Sunday, November 13, 2016

Justifying The Story

A while back, I wrote a post in which I spoke about justifying the ending of a story.  Basically, it said that in order to have a great ending, the story must be equally epic.  The more I pondered it, the more I realized that the reverse is also true - the ending also has to justify the story.

Here's what I mean by that - Johnny Carson used to say that the longer the build up in a joke, the funnier the payoff needs to be.  In other words, you can't just pull the audience along and then give them barely a mild pop in the conclusion.  The building of suspense and the creation of tension is great, but it has to result in something that makes the audience go, "HOLY SHIT!"

This came to me as I watched Designated Survivor recently.  The show is creating a lot of intrigue, both political and action.  However, I wondered how much longer this could go on.  The story has to eventually reveal the people behind the plot to blow up the Capitol, and the longer they go on without doing so, the more the audience will expect it to knock their socks off.  Perhaps the producers are afraid of the big reveal because, after that, the show essentially becomes The West Wing with Keifer Sutherland.  In the movie Sneakers, the story writers spent so much time building up such great suspense that when they finally revealed that the villain behind all the intrigue was a lone guy with a megalomaniacal personality, it was like deflating a balloon.  I was similarly disappointed in The Da Vinci Code when it was revealed that (*SPOILER ALERT*) Teabing was the bad guy the whole time, something any competent reader could've picked up on halfway through since he was one of the only major characters, and I doubted they'd make Robert Langdon the villain.  The Da Vinci Code made it seem as if there would be a lot more behind the search for the Grail, but it ended up being simplistic and a major letdown.

Keep these things in mind when you write your novel.  I think some of us are so worried about writing a good story that we forget about the ending.  We craft intrigue and allude to big things, only to write an obvious or underwhelming ending.  That will piss the audience off in a heartbeat.  Richard Matheson, I think, did a great job of justifying his story in I Am Legend(the book, not the horrible, horrible movie).  He brought us into a world of one man against the vampires, and then revealed to us that Robert Neville was the real monster of the story and was feared by the vampires trying to rebuild society.  It was one of the few times when reading a book when I went, "Whoa!"  Had Neville simply gone in, wiped out the vampires, and restarted the world, I'd have been okay, but the book wouldn't have been a classic.  Matheson's end point made the path we traveled worth the journey.

So remember both parts of your work.  Both the story and the ending are important, and one can't exist without the other if you want to get more people interested.  Focusing your creative energies on only one aspect would be like working out only one arm - your right bicep may look great, but people will avoid you because you look weird.


  1. That's one reason why I'm not a huge fan of season long arcs on TV shows ... just tell us what's going on, already! It's a lot easier to accept a not-so-great reveal if it hasn't been building for 22 episodes.

    1. Yup. If they're going to keep me hanging on that long, they better knock my socks off. Rarely happens...