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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is:
Wes: And we spend a lot of time talking about how you hook your readers, or generate interest, or do all those things that need to be done at the beginning of a podcast. Throw out some quippy introduction that really hooks them because that’s the most important thing, and definitely what they’ll remember when the podcast is over.
Chris: That’s what everybody listens to our podcast for, it’s for our dad jokes at the opening. What else?
Wes: [laughing] What else? Nothing else.
Oren: What more could they want, but puns? I can’t think of anything.
Wes: The most satisfying thing at the end of this podcast will be this opening bit. So today we’re talking about crafting satisfying resolutions. Because we were chatting and, you know, we do spend a lot of time talking about openings and turning points. And those are certainly super important, but as much as I maybe enjoyed, like, how Game of Thrones started, that’s not what I’m sour about and not what I most frequently remember, because the last thing you experienced is often the first thing you decide to recall. And that’s why we need to talk about how to not do bad things, and make those resolutions satisfying. So that’s what we are talking about today: what to leave your readers and audience with to make them feel that “Yes” moment.
Oren: Man, I miss the post-Game of Thrones ending. There was, like, a three day golden period when everyone understood why storytelling was important, and why the rules of storytelling were important. And then it got weird, right? Cause everyone had their hot takes. But for about three days, it was just a beautiful time to be on the Internet. As a critic anyway; I’m sure people were very disappointed about Game of Thrones, and I am sorry about that. But just seeing everyone understand why this stuff matters was a beautiful thing, and it made my heart grow three sizes.
Wes: You’re right. Because we all had that great chance to look around and be like, Oh yeah, there’s so much more involved in this. You can’t just zoom in on someone’s face and make the actor try to do all the work that’s not really there because there’s no foundation for it.
Chris: So just to clarify between this and turning points: in story structure, the turning point usually happens right before the resolution; they’re pretty close together. And so when we’re talking about endings, we could be talking about either. And a lot of times we end up talking about turning points because they are more iconic and more complicated. A turning point is basically how you get to the end, whereas a resolution is, what does it look like? What does our closing scene look like? How do things end up?
Wes: And sometimes people don’t include that. I think Dune comes to mind.
Chris: The Martian — not the movie, they actually added it for the movie — right after the climax, as soon as you have any hint of resolution, it just immediately ends without any kind of epilogue. Technically it resolves, but like, the epilogue winds you down, right? And you get to comfort yourself with, ‘this character is now living a happy life after his ordeal’, that kind of thing. But the Martian book just cuts off too soon.
Wes: Well, you spend so much time investing in the character and rooting for them. And if you don’t get that little bit of an opportunity to unwind and you know, maybe make sure they’re okay or something happens along those lines, it’s hard to not feel a little robbed, or cheated, disappointed, upset, offended, insert any emotions here because it’s all there.
Chris: [laughing] Wow, Wes, your synonym powers are quite impressive.
Wes: I remember when I read Dune, I was much younger and it ended, and I was impressionable and still was like, Oh man, this book’s great. I’ll read it again in 10 years, and we’ll see that it will definitely not have changed in my opinion at all. I read The Aeneid first year in college and that was the tale of Aeneas leaving Troy to basically found Rome or whatever he did, but it ended in the same way. He slays the big bad at the end of the Aeneid, and I was like, okay, but that wasn’t the point. You’re supposed to go find a new home for your people and whatnot. And then I was like, wait, this sounds familiar. And then I read Dune again and was incredibly disappointed. For other reasons too, but yeah…
Oren: [jokingly] Wow, I didn’t realize we were going to be dragging Virgil on this podcast. Listen. All right. I’m into it. Let’s just get our beefs out with the classics.
Wes: [laughing] Virgil should just stick to Dante, like, he’s best in that role.
Chris: But you bring up a good point, Wes, which is the idea that the resolution is the other half of the story that starts with the hook, right? And there has to be a matching set. That’s one of the biggest things, you know, we have a problem and then the resolution shows that problem solved. Resolved is not technically the same thing as solved. It could be an unhappy ending. And so if you don’t have that matching set, that’s a lot of times when problems appear.
Wes: They’re understandably hard and they’re easy to point at and say, Oh, that could have been done better because solving problems is hard. Coming up with a mystery or like intrigue is not easy. Like you can definitely create a mystery and a puzzle that is captivating at the beginning, and then you get lost (pun intended).
Oren: [jokingly] Ahh! Giving me some Lost flashbacks right there.
Wes: [laughing] Sorry for the trauma.
