Most authors know that when a story ends, they should resolve all the plots they’ve opened. It’s the polite thing to do. But what if you’re only ending a single book in a series, or an episode in a season of TV? What should you resolve then, and are you doomed to be written off as a cliffhanger?! Don’t worry, this week’s episode is here to help. We talk about what needs to be resolved and what can be safely left open for next time, plus some tips if you find yourself with a problem. We also make time to complain about TV these days, because that’s just who we are.


Generously transcribed by James. 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]

Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren.

Chris: And I’m Chris.

Oren: And unfortunately, it’s just going to be the two of us. Wes is out for a few weeks, but he will return. And for now, we will entertain you with our storytelling thoughts.

Chris: Before we get started, just letting everybody know we could use more audio editing volunteers. This does not take any experience. We will train you how to do it. So, if you have been frustrated with our likes and our uhms, this is your chance to kill it with fire. Just go to

Oren: I like the use of just getting their spite as a reason to volunteer.


Oren: That’s very clever. Okay, so for the topic today, I thought we would start talking about things to resolve at the end of a story, but then not go back to that. Instead, we can randomly switch topics around, maybe do a little world building, and then end the episode discussing the latest Mandalorian show.

Chris: But we will continually tease that we might, in fact, do this. We’re not going to do it, but we might continue to hint that it will happen.

Oren: And at the end of the episode, we’ll be like, ‘Hey, if you want to hear about resolving things at the ending, you could keep listening next week.’ And we’ll just do that.

Chris: And then just rinse and repeat. Yeah.

Oren: Yeah. Forever.

So, we’re talking about what needs to be resolved when you’re ending a story that is part of a series. This can be the first novel in a series, the second novel in a series, an episode of TV, a novella in a series, a series of short stories, whatever.

You come to the end of an installment in which you publish the story, and we want to talk about what you should resolve when you’re doing that because this is something that my clients struggle with often, and I also see it in a lot of professional stories that are clearly struggling with this too. So, my clients are not alone, but I thought it would be useful to have this discussion as something I could point them to, because there’s just a lot of things going on here.

Chris: I think it’s useful when talking about this to think about what the actual borders of the story are. Because we’re used to thinking ‘Okay, we’ve got a book/we’ve got a movie/we’ve got a TV show.’ But when we look at story structure, when do the storylines actually end?

For instance, in a TV show, it could be that the story is just one episode and it never stretches beyond an episode. In a lot of TV shows, there is a story per season. But in each season, there is basically a different story happening. We don’t see any problems that then resolve in the next season. Or it could just be the entire show is one story.

When we’re looking at a book, it’s like, ‘Does that book have a self-contained story or is it in essence only part of a story?’ So, if you’re looking at the end of the book and you want to figure out how it’s supposed to end, but the story keeps going, you are looking for a mid-story resolution which you would actually have similar things during the book too.

Oren: Mm-hmm. Because it’s all fractal. It’s all the way down, baby~

Chris: Should we talk about why resolutions are important before we get to the end of the story?

Oren: Uh, I think we promised we were going to move away from that topic, actually. So, let’s talk about something else.

Chris: [laughter]

Oren: A resolution at the end of the story is what makes the end of the story feel like the end. It’s what provides the S in A.N.T.S., the ‘Satisfaction’. It’s what makes it feel like there was a point to reading this.

If you don’t have it, you get to the end and you’re like, ‘What was the point of that? Things happened, but it didn’t ever come to anything. It didn’t feel like it mattered. Often, it felt like you could just skip over that, and you wouldn’t really have to watch it too much.’ And that’s not always true but it feels that way anyway. It’s like, ‘Nothing is particularly different from when we started.’

Depending on how the problem is manifesting, it often feels like the story has gone in a giant circle. Especially if this is one of those stories that opens with a really tense, important plot and then just ignores it for a while and then at the end is like, ‘Come back next week if you want to hear about that plot we opened at the beginning.’ And it’s like, ‘Alright, I feel like I’m just back where we started now.’

