just as worth reading if you know in advance how they end.”

    Lois: Yes, but the experience is different when you know in advance what’s going to happen. And the pleasure of being surprised by what happens is only ever available once for each story.

    The ending of the final season of Buffy was (for me) one of those great unexpected-but-just-right endings. Not that they defeated the big bad — of course that was going to happen — but the fact that (spoiler alert) Buffy was no longer the only slayer, that the burden of responsibility that set her apart from the entire world was finally eased, without diminishing who she was but rather by elevating others around her. It was the perfect ending for the show, and I never saw it coming. And while watching it a second time was still worthwhile, it didn’t compare with the joy of seeing it all unfold the first time.

  11. Lois Tiltonon 23 Oct 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Matt: what you say is quite true, and I think there are some few works where the impact of the ending is of such importance that it would alter or diminish the effect of the work to have it disclosed in advance.

    I recall watching the 6th Sense, where I did not grasp the point until the ending, then watching it again, knowing and mentally kicking myself for not getting it and admiring how the director had staged the scenes to be so ambiguous.

    Yet in order for you to make your point, you had to talk about the ending. In order to discuss a work thoroughly and critically, it’s often necessary to discuss the ending and how it works with the rest of the elements of the story.

    I think some people make rather a fetish of this non-disclosure.

  12. Kate Elliotton 23 Oct 2007 at 10:25 pm

    While I prefer to avoid spoilers, myself, liking that first walk through a novel or film to be done with innocent eyes (well, excepting that, as Kevin points out, I know too much about plot and structure to be truly innocent), I would add a variation to what Lois (and Matt) said. That is, that works that are about something more than the action plot offer a great deal on a re-read. It’s a different experience than the first time, but can be equally pleasurable.

  13. David Louis Edelmanon 23 Oct 2007 at 10:29 pm

    There’s definitely pleasure in being surprised. And to be fair to those who despise the spoilers, these days it’s almost impossible to keep a surprise. Information travels too quickly, and Ain’t It Cool News will likely have disclosed all of the major spoilers to the Internet weeks before the movie hits the theaters.

    When I saw The Empire Strikes Back on opening weekend in 1980, I had abso-frickin’-lutely no idea that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. That moment of shock would never be possible today, and it’s one of the most vivid memories of my entire childhood.

    But it is possible to fetishize things too far. If the only thing sustaining your interest in a story is the plot twist at the end, then certainly you should realize that you’ve got a rather shallow work of art here. (Or your understanding of it is rather shallow.)

  14. Adamon 24 Oct 2007 at 3:05 am

    I definitely hate spoilers. However, if someone is going to REVIEW a film/book then surely that review must look at the whole story, including the ending. Otherwise it’s a little like saying, “…it’s yellow, about four foot high at the shoulder, has a big dark mane — but you can find out about the rest yourself.”

    In my opinion, the fact it has a large set of teeth is pretty important!

    Personally, I never read reviews of films/books. I have a network of friends and take personal recommendations from them. In the buying of books, I often take hours (well possibly one) selecting one by going through cover-blurb-sample text (not opening) before buying.

    I am swayed by how much shelf-space an author has, but then I am a bit superficial.

    I often re-read good books, not because they had such a good ending, but because for a brief moment I enjoyed living through the characters/events.

  15. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 24 Oct 2007 at 1:11 pm

    The business of spoilers is a delicate thing, and there’s a trouble with reviewing in that there are two purposes to reviews: one is as preview and buyers guide; the other is as serious literary criticism. One’s prologue, the other’s epilogue.

    Unfortunately, because of space limitations and confusion, reviewers and magazines try to do both and generally do a muddled job.

    Salon a few years ago spoiled the Buffy season finale not just in their review but in their banner headline for said review, for which they were justly flamed and which they rightly changed, but not before annoying any number of readers.

    Personally I think the best Buyers Guide out there is Rotten Tomatoes, which simply does a bar graph of all the reviews available and lets you see whether a movie is considered good or bad without getting into any particulars which might spoil the experience. The pull quotes from the reviews on the main page are likewise chosen for entertainment without spoiling any serious plot elements.

    It should also be said that people are more concerned about spoilers for suddenly revealed plot elements they enjoy, such as “I’m your father!” rather than things like “You have Midichlorions in your blood!” which are rather embarrassing and everyone would rather forget.

    As for how soon things are spoiled, certainly Ain’t It Cool spoils things months in advance, but you have to go to their website to read it, so I don’t much care. If I was on the set or kibitzing with the authors as they brainstormed, it would be spoiled as well. But when something is bright and shiny and in the box with a ribbon on it, only a jerk says, “Oh, don’t bother–it’s an ugly sweater. I saw her wrap it.”

  16. Lois Tiltonon 24 Oct 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Yes, there are jerks who try to spoil things because people are so invested in not knowing the ending.