Oren: [sarcastic] It was purgatory the whole time! So satisfying.
Wes: Your story needs to be self-contained. Don’t end on a cliffhanger, that’s kind of what we’re getting at. You shouldn’t need to read more books to resolve the main events of that one book, please.
Chris: So if you’re writing a series, again, we recommend some of that fractal plot structure. Focusing on what sub threads, like maybe your biggest plot thread against the big bad, the big, bad is still out there, but what child arc can we resolve? Maybe there’s a lesser villain that’s defeated at the end of the first book. Maybe your hero gains something important that they’ll need to defeat the big bad. What can we tie off there to give some satisfaction?
Oren: Tell me if you think I’m off base here (I’m way off base and have an agenda as you all know) but I feel like at the end of a book or at the end of any single installment, you should be solving what is the most immediately urgent problem. The series arc can still be there, but it shouldn’t be the most urgent thing. And my example for this would be at the end of His Majesty’s Dragon. The most urgent problem is that Napoleon’s invasion fleet is flying towards England and we have to stop it, and then there is the longer arc of, well, the Polian still has a big empire that he has conquered and all of these people are living under his yoke or being freed by him as the case may be. It’s kind of a complicated situation. That’s the less urgent series problem right now. I would feel weird if there was a really urgent series problem.
Oren: Like if the series problem of Star Wars was that the Death Star was going to blow up a planet, and we ended the first movie with Luke fixing his X-wing. That would seem kind of strange, even if fixing his X-wing was something he had to do. That wouldn’t seem like the most urgent thing he had to deal with.
Chris: Right, I do think that’s technically true. However, you have to keep the parent and child arc structure in mind. What tends to happen with a lot of these plots is that you have a big overarching plot that is the most compelling and has the highest stakes, but then what feels most urgent is the next step you take to conquer that problem. Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog — we have the end of Part Two. What we have is, the Evil League of Evil has told Dr. Horrible that he’s got to kill somebody now, or they’re going to kill him or do something bad to him. And that’s obviously very urgent, but the next step that he has to take in order to deal with that problem is decide if he’s actually willing to kill somebody. And so we could say that that’s more urgent. It’s technically part of that bigger parent arc, but because it’s the next step in solving that parent arc it technically feels more urgent, right? Because you can’t resolve the parent arc without taking that step.
Wes: A similar example would be at the end of Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo has to take that next step without the Fellowship. He’s putting himself into more danger, but it’s a necessary step towards the overall story point of getting to Mort — to Mountain Dew.
Chris: Whatever it is will always feel like the most urgent thing because it has to be done now. Otherwise, it will be frustrating, because why is the character doing something else right now?
Wes: I like how you guys have constructed that because it works on external plot-situational event level, and then also just like for internal character arcs as well. I love how you described it as that step, Chris. That’s a really good way to think about that. You could have that character arc be self-contained, but then have the bigger thing leftover for something else. But the main focus could have just been on that first part.
Oren: Another fairly common problem that I see in resolutions is trying to resolve another problem. And it’s like, no, we’re in the resolution now. We resolved the problem. If there were things that needed to be resolved, they should have been done earlier. Let me, you know, have my falling action. If you start adding more problems to be solved, it really interrupts the pacing and makes the ending feel very uneven, and you’re not really sure. “Can I relax now?”
That was one of the big problems with the end of Deep Space Nine; they have this big climactic battle against the Dominion. They win after, you know, much hardship and a very satisfying turning point, and then they’re like, “Okay, we’re going home and we’re going to celebrate the end of the war and we’re relaxing.” And then suddenly Sisko’s like, “Oh, I gotta go fist fight Dukat. Bye!” It feels literally anticlimactic, like this is happening after the climax. That’s the thing that I see a lot of unpublished authors do. It’s actually a pretty uncommon mistake among published authors that I’ve read, it was kind of weird to see it in Deep Space Nine, but just something to be aware of.
Chris: I think it’s worth distinguishing between that and like what an ending hook is. So these are problems that happen right after the turning point, usually right after the climax, and the idea is that they have to be solved during the falling action, whereas a hook usually happens after the falling action, after all of that’s done. There’s clearly no expectation that it will be solved, and that’s because it happens after basically everything else is tied up and it’s usually not super, super compelling, because that might be frustrating, but still significant enough to get you interested in it and the next book.
Wes: And how cliffhangery should that be?