Chris: If the story is really short, you may just have the end – [laughter] – and you don’t have to worry about, ‘Okay, wait, I have to end some things but keep other things going.’ But if the story has any length at all, a mid-story resolution, whether that’s the end of a book that’s part of a series, the end of an episode that’s part of a whole season, what have you, tells your audience that you care about their experience and that you keep your promises. Because when you introduce a problem, you are promising to deliver a resolution.

If you don’t offer any resolution, don’t offer any satisfaction, you know, you just keep hooking them and hooking them, not giving anything back, and it feels like you’re just stringing people along, they may get pissed off. If they end a book and absolutely nothing is resolved, they may leave. Even if they otherwise like the story. They may feel manipulated, like you’re just doing everything you can to keep them engaged in the story, but you don’t really care about their experience.

Oren: And to a large extent, this is basically the same thing as a cliffhanger.

A lot of people tend to think of cliffhangers as the character being in immediate physical danger or a sudden new problem appearing at the end, but it’s the same effect if you open the story with a big problem and then don’t resolve it or do anything that moves it closer to resolution or what have you by the end of the story. It’s like, ‘Well now, that just feels like I’ve been left hanging. I didn’t get anything out of that.’

And this is tricky because if it’s a story that’s part of a series, you also want to leave some things unresolved so that the series can continue. It’s not like you need to resolve everything, but you need to resolve something, and we’re here to tell you what that something is.

Chris: I do think it’s good to look at the difference between just not having a resolution, having a cliffhanger, and having an ending hook. Because it is okay to have a little plot hook at the end of each book, and that’s actually different than just not having an ending.

Oren, you’ve said that your definition of a cliffhanger is a problem that’s urgent. I think that’s a really good definition, especially since there are other reasons a problem can be high or low tension, because usually cliffhangers are specifically really high-tension problems. But if the stakes are low, nobody’s going to bother doing a cliffhanger, like, ‘Oh no, somebody stole my sandwich!’

Oren: Find out next time!

Chris: Come back next time. And I’m hungry.

Nobody’s going to bother with that.

So really, the difference is usually the stakes. For instance, if we have an end that’s like, ‘Ninjas are attacking!’ and we just end it right there, that’s a cliffhanger. If we have, ‘Hey, we just found out the villain sent some ninjas after us,’ that’s a hook. Because ninjas are coming, but they’re not immediately about to chop your head off.

But a resolution may or may not happen before either of these hooks. It’s just more satisfying if you end one problem, and then your ending hook is opening a new one. Or if you have a lower-tension problem in the background, bringing it back to the forefront as opposed to just not having a resolution at all, and the same problem that we introduced in the beginning is essentially not changed.

Oren: There are usually two broad ways that this manifests. Either there is some kind of urgent problem that was introduced early and it looks like it’s going to be the throughline and then it just gets abandoned or we’re told it will be resolved next time, or sometimes there just isn’t one. That also has a similar effect of, ‘Well, it feels like nothing was resolved here.’

I have two books that are examples of one each, if I may. First is The Art of Prophecy by Wesley Chu. This is a martial arts story, and I’m going to give some spoilers. It’s a pretty recent novel, and it starts with this pretty interesting problem where the protagonist is a mentor, and her student is going to have to fight an evil bad dude as part of a prophecy, but he’s not ready. She has to try to get him ready for training to fight that guy. Okay, that’s kind of neat. That’s a cool twist on the Chosen One arc. But then that arc goes away, because the guy he was supposed to fight randomly dies in an interlude.

Chris: That’s just such a weird choice.

Oren: Everyone’s expectations were thoroughly subverted, I’m sure. The book then has a brief chance where it could have pivoted the problem to being them trying to keep the Chosen One alive because the leaders of their country want to kill him because he’s politically inconvenient. But it misses that chance, and instead the book just kind of does other stuff until the end. It has a bunch of mostly unrelated storylines.

Then at the end, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, we survived that random battle that we just had, and now, now young Chosen One, now I will train you, because I’ve discovered that actually the prophecy refers to another fight that is still going to happen.’

And it’s like, ‘Wait, this is where we were at the start of the series.’

