Completing Cycles

In any novel whose characters have enough depth to sway readers, how they are resolved relative to each other can have a sizable impact on how well received the story is overall. That statement sounds complicated, so I’ll break it down to a simpler concept: how they are ranked. The bigger they are, the more they will impact a reader’s satisfaction. How have you lined up your heaviest hitters at the ending?

Most authors realize that the protagonist should occupy the most space at the end. That character has been leading a reader throughout the book, and that attachment can be marred if the final chapter features a #2 or #3 character. Why are we ending up with that guy? a reader might ask. I didn’t even like that guy. An exception can be made if the hero dies in the climax, but even there, you are wise to keep an epilogue short and sweet. The reader’s interest in the book declines rapidly once the arc of the lead character is completed.

When you have an ensemble cast, in which 4-5 characters occupy your top circle, decisions about who ends where become more complicated. In this case, you have to determine who goes last by their dramatic weight. Several factors can help in the judging process. First, which characters reach a turning point because of the novel’s events? A corollary to that question is: how significant is the turning point to the novel as a whole? If Wendy, for example, decides to leave her husband, Mark, because she realizes that she doesn’t have to forgive his transgressions anymore, you probably don’t want to end on Mark blithely picking up another floozy. The reader most likely is rooting for Wendy. We will achieve resolution by finding out what she’s going to do next.

Second, how many pages of coverage have you allotted to which characters? If the Wendy-Mark strife has merited only 100 pages and a second couple—call them Gail and Harv—occupy 200 pages, then Wendy’s victory is never going to amount to more than a minor accent. If she has the only turning point, she still might merit a penultimate chapter at best. 

Another consideration is lapping your major characters. By that I mean putting one in the service of another completing their character arc. Perhaps Mark, as your #4 character, should be killed off—heart attack with floozy—so that Wendy’s ending achieves more of a sense of completion. Her grief for her undeserving spouse gains a ring of finality. Now she truly can turn the page.

Exercise: One way to weigh who is most important is your own feelings about the characters. As the novel has developed, who did you like more and more? Your allegiance will likely be transferred to the reader. In that case, review the manuscript to make sure that character has been set up all along to carry the dramatic weight of the ending. 

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” —Jackie Robinson

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.