Monday, May 12, 2014

Deus ex Offensus

"How are we ever going to get out of this?" Jan shouted, pressing her back to Nicholai's. Before her, Maalic's army of undead villagers stumbled ever closer, closing to just within bow shot. Jan nocked an arrow and took aim, but which to shoot first? There were hundreds of the rotting corpses and only twelve arrows left in her quiver. 

Behind her, Nicholai roared in pain. She half-turned to see him frantically brushing a glowing glob of lava from his armor. The hunk of molten rock was little bigger than a child's fist, but it had seared clean through the hardened leather to scorch Nicholai's exposed skin beneath. 

Jan hazarded a glance at the lava pit beyond Nicholai. The magma stalkers had amassed at the shore of the pool, and were now flinging large clumps of lava in their direction. Their aim was pathetic, but all it would take was one lucky shot to end it all for her and Nicholai.

Jan's mind raced. There had to be a way out. The tunnel that led them into the dormant volcano had collapsed. The open peak of the mountain loomed above them several hundred spans, too far too climb out. With hundreds of enemies, little ammunition, and no more magic, it seemed this would be the end. Her adventuring days with her brother were over, and the King would never get the Seer Stone tucked away in Nicholai's satchel. 

Well, she wasn't going down without a fight. Jan took aim at the closest zombie, drawing a deep breath to steady her shot. 

Suddenly a massive bolt of lightning shot down through the opening of the volcano, striking amid the sauntering villagers. Bodies flew in every direction, their tattered clothing catching fire. The undead villagers stopped, sagging eye sweeping for the origin of the attack. More lightning struck, quickly decimating the zombie army. Those corpses that weren't destroyed in the blasts were consumed in the quickly spreading fire. 

Jan groped for Nicholai, to ask if he was seeing this. At the same time, he pulled her attention his direction. On the far side of the lava pool. the side of the mountain had cracked. Through the massive fissure, a torrent of water gushed into the volcano, sweeping across the molten lake. Within minutes, the lava, and the the magma stalkers, had cooled and hardened to solid rock. 

Jan glanced around. They were saved, but how? She looked up into the night sky above the mouth of the volcano. Among the stars a face appeared. It smiled and winked at her, then vanished. Jan looked at Nicholai, speechless. 

Nicholai shook his head. "Saved by the gods. Who would have thought."


Wow, wasn't that a great story? Did the ending leave you satisfied? In this small example, maybe, but only because this isn't a story, but a scene. Imagine if this was the end of the novel you just read. You've invested hours and several hundred pages in these two characters, getting to know their personalities, dreams, and weaknesses. You know what they're capable of and what they're not. If this is the end of that novel, and you can see no way for them to escape, would the sudden and unexplained appearance of a god please you, or enrage you? For most people, it's the latter. It's known as "deus ex machina" and essentially means that when all hope is lost, god comes down out of the blue to save the day. In most cases, this type of ending is highly unsatisfying.

Endings are the most important part of a story. Yes, you can argue for any other aspect, plot, characters, setting, etc. But without a satisfying ending, none of the rest of those things matter. Imagine if, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo had failed at Mt. Doom. Or if the Deathstar had been destroyed by a clumsy stormtrooper accidentally pressing the wrong button. The characters, plot, and setting of those stories are incredible. But if the ending doesn't fulfill our expectations, they all may as well have been crap.

So how do you write a satisfying ending. Honestly, I'm not the person to ask. I struggle with this in my own writing. I can come with some pretty cool setups, have engaging characters and powerful questions, but inevitably, my answers tend to fizzle out.

So why write a blog post about how to write a satisfying ending? To teach myself, and hopefully you in the process, how to get better. How to do this right.

Writing a satisfying ending depends largely on the type of story you're telling. Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient tells us that there are four basic types of stories. Millieu (setting), Idea, Character, and Event. And each of these story types will have a different type of ending. But they can tell you where your story should begin and when it should end. For example:

Millieu - The millieu story is all about the setting. The story starts when the character(s) are taken out of their own familiar setting and dropped into someplace strange and unfamiliar. The story ends when the character(s) find their way home. Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels.

Idea - The idea story is about a question or problem. It starts when the question is asked or the problem starts, and it ends when the question is answered or the problem solved. Most mysteries are idea stories. The question is, "Who dunnit?" and it ends when the killer is revealed.