Chris: Wahh, wahh [sad noise effect]

Oren: We’ve just gone in a giant circle. We could have just started this earlier.

Chris: Backwards movement. Very bad.

Oren: So that was the first kind. There is a problem, but then the story just abandons it and is still interested but doesn’t want to do it in this book. It’s like, ‘Buy the sequel if you want to see the protagonist train this young Chosen One.’

And then the other one, that is more of a case of there just isn’t really a problem, is The Name of the Wind, which has a really interesting, tense conflict in the framing device, but then we leave the framing device so that Kvothe can tell us his autobiography.

Chris: It’s tense at first, but then after you see five scenes of Kvothe just cleaning, it’s just like, ‘I guess this problem must not be very urgent, because I think Kvothe would be doing something to take care of it if it was.’

Oren: Maybe he’s cleaning so that when the demons come, he won’t be embarrassed, Chris? What will the demons think of the place? It’s all dirty.

But in Kvothe’s autobiography, there isn’t really a problem that needs to be solved. When it’s introduced, you could argue that he’s trying to get justice for his parents because his family is murdered fairly early on, but that’s such an abstract goal. There’s no threat. There’s no reason he can’t just take as long as he wants to get vengeance. There’s no particular reason to think that these demons who killed his family are going to kill anybody else, other than being trope savvy. In character, there’s no reason to think that.

And so, the entire story is just him going from place to place, and then at the end he has a boss fight with an angry dragon in the woods, and we act like that resolved something, but it didn’t. And it’s like, ‘Stay tuned next time for Kvothe finding who killed his parents’. And it’s like, ‘Well, that was not a very big problem to begin with, but I still feel cheated that there was no resolution on it.’

Chris: It’s interesting to see that one of the few things that writers come in knowing, almost every time, is that they need to have an exciting climax near the end. But often they don’t understand that the climax is supposed to be part of a bigger structure, part of a bigger arc, and that it’s supposed to take all of the things that are already in the book and bring it to a head, and that’s what gives it a really nice payoff, as opposed to just, you know, random ninja attack.

We had a fight scene now. It was very exciting.

Yay, done?

Oren: Yeah, very common. I’ve seen authors try to substitute a character arc conclusion for resolving their big tense problem. Or maybe moving to a different area, that’s another one that I see a lot. The Art of Prophecy actually did both of those things, because at the end of it, it’s like, ‘Ah, you, young Chosen One, you have finished your character arc, and you have stopped being arrogant.’ And it’s not a very good character arc, because he had already stopped being arrogant way earlier, and the book just kind of told us he was arrogant.

But even if it had been a better character arc, and he had been arrogant, and he’d finally stopped, that wasn’t the big conflict we started with. That was not the big high-tension storyline that the book opened with. It was not him being arrogant, it was that he had to fight this dude, and he wasn’t ready.

Chris: And to be clear, I think it’s absolutely great when you have the character arc come to a head around the climax, often in conjunction with the external throughline. Often, them growing as a person allows them to solve that higher-tension problem. That’s great.

We’ve talked about high and low-tension arcs in another podcast, about the fact that tension just grabs attention. [laughter] Sounds very awkward. And so, it’s what creates structure. The highest-tension problems are what creates the biggest pieces of structure for the story.

So, if you introduce a really high-tension problem, and then you only solve a super low-tension problem, like a character arc, that’s not going to feel like you gave a significant enough resolution.

Oren: If you want your character arc to be the big resolution, that’s possible if that’s really what your story is about, if you are prepared to tell a story about that character arc, which is challenging, but doable, but also not what most of these stories are doing. That’s not what they promise us at the beginning.

Chris: So, we talked about how, obviously, it’s helpful to know what your throughline is, so you know what kind of ending is unexpected. At the same time, what can happen in these situations is you have a series, you have something like a big bad or another big problem.

You’re not planning on actually resolving that until the end of the series, so then what do you do at the end of a book? That is often what keeps people from having a nice resolution that kind of pays the reader back for getting that far. So there are different options, and these are basically child arcs. When we talk about fractals, we talk about an arc, and then if we break that arc down into smaller arcs that are like obstacles that move the story forward in that bigger arc, those are called child arcs.

