"Once upon a time. . ."

by Lisa Paitz Spindler & Diana Dominguez

The only words that are probably more well known than these are "The End" or "And they lived happily ever after." For many writers, though, wrapping up a story or a novel is a lot harder than beginning one. Part of the problem is not knowing when to end a story.

As was pointed out in the Plotting lesson, Reid differentiates between the plot and the story line. In plot- or event-driven stories, the end is near when it is revealed whether or not the protagonist will succeed or fail to overcome the main physical obstacle in the story. In story line- or character-driven stories, the end is near when the protagonist comes to an internal realization that changes him or her emotionally.

Plot-line and story-line usually intertwine as the protagonist overcomes the external obstacle and has an internal realization simultaneously or very close in time to overcoming that obstacle. A story can favor plot or story line, depending on whether the emphasis is placed on what happens internally or externally. For example, action movies place most of the emphasis on plot, but a story about the maturing or ‘coming of age’ of a protagonist may place much more emphasis on story line.

To reiterate the DIEHARD example from the Plotting lesson: "John McClain (Bruce Willis) essentially remains the same kind of person at the end of the film, although he might realize he loves his wife and family a bit more than he thought at the beginning. The story really hinges on whether or not he will defeat the ‘bad guys.’"

DIEHARD is a good example of an intertwined plot- and story-line, but one that places the emphasis on plot over story.

A good example of a story that is heavier on story-line or character development, but which also has a constantly advancing plot is MOONSTRUCK with Nicolas Cage and Cher. While there is definitely a plot — almost "suspense"-like in its drawing the audience in to figure out which brother Loretta (Cher) will end up with — it is Loretta’s realization that what she truly wants out of life is the crazy, ruin-your-life kind of love that Ronny (Cage) offers over the staid and stable life that Johnny (Danny Aiello) will give her. This movie is also a good example of the previous lesson on Middles — the whole idea of intertwining subplots that all relate to the main story-line such as the answer to the mother’s question: ‘Why do men chase women?’ and the parents’ realization that they still do love each other.

The final scenes of MOONSTRUCK, which take place in the kitchen, are classic examples for how an ending ties up loose ends but doesn’t seem "pat" and "thrown together" in order to have some kind of "ending."

So now you know how to spot the end of both plot- and story-line-driven stories. How does this translate over into a game plan for actually writing the ending? Let’s start with identifying the story elements of both plot-line and story-line and how they interact.


You’ve heard all the terms: crisis, climax, dark moment, denouement, resolution. But how do these elements of the ending fit together? First, let’s divide these elements into what applies to plot and what applies to story-line using Aristotle’s Incline, also called the Three Act Structure. Then we’ll define each of the elements of the end.

ACT ONE: Setup
Plot Point 1

ACT TWO: Tests & Complications
Plot Point 2

ACT THREE: Crisis & Conclusion
* Dark Moment (internal — despair, deconstruction, decision)
* Climax (external — action based on decision)

* Denouement (external — ‘untying’ of plot)
* Resolution (internal — change positive or negative — restoration,
reinforcement, resonance)

Both the climax and the denouement deal with external events so these elements are part of the plot-line. The dark moment and resolution, however, deal with the protagonist’s internal realizations and so are part of the story-line. A well-rounded story uses elements from both of these categories. Now let’s define each of these elements.


Defined as a turning point in the plot, the crisis arises from a conflict, the forces of which take action to effect a turning point. The result of a crisis is a climax. The protagonist experiences a crisis in two steps: dark moment and climax.

Dark Moment

At the beginning of the crisis, the protagonist may experience a dark moment when the stakes of the problem have increased to such proportion that s/he can conceive of no solution for it. In other words, all hope seems lost. Out of this sense of desperation, the protagonist is forced to or is finally able to deconstruct the problem and let go of what is not needed. The result is a new approach to the problem and a decision carried out by the action in the climax.

In a protracted dark moment the protagonist goes through self-examination and looks at lessons learned throughout the course of the story. As Karrie Balochus explains:

"It usually involves the sacrifice – usually the apparent giving up of the elixir so to speak. But in sacrifice the h/h proves worth of the elixir. In romance it’s usually the loss of the relationship, the two lovers separated and only through sacrifice can they get each other back. Through the Black Moment h/h realize and give up the character trait/flaw that has been keeping them apart."

