Friday, August 6, 2010


Hi folks,
As some of you know, I recently was invited by Lia Keys to be a guest blogger on her really terrific blog, ScribeChat. Lia  has graciously allowed me to repost the article here and I hope you enjoy it. She also invited me to participate in a webcast on the same topic and you may want to visit her site to see a transcript of that as well as the comments the article generated. To get there, just click on or go to the link on this site to her blog.

Hope you enjoy this and find it helpful!

Getting wired before my presentation on the movie THELMA & LOUISE at this year's Microburst at Phoenix College.



Les Edgerton

First, I want to thank Lia for having me on as a guest blogger. Thanks a bunch, Lia! This looks like a great crowd you’ve gathered here.

I’d like to talk about novel endings and what makes a compelling finale to your novel. There’s no way I can cover everything that goes into a great ending, but I’ll try to cover some of the more important elements.

Before we get to the ending, we need to discuss what leads up to that point. Let’s look at basic story structure. Simplified, a novel structurally consists of a protagonist and an antagonist as the two most important characters. The protagonist has something happen to him or her (inciting incident) that creates a surface problem (that’s actually symptomatic of a story-worthy problem) which will occupy him or her for the rest of the novel, trying to resolve it. The antagonist also has a goal and it’s his or her goal that provides the opposition for the protagonist in resolving his or her goal. The struggle to resolve the problem(s) against increasing opposition occupies the majority of the novel.

It might be helpful to define our terms before we begin.

Protagonist: Simply the individual through whose persona we (readers) experience the story.

I urge writers to never think of the protagonist as the “hero” or even “main character.” To see this character as a hero reduces the character to a one-dimensional, cardboard character, ala “Dudley Doright.” Moral qualities, such as good and bad, shouldn’t apply to the protagonist or the antagonist. Can they be good or bad? Sure, but to define them in that way as their chief characteristic makes it likely you’ll create cartoonish characters rather than fully-developed literary characters. To see this character as your “main character” reduces the value of characterization to the novel and overemphasizes plot. And, there is one protagonist per novel, not several. Not “co-protagonists” or multiple protagonists. That person can have multiple “helpers” or aides or helpers, but it needs to be one person we see.

Antagonist: The individual whose goal conflicts with that of the protagonist’s surface problem goal always and sometimes the story-worthy goal as well.

It’s even more important not to think of the antagonist as a villain. Even more so than the protagonist, that can really lead to a Snidely Whiplash type of character. Can he or she be a bad or evil person? Certainly, but you’ll create a much more believable and interesting character if you simply view that person as an individual whose goal conflicts with that of the protagonist. The villain can also have as many lieutenants or allies as you wish.

Inciting incident: Something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the surface story problem to the protagonist. The inciting incident is what needs to begin the contemporary novel. Anything before that event is backstory or setup and shouldn’t precede the inciting incident beginning. If the backstory is important, it can come later, once the reader is invested in the protagonist’s problem. Novels are about one thing only and always—trouble. Today’s novels need to begin when the trouble begins, not before. And, the trouble has to begin with the inciting incident as before that happens there is no trouble, at least not in story terms.

Surface story problem: A bona fide problem that is revealed to the protagonist as a result of the inciting incident. While it is a serious problem, it’s not as serious as the story-worthy problem it’s symptomatic of. Usually, it’s posed as a somewhat superficial goal—love, money, solving a crime, achieving success of some kind, etc.

Story-worthy problem: The “real” problem of the protagonist and which the surface problem is symptomatic of. It’s usually a deep-seated psychological problem. The story-worthy problem isn’t known to the protagonist at the beginning of the story. It is only through the struggle to resolve the surface problem that the more important problem begins to be revealed, and the full realization is usually achieved in the final scene when both the surface problem and story-worthy problem are resolved. Although the story-worthy problem isn’t revealed to the protagonist until they’ve gone through the struggle to resolve the surface problem, the author should be aware of it so that he or she can create an effective plot to get to that point.