And you can have a resolution for something like a subplot, a romance subplot for instance, but that’s not really going to be the same. It’s not really what the audience is expecting when they get to the end of a book or episode for the most part.

So, if you have, for instance a big villain, usually, dealing with a minion is one of the most common things. In fact, sometimes you need to insert a minion to be the fall guy at the end of the book. It’s like, ‘Hey, maybe your big bad villain was behind it all along, but you can’t take them down, but you need to take down somebody. And it has to make a difference.’

So put in a minion that is dangerous to be the more immediate threat. And to be much more hands on.

If you have a villain, you want to insulate them from failure. And that’s one of the hard parts about creating these resolutions and letting your heroes get some wins, but also not making your villain look incompetent. So, if you keep your villain remote and distant for a little while, so that it doesn’t feel like the failure is on them, that can be helpful. Then put in a minion that is working preferably with little direction and then you can just take down the minion.

The key then is that in the next book, you don’t want to feel as though the minion is still there. You don’t want to Sailor Moon style it.

Oren: Oh my gosh.

Chris: I mean, again, this only works for so long. Sailor Moon has this whole routine where every episode they defeat a minion, and the evil queen puts in another minion that’s identical to the previous minion. After a while that does get very silly.

Oren: But on the bright side, we, as novelists, don’t need to do this as often as the people making a multi episode per week cartoon show.

Chris: Yeah, there are a lot of Sailor Moon episodes.

Oren: There are a ton of them. We only need probably two or three endings for our series unless we’re really ambitious. And even then, it’s not going to be nearly as many as there are animated episodes of a cartoon. You have less risk.

It can still happen, like in The Wheel of Time when Rand fights Ishamael like three times over the course of three books. And it’s like, ‘Okay, I wonder if he’s going to lose again. Probably.’

Chris: But yeah, you just want to make sure that there is some difference, right? You’re not just having the same fights over again in the next book. We need movement, we need some variety to keep the books interesting. You don’t want to get repetitive.

Besides a minion, there can be other smaller problems that are created by the big problem. And again, anytime you do this for a child arc, you want something that encompasses the whole book. You want to introduce the big problem, but also the smaller problem that is more urgent than the big problem so that you can kind of bring it to the forefront.

For instance, if you have brewing tensions between two planets that are going to get into conflict, in the first book, the brewing tensions cause a trade war and then you’re trying to solve the trade war, and then other problems that are created by the friction until you for the last book do the outright war. So, you can have those kinds of smaller, more immediate problems created by the big problem. They can be caused by a villain or not caused by a villain.

Oren: Okay, I have a thought on how I would fix The Art of Prophecy if I was given it to dev edit. Can I workshop this with you?

Chris: Sure, let’s do it.

Oren: Okay, right. So, we would start the same, with this prophecy that the Chosen One, his name is Jian, is going to be chosen to fight the Great Khan of the Katuia hordes. And the protagonist, her name is Taishi, she has to train him. We do the same subversion where the Khan dies. Then we have the local rulers want to kill Jian because he is now politically inconvenient. So, she has to save him.

But then here’s where we make the change. Instead of just dropping him off somewhere, like she does in the existing book, she takes him with her, and they go to investigate the prophecy, which is, in the current book, a thing she does, but by herself for some reason. I don’t know why. And so then, Jian can still be with her. They can be part of the same story. She can still teach him how to fight or try to as they’re dodging assassins and trying to figure out what’s up with this prophecy. Then they eventually find out that there is more to the prophecy than they thought. It hasn’t actually been ended prematurely. There is still going to be a big battle. The book climaxes with Jian having to fight a major lieutenant of the final bad guy to show that he has actually gotten better and that Taishi has trained him and made him good.

Chris: The one concern I have is, what are the stakes of this Chosen One fighting the big bad as presented in the beginning? Because usually those stakes would be higher than the Chosen One’s life. The risk is when you change from that to it just being about the Chosen One’s life, you’re reducing the stakes and actually lowering the tension by doing that. Now, you could possibly change that. You could possibly try to avoid making the stakes that big and just be like, ‘This is the Chosen One to tackle the big bad but he’s actually disposable. We have four Chosen Ones waiting in line.’

