Linear Endings

Many stories demonstrate a more linear strategy. The story is a jagged, uphill journey, with building suspense, sudden slides, and occasional diversions in one direction or another, until at last it reaches the summit: the highest point of conflict, the make-or-break confrontation. Companions on thejourney have come and gone, and finally it's just the two major opposing forces left and the characters who exemplify them. Once the result is known, the story is over. Anything afterward would bejust downhill, anticlimax.

Most genre fiction, particularly mystery, adventure, and suspense, has this pattern: drive straight toward a single goal and stop when it's been achieved. Ending right after the crisis, which would be a fault in a circular story, becomes a strength and a virtue in a linear one.

The Maltese Falcon centers on Sam Spade's involvement with what we gradually learn is the ongoing search for "the black bird." The story begins with a mysterious client and the soon-following murder of Spade's partner, Miles Archer. Finding the falcon doesn't settle things. Even revealing the falcon to be a fake doesn't settle things. The falcon is a fictional prop, a pretext, not the story's central issue. We know that because when the matter of the falcon has been resolved as far as it can be in this present story—the falcon's a fake, the real falcon has yet to be found— the story still isn't over.

Remember that. What finishes a linear story is going to be seen, by the reader, as its main issue. Be sure that in your story, it is. Otherwise the ending will be an anticlimax, something tacked on when the story really was already over.

In the present case, not until the final confrontation between Brigid and Sam in which Brigid, Sam's client, has been thoroughly unmasked as the liar and killer she is (that mystery solved) and the circumstances of Archer's death are revealed (the other mystery solved), is the story over, its central issue, the one that continued all the way from the beginning, satisfactorily tied up.

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