    When the last Potter book came out, there were people who deliberately tried to spoil peoples’ enjoyment and anticipating by revealing the ending. But they weren’t doing this in the course of any critical discussion of the book, but rather out of plain meanness.

  17. Kate Elliotton 24 Oct 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Omigod! Darth Vader is Luke’s father???

  18. David Louis Edelmanon 24 Oct 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Yes, Darth Vader is Luke’s father. And even more horrible… it turns out that he’s a much worse actor.

  19. Kate Elliotton 24 Oct 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Heh.

    Of course, compared to the acting in the second set of movies . . .

  20. Adamon 25 Oct 2007 at 7:50 am

    Darth Vader is an actor? What else has been in? I was certain I would have spotted him, what with his helmet and breathing problems…

  21. Daniel Woodson 25 Oct 2007 at 8:09 am

    Heh.

    Of course, compared to the acting in the second set of movies . . .

    *giggle*

    I’m coming in on this a little late, but I wanted to agree with something Kate said earlier. I try to avoid spoilers where possible when I’m reading a book / watching a film, etc for the first time. The feeling of surprise you get from a plot twist (like Darth Vader or Buffy, etc) is a one-time experience. You only ever get to have it again if you wait so long to re-read the book that you forget the plot.

    That said, a really good book will keep me on the edge of my seat even when I know exactly what’s coming, when I know who’s about to say or do what, etc. Indeed, it sets up a kind of dramatic irony – I know that suchandsuch is about to happen, but the characters don’t. Oh the tension.

    Yes, a spoiler will rob you of that first feelings of *jaw drops / gasp / horror / noooo*, but one plot detail does not constitute a whole book. Indeed, unless you’ve just read the world’s most elaborate spoiler, you still have to read the book to find out how and why this hugely important thing happens.

    Knowing what happens may change the experience, but it does not ruin a story. After all, we all went to see the Harry Potter films as they came out, didn’t we?

    [And, of course, we can't forget that there are some people who LIKE spoilers. A friend of mine always makes me outline the entire book for him - twists, who dies, who saves the day etc - if I've already read the one he's about to start. I blame his mum, who reads the last page before she's even looked at the first :p].

  22. Sam Grahamon 25 Oct 2007 at 9:20 am

    I don’t particularly care whether some people don’t find spoilers a problem.

    They’re perfectly entitled to their opinion as long as they respect the fact that I don’t want spoilers and have the courtesy to warn me if they’re going to reveal “the twist”.

    They don’t have the right to make that choice for me.

    Spoilers are like passive smoking, I don’t care if you smoke, just give me time to leave the room rather than leave me no choice but to breathe it in. ;)

    In practice it doesn’t bother me too much as I tend to avoid all pre-release publicity (other than release-date) for books, films and music; because even if there’s no plot-twist style spoilers, I prefer to experience things fresh for myself with an open mind. I’d much rather think for myself “My word, wasn’t that a dreadfully telegraphed plot-twist” rather than “Yeah, that reviewer was right, you could see that coming a mile off”.

    More to the point of the main article though, I think perhaps David is making too fine a point of the difference between the how, the why and the what: yes for the most literal interpretation of “what”, there’s a good point that the what isn’t so important (especially if it’s boiled down to a generality like “the good guys win”.)

    On another level though, the “how and why” are intrinsically part of the “what happens” if the author is doing their job as a storyteller. What happens at the end of the story is simply “the story ends”, or perhaps “the telling of the story ends”, why the story is done at that point is as varied as the telling itself.

    Is it because the deeds have been done? Is it because the characters’ have finished their journey of development? Well it depends on which was the point of the story, and every shade in-between (and all the other wonderful story structures authors have been entertaining me with over the years.)

    My point basically is that the “what happens” is the important thing, but what the phrase “what happens” means depends entirely on the concept of “what was happening” for the rest of the book too. If “what was happening” is “the characters were being changed by events” then that’s what happens at the end. If “what was happening” was “the characters did stuff” then that’s what happens at the end too.

  23. Seaboe Emmon 25 Oct 2007 at 9:41 am

    [And, of course, we can’t forget that there are some people who LIKE spoilers. A friend of mine always makes me outline the entire book for him - twists, who dies, who saves the day etc - if I’ve already read the one he’s about to start.]

    I also like spoilers and make my friends tell me if they already know. I don’t, however, spread spoilers unless I already know the audience won’t mind.

    What irritates the heck of out me (to the point of fury sometimes) is the so-called friends who refuse to tell me what I want to know because it would “ruin” the story for me. Who the heck are they to say what will ruin the story for me?

    Seaboe

  24. Charleson 25 Oct 2007 at 10:11 am

    I avoid spoilers. Once I decide I want to see a movie, I turn the channel whenever the trailer comes on.

    That said, there are certain stories that I actually enjoy even more after knowing the ending. The Sixth Sense and Angel Heart in particular provide a whole different story experience the second time around.