So, it’s not like if this person loses, then everybody’s going to be crushed. It’s that this boy is being treated as though he’s disposable. And so, the main character wants to give him a chance.

The stakes then are still his life and that probably would go over better when the big bad dies and then people try to get rid of him. Then you could create a twist later where once they understand the prophecy, not only does it turn out that there’s another big bad that he has to fight, but now we find out he is not as disposable as we thought, and all of those other trainees aren’t going to do it anymore.

Oren: The book does have some context that’s a little similar to that that I didn’t think to include, but your version is still better. So, if I was given this book to edit, I would be like, ‘Hey, Chris, I have this thing. Can I run it past you?’. And then Chris would be like, ‘Yeah, you could do that, but it would be better if you did it this way.’ So now you guys have all seen a window into the content editing process here at Mythcreants.

Chris: I will say though, obviously, when we work with actual story examples, they’re always very complicated with a lot of moving pieces.

If I were to start it from this at the conceptual stage, I would have tried to think about, ‘Okay, are these big twists actually worth it?’

Or would it be better for me to just be like, ‘Hey, here’s the Chosen One. First step, keep people from killing the Chosen One. Step two, train the Chosen One.’ That is opposed to presenting this as ‘I need to train the Chosen One. Oh, wait, no, I need to protect the Chosen One.’ And obviously, that change comes with some twists and maybe those twists are good, but it’s also really easy to be like, ‘Ooh, twist’, and not think about what kind of experience it actually creates.

Oren: Sometimes we have to go for the smallest viable change in content editing.

Chris: Yes, if we were content editing this, we would have to go for the smallest viable change.

Oren: But it might be a little different if we were just working with it on the outline level.

Chris: Mm-hmm, exactly.

Speaking of which, the example I just gave, another way for a child arc is that you need something to tackle the big problem. And so, you have to either acquire it or keep it from getting destroyed. So, we have a Chosen One. First step, protect the Chosen One from dying before we can even train the Chosen One.

You could have something else, like there’s a looming environmental disaster and people are trying to shut down the EPA. First book, save the EPA.

Oren: I do want to save the EPA. That does immediately resonate with me. Good stakes.

Chris: But then the looming environmental disaster is still there. Those kinds of like side objectives. Meanwhile, you can have your big bad also reach their objective, electing somebody who wants to shut down the EPA as president, so that you have that kind of escalating tension.

It’s tougher for relationships. People have trouble with relationships because it’s really easy for tension to go down as the people become closer and you get closer to solving the problems. If your relationship arc is your highest tension arc, you kind of need to create layers of problems. Just give them ten problems to work through, so as soon as they cross one barrier they run into another one.

You know, first, got to free my love interest from the hell dimension.

Okay, they’re back, but they don’t realize that I’m the one who saved them or even know I exist.

Oren: Oh no!

Chris: Got to overcome that problem. Okay, now they’re into me, but duty calls and it’s pulling us apart.

Layers of problems to uncover. Because if you just have one and then you start solving it, there’s nothing to get through.

Oren: This is challenging for me. I have a hard time with character arcs that are more complicated than ‘Character makes bad decision, learn lesson, now makes good decision.’ It’s about as far ahead as I typically think on characters.

Something else that is interesting is that I’ve seen this in a lot of client works, but one place I wasn’t expecting to see this problem, but it keeps popping up, is in big budget TV shows.

Chris: Yeah, what happened to the episodic arc?

Oren: I don’t know.

Chris: Are we too cool for episode arcs now? What happened?

Oren: It’s like Andor happened and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, I guess we don’t need episode arcs anymore.’

Chris: Andor is such a weird case though because it has arcs for three episodes. For a set of three. That’s also cool now. Arcane did it. Andor actually did it better than Arcane. But people were complaining about Andor and the fact that they have a mid-episode of an arc of three episodes that just starts in a random place and ends in a random place. Like, ‘What was that I just watched?’