Plot: A plot is simply a point-by-point list of all the causal actions that the protagonist takes to resolve the problem. A plot will show such things as: inciting incident, which leads to awareness of problem, first step to resolve the problem, which leads to disaster (failure to achieve the main goal), which leads to step two and so on, against increasing opposition, until the last scene in which the problem is resolved. The “spine” of the book and the plot is the protagonist’s problem and that problem should color every single page in the novel and be behind every action he or she takes. If coincidence occurs, it must always have a negative effect on the protagonist and should never be the source of help or in resolving the problem. If coincidence helps the protagonist, then what you have is what is called a… idiot plot. Don’t go there!

Goals: Both the protagonist and the antagonist have goals. Each of their goals is to resolve their individual surface problems. While the protagonist will also end up having a story-worthy problem goal, the antagonist doesn’t. His or hers is only a surface problem that just happens to be in conflict with the protagonist’s problem.

These definitions may or may not be instantly clear to you at this point, but after our time here together should be. I’d just like you to be aware of them so that this makes sense as you read on.

So, okay, where’s the stuff about novel endings? Relax! It’s coming, I promise.

To illustrate all of this, I’d like to use a teaching model I use quite often. The film, Thelma & Louise, written by Callie Khouri. It’s a film most people have seen so it should be a familiar model. You might want to rent it again to refresh your memory.

Let’s go through the story.

First, the inciting incident. Remember, this is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the surface story problem.

The inciting incident in T&L is in the beginning, where the protagonist, Thelma (no co-protagonists here, although sometimes people mistakenly think Louise is a co-protagonist.) She’s not. She’s the Older Mentor character, if you want to ascribe a label to her. The incident occurs when Thelma’s talking to her husband Darryl as he prepares to leave for work. It’s been established that she is required to ask his permission before embarking on her weekend trip with Louise. She starts to ask him twice for that permission. There’s important backstory here, but it’s not revealed until much later in the story when the two women pick up J.T. and talk and Thelma reveals she’s been married to him for four years and dated him through all four years of high school. The backstory is that she’s been with Darryl for eight years and probably in an abusive relationship. That’s shown by the way they talk to each other. All that’s needed. The intelligent reader/viewer “gets” that instantly.

Thelma is fully aware she’s in a bad situation, and, from time-to-time has performed actions to deal with it. She’s probably spit in Darryl’s food, gossiped and complained about him to Louise, not given her all in bed, whatever. Other times, she ignores her problem. But, it’s not yet to the point where it becomes the biggest single problem in her life and at a stage where nothing can get in the way of her resolving it. That’s what’s required to raise what’s only a “bad situation” to the level of becoming a story. If she can still ignore it for a time, can alibi what her true state is for a time to herself, can even forget her problem for a time… then it’s not yet a story. It’s only when she reaches her tipping point, when that “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment occurs and reveals to her that it’s the single biggest problem in her life and that she can no longer ignore it, even briefly, that it becomes a story. In T&L, Thelma’s inciting incident is a small, dramatic moment. We’ve seen clearly via the phone conversations with Louise that it’s imperative Thelma ask Darryl for permission to go on the trip with her. She even begins to… twice. It’s the second time she starts to ask his permission that constitutes her inciting incident. It’s what Darryl does to her—remember?—the inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist? What Darryl does, is something he’s no doubt done before, But—this time it’s different. This time it’s the one time too many that he’s done this. And what does he do? Simple. She attempts to ask him the second time for permission and he crudely and rudely dismisses her, treating her as an annoyance rather than as his wife and a person. It’s the tipping point for her, the inciting incident, the thing that finally reveals her problem clearly to her. (Keep in mind that the word “problem” in story terms doesn’t have the same definition as the lay term. In story terms, it’s more than a bad situation—it’s a problem that the protagonist won’t let go away until it’s resolved.)

Here’s the actual scene:

THELMA goes through the living room to the bottom of the stairs and leans on the banister.

(hollering again)

Darryl! Honey, you’d better hurry up.

DARRYL comes trotting down the stairs. Polyester was made for this man and he’s dripping in “men’s” jewelry. He manages a Carpeteria.


Dammit, Thelma, don’t holler like that! Haven’t I told
you I can’t stand it when you holler in the morning?

(sweetly and coyly)

I’m sorry, Doll, I just didn’t want you to be late.

DARRYL is checking himself out in the hall mirror and it’s obvious he likes what he sees. He exudes confidence for reasons that never become apparent. He likes to think of himself as a real lady-killer. He is making imperceptible adjustments to his overmoused hair. THELMA watches approvingly.