Character - Character stories are about a character trying to change his/her life. The beginning starts one of two ways: either the character is dissatisfied with life and sets out to change; or the character's life is changed for them and they set out to return it to the way it was. Either way, the story ends when either they succeed in making the change, or they give up and accept the new situation.

Event - All stories have events. But event stories are focused on that event, something that has thrown the world, or at least the characters' world, out of balance. The story starts when the character(s) decide to get involved, and it ends when they either accomplish their goals and stop the event, or when they utterly fail to do so. Most natural disaster stories are event stories. Dante's Peak, Gravity, Twister.

So, looking at your story and categorizing it can help you determine where/when your story needs to end. In it's simplest form, the idea is that your story ends when the problem is solved. Every story has a problem, conflict, whether it's external to your characters or internal. Once that problem is solved, the story is over.

Does that mean we end the story immediately following the climax, as in my example above? In most cases, no. Because your reader is (hopefully) emotionally invested in your characters, it's not enough to merely see them succeed at their task. We want to know what happens next. Do they live happily ever after? This is often called the dénouement. It's the conclusion that tells us where everyone ended up in the end and if they're happy. We get this in a lot of movies where, either before or during the credits, we get screenshots of each character and a paragraph telling us what they did after the movie ended.

One thing to be careful of in writing your dénouement is to not overdo it. The conclusion should be short and sweet and just give us a summary of how everyone is doing at the end. An example of overdoing it, in my opinion, is at the end of Lord of the Rings. If you haven't read the books, after Frodo destroys the ring and saves Middle Earth, then they all go back to the Shire only to find it overrun by bandits led by Saruman and Wormtoungue. This is known as the Scouring of the Shire and in the end the Hobbits have to defeat them, too. I know some fans see this as the ultimate end to the trilogy because it brings it all back home, where Frodo left to begin with. But in reality, the plot of the story begins when Frodo gets the ring, and it ends when Frodo destroys it. The Scouring of the Shire is really just an unnecessarily long dénouement.

Does your conclusion have to be happy? Not necessarily, it depends on your story. But for the most part, even in a tragedy, people are looking for some hope, so if you have a really downer climax, and then add a downer conclusion to the end, chances are pretty good you're going to leave your readers dissatisfied, and possibly even mad at you.

But in the end (see what I did there?) write the ending you want to write. Just be aware of the effect it may have or may NOT have on your readers. Make sure your ending fits the situation, resolves the conflict, and doesn't drag on after the fact.
Challenge Accepted

Your challenge for this post is to take story of yours and write four different endings. Vary them up, maybe end one right at the climax, and drag out the conclusion of another. Write a happy ending and a sad ending. Try different combinations and see how it affects the overall feel of your story.

Good luck, and write something.


  1. Both the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings had long, drawn-out endings--LotR especially. After the scouring of the shire, Frodo sails west to Valinor. Sad, bittersweet.

    In Tolkien's case this works because the reader has formed a deep connection with the characters, and wants to know all about their lives in the aftermath.

    On a different note, one of the best deus ex machina endings was War of the Words. This story worked because the thing that killed the aliens was already part of this world, a part that everyone understood. Not only that, but the characters' actions to fight the aliens had proven totally futile. Wells solved it brilliantly. How do you stop an unstoppable villain? Use an equally unstoppable (and completely unforseen) force of nature.

  2. I don't know, I just love endings where everything is wrapped up in a tidy bow and some heretofore unknown entity sweeps in and saves the day leaving the main characters useless and unnecessary - NOT :)

    I'm a fan of epilogues because, as you stated, most of the time I'm emotionally invested in the characters and I'm not ready to let them go -just yet-, but I definitely agree that an epilogue should be pretty short. You want to leave your reader wishing they had just a little bit more time with your characters, imo, rather than set them up for a conclusion and then string them along for another 20 pages. I've read those and instead of feeling bittersweet about saying goodbye I thought "Well, there is literally nothing left for me to wonder about. Don't need to think about this book anymore." That's definitely not the reaction I want a reader to have.

    Oh, P.S. and by the way, I love your Challenges! :)

    1. I think that's a great point, Heidi. At the end of a good book you want closure, you want to know that the characters are in a better place; but you don't necessarily want to know everything that happens from that day forward until they die. If there are a few things left unsaid, then it leaves the rest to our imagination, which will cause a book to stick with us longer as our minds continue to imagine a future for the characters we're invested in.

      So I would absolutely say that, like a good prom dress, part of a "satisfying" ending includes leaving something to the imagination. ;)