Chris: I think with hooks, usually what you have is a suggestion that there was still a problem, but you don’t put the protagonists in urgent, immediate danger. So one thing you might do is have a protagonist that has just finished fighting some monsters in a horror flick drive away. Like, “Yay, we survived.” And then you reveal, hanging on the bottom of their car, another monster. Usually a baby one or something, though. The hint of a monster that could grow into the problem later. So it’s not as urgent, you know — as Oren said, you want to close off the most urgent things. The characters are not in immediate danger, but you get the sense that there’s a good chance that soon they will be.
Oren: Yeah, I think the key difference is that with a hook, you are suggesting a problem, but it isn’t something the characters are trying to solve. Whereas a cliffhanger would be like, at the end of a monster movie, they’re driving away and then another velociraptor jumps out of the trunk and attacks them. I don’t know why it was in the trunk.
Wes: [laughing] They’re very smart.
Oren: Now they’re trying to stop the velociraptor. You started a new conflict, you can’t end the story there. I mean, you can, I’ve read books where that happens, but you shouldn’t.
Chris: [jokingly] Oren, I can do whatever I want! How can you tell me, you’re so prescriptive.
Oren: [jokingly] I’m not the boss of you! Do what you want.
Wes: Hunger Games. The first one is a pretty good example. The immediate conflict of protecting her family and surviving the Hunger Games is resolved and she wasn’t necessarily out to overthrow the government in the first book, but it was there as a problem — without a secret velociraptor.
Oren: Why don’t more stories have secret velociraptors? That’s all I’m asking. Another way this can manifest is, is less cliffhangery and more like, if the story doesn’t have a strong thoroughline in the first place, your resolution can feel pretty weak. And that’s what happens in The Name of the Wind, and also in City of Brass; both of those stories are pretty lacking in thoroughlines. Like in The Name of the Wind, it’s just watching Kvothe go to magic school for a while. Then at the end, he, by random chance, fights a monster, but that monster is not connected to anything. He just happened to run into it while he was out in the woods. The story also keeps going for quite a while after that. It’s like, you’re waiting and you’re like, “am I in the resolution now? And you can’t tell because it’s not really clear what’s been resolved.
Oren: And similar things happen with City of Brass. What City of Brass resolves is the interpersonal drama there, because there’s like relationship drama, but then before the end it’s like, “Oh, also now there’s like an uprising happening.” And like, that feels more important than the interpersonal drama, maybe we should go check that out. And it’s like, “no, the book’s over, no time for uprisings, bye.”
Wes: [jokingly] Nobody wants it anyway.
Oren: That’s a weird book. It definitely felt like the author wasn’t particularly interested in an uprising, even though that seemed like the obvious setup. I don’t get it. I don’t pretend to understand these things.
Chris: Another thing that can happen with resolutions — you can have what could be called a mood mismatch. Basically, if your story is a certain level of dark or your problem feels big and complicated, it can feel cheap if everything is super happy, right? It has to feel appropriate. This is why you kill off a character in a war story. It’s weird if it’s like, “Hey, we went to a war and it was big and dark and everybody came through just fine.” You can also just have endings that are bizarre. It’s like, “I did not see that coming.” It’s another way of violating the expectations that were set about what type of story this is and what type of things could happen.
Oren: Oh, another good one is resolutions where the author tries to undo the climax because they didn’t actually want to have permanent consequences, but they also don’t have time to create a new conflict. You can see this in both the Avengers film and in the novel Sabriel (spoilers for both of them). They both end with a sacrifice. In both stories, a main character dies in order to win. Then, in the resolution, both main characters are brought back. And it just kind of happens. It’s not a conflict. It’s just, “Oh, well I guess they’re alive now.” And it’s like, “That was kind of unsatisfying.”
And I don’t want to praise Ant-Man too much, but I’m going to have to a little bit. If you want to have a character to do a sacrifice arc and then have them survive anyway, you have to make that part of the conflict. So Ant-Man has the thing where he does the sacrifice, where he goes subatomic — I feel my brain cells dying saying that, but that’s what he does — and that’s how we beat the boss. And it’s like, “Oh no, Ant-Man, you’ve gone subatomic.” And he’s like, “I can’t get out, unless I figure out this clever deduction with the way my suit works and these little disks I have, then I can grow.” It’s like, all right, it’s not the best version I’ve ever seen, but he at least has to work for it a bit, and that’s part of the climax, like it has more than one turning point. Whereas in Avengers, Tony is like, “Ah, I’m dead.” And then he falls back down and then he’s just suddenly like, “No, actually I’m not dead. I’m fine. I was fine, guys. Everything’s fine.” And Sabriel does the same thing, except there’s like some magic involved, but it’s basically the same thing.