(My note. This was the setup. Now comes the inciting incident.)

(still annoyed)


(she decides not to tell him.)

Have a good day at work today.





(as if he’s trying to concentrate.)



          You want anything special for dinner?

And, that’s the inciting incident. For perhaps the hundredth time (or more!) in their relationship, she started to do what she’s always done in the past—ask for her husband’s permission to go on the trip. But… something’s different this time. With his evident attitude—his crude dismissal of her and of anything she’s trying to say—she reaches her limit. Before this point, she’s just put up with him and played the dutiful wife. This time, her problem is clearly revealed to her. The little light in the refrigerator of her mind just clicked on. This is why it’s important to understand the complete definition of the inciting incident. (The inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the story problem to her.) If she has what appears to be a problem but it’s not clearly revealed to her that she has, then it’s not yet a problem in story terms. It has to be revealed and clearly to her. That’s the only thing in the definition that has to be there in the inciting incident scene. The problem—at least to others—may have been there for a long time. She may have even been very aware of a bad situation. But, until that moment when it reaches the level of being the most important problem in her life—a problem that she can’t ignore another minute until it’s resolved—it’s only a bad situation and not a story problem.

Also, the inciting incident should be a dramatic scene, not a melodramatic one. And this is.
A small, dramatic opening should then begin to build until the biggest scene of all—the final one. Many writers make the mistake of thinking they have to open with not a dramatic scene, but a melodramatic one. If you open with a murder, kidnapping, bomb explosion and the like—where do you go from there? More murders, more kidnappings, bigger bombs? This is not to say a novel can’t open with that kind of thing, but if your novel’s not a thriller, per se, you might want to reconsider that strategy.

Some believe the inciting incident was when Harlan tried to rape Thelma. Nope. That’s just the “Point of No Return” moment. That event wouldn’t have even been possible if Thelma had asked for Darryl’s permission. That was the real inciting incident—an event from which everything else derived.

And Darryl isn’t the antagonist. Not even close. He’s a one-dimensional, cardboard character. A cartoon. Snidley Whiplash. The antagonist? Hal, the Arkansas cop. Remember, Thelma’s goal, as it evolves, is to escape being caught. Hal’s goal is to catch her. He’s not a bad guy at all (remember, I said to not think of the antagonist as a “villain?”). He’s one of the best and nicest guys in the story. He wants to save the two women, first from going to jail, and in the end, from being killed. His goals are strictly good and honorable. His goal simply opposes Thelma’s goal and that’s the only definition of an antagonist.

Thelma’s surface problem is to escape Darryl’s domination… for a weekend. See who and what kind of  person her husband is, creates instantly reader identification for her as well as sympathy and empathy. Already, we’d like to see her have some fun. It’s obvious she’s had very little with this butthole.

So, her surface problem is Darryl’s domination of her. But, remember I said the surface problem is only symptomatic of the much bigger, much more important, deeper psychological problem the protagonist faces? It’s very true in this story. The story begins with Thelma trying to resolve the surface problem—escaping Darryl’s domination, even if for just a weekend—but, as events progress, little by little, Thelma eventually comes to the realization that she has a much bigger problem. That she’s forced to exist in a male-dominated world. It’s much bigger than just Darryl.

I wanted to go over these things so that the ending—which is what this is all about!—makes complete sense. Now. Here’s the definition of a quality ending:

Ending: A novel ending should contain two elements—a win and a loss. That’s in terms of the protagonist’s goals, both surface and story-worthy. Years ago, we used to teach writers that endings should be either “goal-achieved” or “goal-unachieved.” Like most things, we’ve learned better ways to express story structure. An ending that only achieves the protagonist’s goal as well as an ending in which is the protagonist’s goal is lost are both incomplete and unsatisfactory endings. There must be elements of both to make it a good ending.

Like everything important in a story, the ending should always be presented as a scene. Never by exposition or summary or the character ruminating in his/her head. Through a scene. And, there are particular requirements for this scene. As Janet Burroway, in her classic text, Writing Fiction, says about resolutions: “Here the epiphany, a memory leading to a resolution, has been triggered by an action and sensory details that the reader can share.” (Italics mine.) It’s a scene that can’t depend on conversation to make it work. It can’t, for instance, have the protagonist talking to a priest who then convinces her of a truth, and that gives her her epiphany. The resolution has to be triggered by an action—and an “action” in this case, isn’t dialog. It has to be a physical action.