  25. [...] but by no means least: David Louis Edelman, wearing his DeepGenre hat, discusses endings – more specifically the why and how thereof as opposed to the what – using the Batman Begins…: "… we don’t tell stories from a naturalistic perspective. We might try to [...]

  26. Maryon 27 Oct 2007 at 10:17 am

    We focus on Batman’s efforts to stop the Joker from poisoning Gotham’s water supply rather than the audit of his 2003 taxes because it’s a convenient metaphor.

    I don’t think it’s a metaphor.

    The Joker’s attack is siginficiant not because it’s figurative, but because it strikes close to the bone.

  27. Laurieon 27 Oct 2007 at 8:55 pm

    Kevin Andrew Murphy wrote:

    One plot element? Enter character holding lit oil lamp.

    Argh! I hate that. You’re sitting there watching the movie and suddenly you are informed via music, camera work, and other vastly unsubtle mechanisms that This Common Household Item is going to be integral to the next scene. They may as well circle it and give it a caption “Bad Guy Will Soon Be Impaled Upon Convenient Fence Post” or “Bumbling Fool Will Cause Inferno with Bic Lighter.”

    Whenever this happens, I roll my eyes and check my watch to see if the runtime of the movie is almost up. However, there are some people who love the anticipation of seeing how This Common Household Item will be used. They clap and laugh and seem to think the whole thing is oh, so clever. Saw II through Saw XVII are examples of this. (My boyfriend loves it, and I’d like to be the impale-ee to avoid having to watch it.)

  28. Yaronon 29 Oct 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Heh, I haven’t really noticed that the culture in Infoquake strongly discouraged selfishness. One of the few good things I had to say about Natch’s personality was that at least he’s no worse than the rest of the people he deals with. ;-)

    When does the story end? It ends when the moral or ethical or psychological question is answered

    Only partially true. The plot does matter. It has to be a combination of both.
    Bruce Wayne is going about his business. Then he hears of a new bad guy starting a new crime spree. So far, so good. But if it was just waiting to see if he “finds the strength to put on the mask one more time”, well, once he did we can cut to the credits. Not much point in showing him actually going after the bad guy, or putting him in jail. After all, if it’s just plot…

    I don’t think it’s a metaphor.
    The Joker’s attack is siginficiant not because it’s figurative, but because it strikes close to the bone.

    Actually I’d expect more people have had close and personal encounters with taxes than with poisoned water supply.
    If you could have a guarantee of, all else being equal, either getting a supply of non-intentionally-poisoned water for a year, or getting an exemption from paying taxes for a year, which would you choose? The one which most concerns you, of course. Taxes.

  29. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 30 Oct 2007 at 11:34 am

    Well, the reason that Common Household Item is established and used so significantly is because it’s generally better than Hero or Villain Conveniently Pulls Uncommon Object Out of Their Ass.

    There’s also riffs that clever writers and filmmakers can pull on such shticks. One of the old chestnuts of vampire movies is vampires in houses with blacked out windows which the heroes can conveniently break to then immolate said vampires in conveniently angled shafts of sunlight. And I think the series pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is sufficiently old I can discuss the clever riff: Buffy, while in a fight with head vampire mook Luke, says, “There’s one thing you forgot–the sun!” and smashes a conveniently blacked-out window in The Bronze. Vampire recoils in horror from the light on the other side of smashed black window, then suddenly realizes he’s not burning up and indeed, the light behind the window is one of the stage lights of the club. But Buffy has used this as a distraction so she can stake him, mentioning that the sun doesn’t come up for hours, “Moron.”

    There’s the old business of playwrighting where if you put a gun on stage in the first act, you must use it by the third. I agree with that, but will point out that “use” is not the same thing as “will necessarily be useful to the hero or villain.” It’s a lot of fun to have the Everyday Household Object miss or break so characters have to be more clever about things too.

  30. Constance Ashon 30 Oct 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Darth Vader is an actor? What else has been in? I was certain I would have spotted him, what with his helmet and breathing problems

    “They Say” he’s been spotted in D.C. and other undisclosed locations ….

    David brought up the salondotcom Buffy spoiler. I don’t particularly care for surprises, partly because like so many of us, it’s just about impossible to surprise me in terms of plot and action — Vaquero nevertheless remains in awe of my ability to say what is going to happen before it happens. But Buffy is one of the rare works where on first viewing the arc of the seasons that I couldn’t figure out what would happen before it happened, and it would honestly have spoiled my pleasure in that first viewing if I had known beforehand. Then came the pleasures of re-viewings, knowing what was coming and figuring out How They Did THAT!

    As to the convergence between action and character challenge: partly that does happen below conscious choice, I think. That’s how image clusters happen, which are part of how this works, for instance.

    Love, C.

  31. [...] 24, 2007 A very cool post about storytelling Posted by dotificus under Uncategorized   Over on Deep Genre by David L. Edelman. I got the link from this [...]

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