If you don’t want your main character to be dead, use a different turning point, or build them not dying into the climax itself. Don’t do it in the resolution, because that’s just going to be unsatisfying and annoying.
Chris: I should add resolutions that just make things moot in general are very unsatisfying. So if you, for instance, just erase everything that happens in the story so it’s like nothing ever happened. Even in things like The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wakes up, and even if we don’t know if what happened to her is real for sure, she remembers and she seems to take some of that away with her. She took the lessons with her. And that’s why it has some kind of meaning. If we basically erase everything so that it feels like nothing that happened made any difference permanently, that really becomes an issue.
Oren: The difference between the ending of All Good Things on The Next Generation and the Voyager episode Year of Hell — both of them end with the timeline being reset, but in All Good Things, Picard remembers what happened and he tells the crew about it and they’re like, “Oh yeah, let’s try to not become bitter and estranged in the future.” Whereas in Year of Hell, it’s literally like those two episodes never happened. We’ve just erased them from the timeline. Nothing is different. You could literally skip this episode and nothing would be different.
Wes: Something else you want to consider early on in your story are what kind of implicit promises you’ve made to your audience. And if your turning point in resolution actually doesn’t address those in any way, or they address something else that you decided was more important, that is going to upset me.
Oren: Wes, personally.
Wes: Me personally, because I will never not be sour about that first season of Korra, because it turns out that it was never about benders and non benders. It was just about her punching Amon into the ocean or whatever she did. It was so upsetting. And then it was over and happy and she got her bending back. That was not what that story was. And yeah. Okay. Budget, whatever.
Oren: It’s another example of trying to fix too much in the resolution where it’s like, “Oh, well we can’t end the season with a bunch of them having lost their bending. We don’t know if we’re getting another season.”
Wes: We still have that thought that okay, he took away her bending and she gets air. This series is going to be about her figuring it out again, like, relearning, and maybe also learning to grow as a human or whatever, but instead, no ghost Aang shows up and says “Here, have it all back.”
Oren: [sarcastically] Thanks ghost Aang!
Chris: I do think in many situations when some problems aren’t met specifically when there’s plot threads or mysteries that aren’t resolved, it’s often because the writer just didn’t realize that they were creating plot hooks. If you have a story about your main character taking over for the Easter Bunny, because the Easter Bunny disappeared and now I have to deliver all of the eggs, people will wonder what happened to the Easter bunny. But like, maybe that’s not what you were interested in. You just wanted your character to deliver eggs. That’s sometimes what happens! Or you have a character that’s acting really weird, that’s a mystery, why are they acting that way? Or has a personal issue, right? We’d get questions about, “do I have to solve my character’s flaw?” If you really show it as a flaw, then people are going to expect that to close at some point, we’re going to expect to have progress on that like it’s any other plot thread. So sometimes storytellers just don’t realize hooks that they’ve created.
Chris: I honestly have a novella running on the site right now, which has some mysterious world things. I did have some readers who are like, “Hey, I would have really liked explanations and to know more about these things in the world.” And it’s like, “It’s a novelette, I’m sorry. I don’t have time to go into a really hardcore explanation of this world mystery, it’s just a mysterious thing in the world.” So practical limitations can happen with that.
Oren: [jokingly] To defend our stories because we’re special. I would say that there is a difference between having a world element that you don’t explore that people want to know more about, and setting up a mystery that you don’t go into, because if your story’s at all popular, people will always want to know more than you have time to explain. That’s different, for example, if you had your main character wondering, “Hmm, where did these supernatural elements come from? I wonder what’s up with that, I’ll try to look into it a little bit”, and then being like, “I actually don’t have time for that. Nevermind!” That would be setting up a mystery that you didn’t have time to solve.
Chris: At the same time, I do think there’s a little bit of a blurry line there. Like, if you have an urban fantasy setting and you know, there’s phantoms that your witches have to fight this, like Madoka Magica or something, and the characters were like, “What’s up with these phantoms, where did they come from?” And they were like, “Nobody knows.” Yeah, that’s setting up property of the world, but I can understand why people would think of that as a mystery that they’d want to see solved.
Wes: And then that would also depend on the characters themselves, like what their needs are. If it’s just a survival story, then they’re not going to try to solve this mystery. But if they are more capable and they have more agency to go be proactive about it, then that expectation is set.
