How To Achieve Resolution

"And now, the moment we've all been waiting for..." Most stories follow a traditional track: the main character pursues an objective, getting through obstacle after obstacle until finally, the objective is met (or definitively thwarted). That moment of truth - sometimes called the "climactic moment" - is the resolution to your story's goal. After it comes the "walk into the sunset" portion of your story (often technically referred to as the "falling action," "denouement" or, in fact, "resolution") which is always so much easier to write. But how do you get to that moment your readers or viewers have been waiting for? Here are some tips that I've come across that may be of use to those of you looking to let your story go out with a bang.

  1. Make sure the goal is clear. If you have a story where a character rambles around chatting, enjoying life, or, conversely, reflecting on how miserable it is, it might be a very enjoyable story, but it's hard to see where the "resolution" would fit in. A character has to be pursuing something, fighting to get something, in order for a story to have a resolution where that "something" is ultimately gotten - or not gotten. So when you sit down to construct your story, make sure the character's goal is clear.
  2. Know your ending. Admit it - a lot of times, we as writers can get on a sort of stream-of-consciousness jag where we just write and write and we're going some place, we know we're going some place and....we have no idea where it is. If you don't know how your story ends yet, my advice is stop writing and figure out what your resolution will be. Writing without knowing your ending may seem very "artistic," but it's also somewhat like riding around in a car without any idea where you're headed; you're going to be out there a long, long while, and you're going to end up wasting time and getting lost. So, in the words of mapmakers everywhere, "Know before you go." To achieve a good resolution scene, sequence, chapter, or moment, know what that resolution actually will be.
  3. Build up to it. Video games are sometimes a useful analogy for writing with "dramatic arc." A video game starts with a basic level where the obstacles are somewhat easy to overcome, but as you advance to each new level, the obstacles are tougher and tougher, the terrain more difficult, the clues less easy to find. A story should be the same; escalation is the key. Twists are always good, too. A resolution that will leave your readers or viewers amazed is the result of a build-up in which your character always has to dig deeper. Your audience will be on the edge of their seats wondering, "What now?"
  4. Make sure we care about your character. Your resolution is often something of the perfect storm between character revelation ("Oh, man, she overcame her fear and did it!") and plot events ("Oh, man, the beast fell into the lake of acid!"). So the character - who she is and what she does and why - is essential in creating a good resolution. Have you ever read a book or seen a movie or play where you just don't care what becomes of the character? If you want to achieve real resolution, where a goal is met in a way that elicits a response from the audience, don't forget to create a main character the audience will also respond to. A main character need not be heroic or lovable, but there has to be some sympathetic element that the audience can embrace.
  5. The traditional ending or the new approach: be careful. It's often said that there are only so many stories out there, and that what makes one stand out from the rest is the specifics and the execution. Often, you will have a choice between a traditional resolution to your main conflict and a totally new ending (or something that seems totally new). When facing these choices, choose wisely. In some cases, the more creative resolution can be a breath of fresh air: the girl doesn't get the guy but ends up exploring the world and finding herself ("How empowering and novel!"). In other cases, trying to get tricky, especially in a genre where the audience has an expectation, might backfire ("She doesn't get married at the end? Why did I just read this romantic comedy for that resolution!?"). Finding the next "Sixth Sense" or "Usual Suspects" twist to a movie resolution can definitely be worth the brainstorming headaches. But don't dismiss the "regular" endings, either. You can certainly put your own spin on a time-tested story resolution.
  6. Let the end belong to the resolution. Most stories have subplots. Many times, when we get to the end of a story, we feel compelled to resolve them all as we close in on our ending. I read an interview with a TV producer once who advised against this, and it made a lot of sense. The final leg of your story should really belong to your main character and his goal. Don't cut away from that to deal with smaller issues. Resolve your subplots before your big resolution (or in some small way, afterward). But as the action rises to that climactic moment, stick with your main character and his pursuit. Don't cut away from Dorothy killing The Wicked Witch to see how The Scarecrow is doing in the other room. Focus should be intensely on that major story goal as you get to your resolution.
  7. Remember the "Shark." A film teacher once told me advice someone gave him, and I will pass it on here: when the shark is dead, the movie ends. That is to say, when your main character has achieved her story goal, don't tack on five extra endings. When the shark is dead in "Jaws," that's it, end of film, roll credits, draft the sequel. Yes, we are all familiar with the epilogue, the wrap-up sequence where everyone gets a medal or is shown living happily ever after; and it's fine to have that moment or two. But don't have your character kill her shark and then go on at length with other aspects of the story. If she goes on to pursue other goals, you may have burdened your character with too many goals at the outset.

A good resolution is the final piece to the good story puzzle. Your audience has joined you and your character for a journey. Make sure that ending makes their ride worthwhile.


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