The dark moment is especially important in the romance genre because the story’s central issue must be the love story and the emotional changes of the hero and heroine. Janet Lane Walters points out in her article "Is Your Black Moment Only Gray?" that this scene need not be the classic separation of the romantic couple. Many of the pitfalls in writing the romance dark moment have to do with building internal conflict and concentrating on the right focus character. For more information, see her article at: http://members.home.net/gdrwa/Walters2.html

An example is Michael Ondaatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT, where the male protagonist who is known as The English Patient (Count Almasy) is faced with his crisis when his lover’s husband crashes the plane in which he (the husband) and Katherine (the wife/lover of Almasy) are flying. The husband hopes to kill Almasy, who is on the ground, but only succeeds in killing himself and breaking Katherine’s collar bone. Almasy cannot repair the plane to fly it, and Katherine is too weak to walk out of the desert. Staying with her in the desert will only kill them both. He must decide to walk out of the desert in the hope of finding help, leaving Katherine behind in a cave with water, a lantern, and blankets. It is this dilemma which leads to the climax on which the main story-line revolves.


The climax, as the result of all the events that have preceded it, is the most intense point in the story. A climax represents the peak of emotional response from the reader as well as the turning point in the story’s action.

Sometimes the climax is called the catharsis, but care should be taken not to confuse the two. Vogler in THE WRITER’S JOURNEY defines the catharsis as the state "you are trying to trigger in your hero and audience is the moment when they are the most conscious, when they have reached the highest point on a ladder of awareness. . . A sudden expansion of awareness, a peak experience of higher consciousness."

Using this definition, the catharsis is a "double wammie" in that it includes elements from both the internal decision/revelation from the dark moment as well as the external action of the climax.

In THE ENGLISH PATIENT, the climax is more of a catharsis moment for the main protagonist, but it is definitely the climax of the main story-line. On his walk out of the desert, Almasy (the English patient) runs into German soldiers who have started to move into the Egyptian desert to set up posts in preparation for WWII. He is accused of being a spy for the English, and taken prisoner. Almasy desperately tries to tell them that he must get back to Katherine in the desert, but they will not listen to him. His final climax/catharsis point is that he becomes a traitor to the English by telling the Germans secrets that he has picked up about the English-funded mapping exploration efforts that he was a part of. He does this, in spite of the fact that he realizes it will mean people he’s been friends with will be captured, tortured, and made prisoners, because his own desperate goal is to get back to Katherine — the Germans have promised to give him a plane to get back to the desert if he reveals the secrets. This climax has strong elements of external action — the movements up to the beginning of war — and intense internal struggle for Almasy.


The conclusion is the ending point or wrap-up of a story. The protagonist experiences a conclusion two steps: denouement and resolution.


The denouement of a story follows the climax and ‘unties’ the plot twists and complications. It represents the unraveling of the complexities of a plot, and the clarifying of the story’s details and misunderstandings.

The denouement in THE ENGLISH PATIENT comes when readers find out how Almasy finally got back to Katherine — already dead (he got there too late) — and how he ended up burned (he flew out of the desert with the now dead Katherine, but crashed when his plane developed an oil leak) and, finally, how he ends up under the care of the nurse, Hana, that we meet at the beginning of the story. The "now" part of the story — burned patient in the bombed out Villa with the nurse — constantly intercuts the flashbacks which fill in the story of Almasy and Katherine on the mapping research, their love affair, up through her death in the cave.


The purpose of the resolution is to resolve what’s left unanswered by the climax/denouement: the internal problem or story-line. Alicia Rasley says in her article "End Thoughts" that "[T]he end scene should show, in an actual or symbolic way, what has changed because of the events of the story — specifically, how the protagonist has changed."

In addition, she outlines three other elements of the resolution:

  • restoration: The last scene should "restore the world to some semblance of order. . . show the new order after the upheaval of the story events and the climax."
  • reinforcement: The ending should reinforce the story’s theme, especially if the climax and denouement did not.
  • resonance: The final scene should have some emotional resonance, but not be over-the-top like the dark moment or climax. Rasley suggests that "[I]t should be a small event, probably, one that closes the story rather than opening another one."


Nancy Kress in "A Spoonful of Sugar," (Writers Digest, August 1999) echoes Rasley’s points about the resolution and cautions writers to stay away from moral abstraction or a blatant morality statement. She also says that the fate of the characters should be clear in the climax — don’t rely on the ending to do that. Instead the ending should give the reader a glimpse into the near future of the characters.