Chris: Yeah, not all stories are set up to answer all of those questions, but in some cases I can see where the audience would end up having them and wanting to see them solved.
Oren: Another aspect of the resolution that I think is important to think about, and that makes some people very upset is paying off character karma. I’ve noticed people get very upset when we talk about character karma, because some people just really don’t want storytelling to be quantifiable this way. But I’m sorry, it is. Characters with good karma should get happy endings and characters with bad karma generally shouldn’t, or at least should show that they are working that off in some capacity. Otherwise it just doesn’t feel satisfying. And, you know, that’s what happens at the end of She-Ra when we have to forgive all the bad guys because they’re on our team now.
Wes: To be fair that’s one of my favorite quotes, when Mermista is like, “so we’re all okay with that now?”
Oren: I mean, that’s lampshading it.
Wes: [laughing] I know it’s lampshading, but I just think that, I mean, I don’t know. That voice actress is my favorite.
Chris: Lampshading can be very funny.
Wes: How would you have resolved that?
Oren: I mean, I would have set things up differently. By the time you get to the final episode, it’s too late.
Chris: You need more time for characters to redeem themselves.
Oren: The smallest possible change is Hordak dies. Because that’s what you do with the character you need to redeem and there’s just no feasible way to address the things they’ve done, is they die in their redemption. People can call it cheap if they want, but that’s your option when you dig yourself that deep. The better option is to not dig yourself that deep, but if you already have, there you go. That’s your way out.
Chris: Yeah. Not dig yourself that deep if you actually want to redeem this character.
Oren: And I mean, there’s a reason why Ozai goes to prison at the end of Avatar. With Ozai, he has so much bad karma that it’s not enough that Aang defeats him and then we don’t know what happened to him. It’s actually important to our resolution that we see he’s in jail now. He suffered some consequences that were long-term. He didn’t just lose a fight. And I think that some people don’t really think about that and so they end up with characters who feel kind of in weird situations.
Oren: It can happen with villains too. A problem that I see in some stories is villains who are rewarded for being absolute doofuses for the whole story. And then at the end, they’re just like, “We won. Woo.” And it’s “How, no, you guys are — no. How did you — no. I’m not satisfied, you were too doofusy.”
Chris: There can also be a strange dynamic where some characters have consequences that are meant to reward or punish another character. It’s definitely part of the damselling problem that happens with female characters in particular. I talked about this in my breakdown of Dr. Horrible, but the end of Dr. Horrible Penny dies as a punishment for Dr. Horrible. She doesn’t die because she earned bad karma. And Dr. Horrible is the more important character. So that’s just kind of accepted, but you do have to look at those dynamics and decide if that’s the dynamic you want in your story. It’s not that it can ever be done, but when you reward male characters with either getting the girl or you punish them with the girl dying, that definitely encourages people to think of men as more important than women, right?
Wes: Yeah, that could have been just as tragic without her dying.
Oren: I mean, I still want to watch Chris’s version where she turns into a superhero at the end and makes it her mission to defeat Dr. Horrible — also that would have opened up for a great sequel! The problem with Dr. Horrible is it has no sequel potential. Superhero Penny would have been beautiful.
Chris: Yeah, that was my suggestion. You can have Dr. Horrible actually commit to him doing a bad thing — whereas right now, the way that the turning point works, it’s actually neutral karma for Dr. Horrible — and then have Penny be like, “Okay, these dudes, who are doing things, are bad. I’m going to be the hero the city needs.” We could have done that instead, right? Treat her as having agency and being an actor in the story.
Wes: Well, we’ve covered quite a lot. And so I will try to wrap this up in a way that might be satisfying. We just said that when you’re looking to craft your stories, endings and the resolutions, try to avoid leaving your readers hanging too much, upsetting them with cheap twists or leaving too many important questions unanswered. To do that, you might consider when you’re rereading your manuscript or talking with beta readers or something, “Are expectations met? Are there any major loose ends that haven’t been tied up? Are there story elements that you introduced that created an expectation, but were never touched on again? Does the villain get comeuppance, if it’s that kind of story? Is the protagonist’s character arc completed, if that’s your goal?” You know, really go through and interrogate your manuscript as you go to look through anything else that could be unresolved. But also try to prioritize them based on scale. It’s like, this is important and immediate. If you’re looking for a longer story, find that immediate step, then focus on resolving it, and then the bigger elements could be something to tackle in the future.
Oren: All right, with that satisfying resolution to this podcast, we’re going to have to call it a day. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website, at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons.
First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week. [ending song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?