Clear the Decks for Action

Linear strategy, even more than circular strategy, requires a narrowing down as the end approaches, so the ending can happen cleanly and decisively.

All the narrative clutter possible should go.

Any subplots and side issues should be resolved beforehand, along the way (as is the revelation the present falcon is a fake). If you had a divided plot, either both major plot lines should already have converged into a single narrative line (as in The Empire Strikes Back), or the less vivid of the pair should have reached climax and resolution (as with Stephen King's It), leav ing the other unencumbered and clear to provide the whole story's ending.

All the subordinate characters possible should be shuffled offstage, their work done, as the ending approaches, to leave the major characters alone in the central spotlight.

Settle the important things—not everything

With a linear story, one that ends immediately after crisis, it's absolutely vital to focus only on the story's central issues at the end. There's not going to be any follow-up scene, as in a circular story, to tidy any flapping loose ends. They need to be tied off securely before the final crisis commences. Trying to yank them into knots during crisis will only clutter and confuse your narrative line. Your story should then be looking straight ahead—not back, not around. It should be all forward motion toward crisis and resolution.

The moment the central questions, the focus of the final crisis, are settled—not necessarily explained, but shown to be resolved, so there's no more dramatic tension—that's the moment your story is really over and you should type "THE END."

Just as good openings start in médias res, with something already in progress, good linear endings don't wait till every bit of the dust has settled. Show the explosion but don't wait until every bit of debris has thumped into the dirt or until the smoke fully clears. If the brick that rose fifty feet has reached the top of its arc and is coming down, we don't need to see it hit the ground to know that it will.

The moment the situation is over and things have assumed their final shape, that's the end of the story. Not a paragraph, not a word more.

No faraway places with strange-sounding names

Don't introduce a new or complex setting for your ending if that's going to mean stopping the story for exposition. Linear endings are no place for exposition.

If the place is new but simple—a high ledge, the woods in a rainstorm, a circus, a supermarket, a rush hour expressway where your characters dodge through the lanes on foot—then it won't need explaining or extensive description. Such a setting can be created by citing just a few effective details; readers can fill in the rest from their own experience. A setting like that, even if it's a new one, can heighten your drama without becoming a distraction.

But if your ending itself is going to be fairly complex no matter how you narrow it down, then keep all other elements as simple as possible in compensation. That includes setting. With a complex ending, you might better keep the characters in a setting already familiar, one that's been thoroughly described earlier in the story.

But that kind of decision can be made retroactive. What's new is what's new to the reader, no matter when you actually created it. If you find that for your ending, you've found/invented a perfectly wonderful place you refuse to do without, a new place that would be confusing or ineffective without description, then pre-wash it to get the new out. Go back in your story and use it as the location for some other scene, with whatever description or explanation is then appropriate. Then you'll be able to re-create it at the end with just a phrase or two, maybe echoing a piece of the original description, maybe mentioning some memorable feature you invented for the purpose, to help the reader's recollection.

No new characters

By the same token, don't introduce any additional characters except cardboard walk-ons (a driver leaning to shout curses as he blurs by; a checkout clerk who hands a character some change and then discreetly disappears from the narrative). Keep to the principals.

Making a scene

Be sure your final scene is a scene. Not a discussion, not an interior monologue. Make something happen.

Just as scenes generally provide the most effective openings, they make the most powerful endings. And just as you needed to think of an opening which would demonstrate exactly who these people are and what's at stake, you now need a situation that shows so clearly what the final conflict involves that you won't need to do any explaining or have any character do it either, as your proxy.

As in the story's opening, create/select and use good props. Use things a reader can see going on.

Even ifyour story is more about attitudes than actions, think of some concrete thing your protagonist can do—not just think about, not merely realize or comment on in dialogue—to show the reader both the nature of the final conflict and its resolution. Actions still speak loudest. So invent an appropriate action to demonstrate internal realities.

No new plot!

Most important of all, though: don't introduce a new plot. Stay with the main plot.

As you write the ending, it may seem to you to bejust another scene, even if a Big Scene, a set-piece. What it's easy to forget is that, from the reader's point of view, the whole story is bearing down on this moment. It has the potential for immense weight and power, just because it's the end.

If you don't keep to your main plot line, to what you've been developing all through the story, you forfeit all that momentum and make the reader feel all that build-up was for nothing. You'll be trying to start a new story in the closing minutes of the old one, and no matter how good the scene is as a scene, the reader is going to feel let down, disappointed.

When you're moving at high speed, it's dangerous to try to take a sudden right-angle turn. You have to realize the velocity your story has built up, by now, and not throw your ending into a devastating skid by trying to turn aside at the last moment. This is as true for circular stories as for linear ones.

Whatever forces you established, at the beginning, as the center of your conflict, whether internal, external, or a blend, they should be the forces in conflict at the end. What's at stake should be essentially the same thing that's been at stake from the beginning, even though it's gained added meaning and dimension in the story's developing context. The characters involved should be the main characters and as few of the subordinate ones as absolutely have to be there too.

Your story has already established a context, the rules, the personalities, the stakes: everything you need to make your ending meaningful. You've got all that accumulated power working for you. Use it, guide it, keep that momentum. There's no stopping now, short of the end.

In all ways, keep the ending as simple and direct as you can.

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