Robert Ray in THE WEEKEND NOVELIST goes as far as to say that your opening sequence and your ending sequence should "book-end" or parallel each other:

"The opening sequence and the final image work as frames or bookends for the story line. . . (T)he opening scene and the wrap-up scene frame your story. . ."

Reid cautions the writer to "[A]void easy solutions with the hero solving the problem by doing something improbable." The protagonist should possess by two-thirds of the way into the book the tools he or she uses at the end to solve the problem. Likewise, be sure to introduce characters critical to the end in the first two-thirds of the story.


"You don’t have to have a snappy, hard-hitting, or thoroughly conclusive ending. You don’t have to drive home a moral or make a point. (You can if you want to, however, provided you do it well.) . . . it is counterproductive to add a final paragraph . . . that adds a sense of closure. When the events have come to a stop, stop writing. You don’t need to tack on a summary, a narrative conclusion, or a wrap-up. Your piece, if it has been written well, will likely provide its own natural conclusion."

(Note from Diana: This book is a great resource, as it includes practical information and some great creativity-generating exercises that can help get you kick-started. Hmmm — is there a theme going on here? In other words, from what I can gather, endings should sound natural, and not forced or contrived.)

In THE ENGLISH PATIENT, the resolution fits all of the advice above about endings not being over the top or improbable. The ending only implies the death of the English patient, and gives us a glimpse into the quiet contentment that Hana and Kirpal (a man Hana has a love affair with at the Villa) each find on their own after the war — no pat "happy endings," no moralistic, philosophical edification, but loose ends are tied up, and it ends on a note of hope.

(Note from Diana: In case you can’t quite tell yet, I find THE ENGLISH PATIENT one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read. <G>)


1) Look through your favorite books to find the endings that please you the most. Why do you like them so much? Analyze what seems to work especially well in them. Share your favorites with us.

2) Look at your own writing — if you have not reached a stage where you can definitely plot out an ending, begin thinking about what the Dark Moment and Climax should be. What’s the one thing that your protagonist wants to avoid the most? What internal and external crises need to happen to get your characters and plot to the "resolution" stage? Is your piece primarily plot/event-driven or story-line/character-driven? This will make a difference in deciding elements of the ending’s stages and path toward resolution.

3) If you have a few finished works — short stories, novellas, or even a novel or two sitting on those shelves — drag them out and analyze the endings. Are the stages (Dark Moment, Climax, Denouement, Resolution) there clearly and effectively enough to make an impact on readers? Do you have any moralistic or pat resolutions? Rewrite scenes so that clear Dark Moment aspects show up. Analyze your Crisis for a clear expression of either/both external and internal elements that will move your story to the proper resolution point.

4) Are all your loose ends tied up? Analyze to see if it all gets threaded in effectively. Rewrite where necessary.


1) Share your own writing with us — on any of these stages, those that work and don’t work, so that we can learn and share advice.


Edelstein, Scott. The No-Experience-Necessary Writer’s Course, Scarborough House Publishers, 1990.

Kress, Nancy. ‘A Spoonful of Sugar,’ Writers Digest, August 1999

Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshop, ‘Plot Sequencing: Aristotle’s Incline,’ http://www.geocities.com/katrinko/aristotleincline.html

Rasley, Alicia. ‘Developing the Dark Moment,’ Article of the Month, Writers’ Corner, http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/artdark.htm

Rasley, Alicia. ‘Article of the Month: End Thoughts,’ Writers’ Corner, http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/art1.htm

Ray, Robert. The Weekend Novelist. Dell Publishing Company, 1994.

Reid, Joanne. Write a Novel in 10 Weeks: Endings, http://www.reporters.net/jbreid/novel10/eight10weeks.htm

Schneider, Tracy Anne. ‘Surprise Endings Don’t Have to be a Dream,’ Word on Fiction, http://wordonfiction.hypermart.net/backarticles/issue019/surprize_endings.htm

Schneider, Tracy Anne. ‘Endings that Appeal and Thrill,’ Word on Fiction, http://wordonfiction.hypermart.net/backarticles/issue006/endings.htm

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Michel Wiese Productions, 1998.

Walters, Janet Lane. ‘Is Your Black Moment Only Gray?,’ A Word About Romance, Greater Detroit Romance Writers of America, June 1997, http://members.home.net/gdrwa/Walters2.html