What’s the physical action in the ending of T&L? That’s easy. They’re just been chased and are now surrounded on all sides by cops who are ordering them to put their hands up or get killed. Surrounded on all sides except in front of them, where the Grand Canyon lies. Sensory details? Plenty! Cops jacking shells into carbines, a helicopter’s rotors swirling dust, an authoritative voice over a bullhorn demanding they surrender. No way out, except… This triggers the epiphany for Thelma. And, what is the memory that leads to a resolution for her? Again, easy. Even though we can’t see it in the film, we understand what’s going through her mind. The memory of Darryl and her abusive relationships, and, even more important, the new knowledge that her entire world is controlled by men as evidenced by what’s happened in their journey. Selfish men, like Darryl, evil men like the tanker truck driver and Harlan, the would-be rapist, manipulative men like J.T., and even good, moral men, like Hal and Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy. But… all men. At the very end, Thelma realizes her surface problem (getting free of Darryl, even if just for a weekend) is only symptomatic of a much bigger and deeper, psychological problem for her—having to exist in a male-dominated world with no voice at all. She didn’t know this at the beginning. In the beginning, she was only aware that Darryl was a shit. In the end, as a result of everything she’d gone through, she finally comes to the realization that Darryl was only a small part of what she faced in society.

And so, she does the only thing left for her to do. She and Louise tacitly agree to commit suicide. They seal their decision with a kiss and then hold hands as they hurtle into infinity. And, that, satisfies the two elements in a quality ending, by providing both a win and a loss. The loss? Easy. She gives up her life. The win? Again, easy. She achieves her independence from men on her own terms. It cost her her life, but the tradeoff was worth it to her.

This is a fairly common ending. It’s seen, for instance, in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, where the mother kills her child to keep her from having to live in slavery. It’s seen in any number of war novels where the protagonist gives up his or her life to preserve a way of life for loved ones.

This doesn’t mean protagonist have to commit suicide to achieve a good ending. This is just one of countless possible endings. But, however you end your story, just make sure it contains both a win and a loss for the protagonist. That’s key.

What’s interesting about this movie is that some of the studio execs wanted to change Khouri’s brilliant ending to a typical Hollywood “happy-sappy” ending. One where they surrendered, spent a few years in prison, and were released to live out some kind of Stepford wives’ existence ever after…

Thankfully, she stood her ground and they released the intelligent version!

Hope this helps you in creating your own endings. Hope to see your work on the shelves of Border’s and Barnes & Noble!

BTW, if you’re interested in seeing how actions can inform character arc, you might want to look at a post I have on my blog where I again use this movie to illustrate that technique.

Blue skies,
Les Edgerton


Sally Clements said...

Another great post, Les. Would it be true to say that the surface story problem is what people sometimes call the external conflict, and the story worthy problem is internal conflict?
The fact of novel ending having to be revealed through a scene with action rather than just a person 'realising' it is very powerful, and makes a lot of sense.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sally. And, yep, they're one and the same. I just kind of came up with another way of putting it that I hope may be easier to understand for some.

As for revealing the epiphany, I can't see any other possible way to achieve or show that other than through a scene. Just can't be a character thinking about something unless it's triggered by an action.

Paul Greci said...

Hi Les, I really enjoyed your twitter presentation on ending, and this post was excellent. Lots to consider. Thanks.

I noticed in your bio that you graduated from I.U.. Me, too, w/a B.A. in English in 1986.

Anonymous said...

Les, you are such a deep well of wisdom and so generous about sharing it! I'm delighted beyond measure that you were able to join us at #ScribeChat and everyone has been impressed by the depth and detail of your responses to their questions on The ScribeChat Review.

Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution. I suspect you have gained quite a few new fans, including me!

For those of you who'd like to read Les' detailed responses to questions left for him at The ScribeChat Review, here's the link to the comments section:

And Les, any time you feel the urge to come back to #ScribeChat I'd be thrilled to have you!

Debbie Maxwell Allen said...

I'm learning from you, as usual, Les. This post helped me straighten out my ending in my mind. Great stuff! Keep it up. : )