Oren: Yeah, it really feels like Andor is meant to be watched as three hour-and-a-half long movies instead of ten episodes. The numbers on that are wrong, but you know what I mean. At least Andor felt like it was doing it on purpose, even though I wouldn’t say that was a good choice. But then we have Mando season 3, which just has a number of episodes that just have no arc and don’t seem to be in service of anything.

Chris: And I was surprised because, again, the previous two seasons didn’t have this problem, but the previous two seasons were following a very specific plotline they set up with a very specific method. We’ve got our kind of samurai-Western story happening. And so they had a model to go off of. And I guess we have to remember that these are also the people who made the Book of Boba Fett.


Chris: Oh, Book of Boba Fett, you’ll be the butt of jokes for many years to come.

Oren: It’s a beautiful thing. We all have a thing we can all be united on and be like, ‘That was boring. Why did that happen?’

And then for a show like Picard season three, mild spoilers, some of its episodes have arcs, but there was this two-to-three-episode period where they were all stuck in the nebula of plot stagnation, and nothing happened. I was like, ‘Will you please leave this nebula.’ And they eventually did. And the show got a lot better. Still not good, but it’s better. It’s not as mind numbingly boring.

Chris: Why did you think the nebula was worth three episodes? Oh my goodness.

Oren: It was like, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to spend three episodes in this nebula so that we can redo the Star Trek tropes of the nebula is alive and we’re going to ride the shockwave out.’ Neither of which made any sense in that context. I don’t even mind Star Trek nostalgia. I love Star Trek nostalgia, but I could see that you were just awkwardly putting it in there and it didn’t fit. I was like, ‘Why are you doing this? My gosh.’

Chris: Do you think they were trying to make room for Picard father-son bonding?

Oren: Yeah, I guess we had to trap them in a location so that Picard and his plot son would have reasons to talk, I guess. I don’t know.

Chris: I’m sure there’s a better way to do that though. There’s no reason they can’t just solve problems together.

Oren: I also think it has to do with a problem we’ve seen in some other shows where I don’t think their main plot has enough meat to it for them to actually spend ten episodes solving it, so they just spend three of them inside a nebula.

Chris: The Wolf Pack problem?

Oren: Yeah, that’s the Wolf Pack problem. Wolf Pack also has a complete lack of episode arcs.

Chris: Except for episode seven.

Oren: Right.

Chris: Episode seven is the magical episode that has an arc. None of the other episodes do, just that one. Out of eight.

Wolf Pack is an interesting example. I wrote an entire article about this one if you’re interested. It spoils everything. I’m not going to spoil everything.

Now, I’ll just say that the writers are incredibly focused on their reveals. And I won’t say what they are, but they kind of trap things into a corner that makes it hard for them to produce material for the show. They also don’t give the protagonist agency. That one’s a little weird. I think there’s multiple reasons and maybe they just don’t realize it’s important, I don’t know. But they seem to mistake moving the story forward with giving clues about their reveals. It’s like, ‘As long as we give some clues every episode, that’s movement, right?’ No, that’s not what movement is. Things have to actually change. The characters actually have to make progress. You have a bunch of pointless scenes that make no difference. Giving clues is not really going to solve that problem. So, each episode is just kind of a collection of scenes.

Oren: I’m not sure if this is what’s happening. I’m hoping not. I’m hoping that this is just a weird coincidence that we happen to see so many shows doing this at the same time and that we’ll look back and be like, ‘That was a weird time in TV.’ But I can’t help but wonder if this is a reaction to seasons being shorter.

Chris: I’ve been wondering that as well.

Oren: And writers having been used to the idea of ‘Yeah, sure, I’ve got twenty episodes to slowly hint at my big reveal.’ And now it’s like, ‘I’ve only got eight. All eight of them have to reveal hints.’ It’s like that’s the whole thing.

Chris: If that’s the case. I think that they’ll just adjust over time. I also wonder if moving to streaming has given people more freedom and they don’t really know what to do with that freedom. They’re like, ‘Ah, I can do whatever I want. I don’t need episode arcs anymore.’ Like, don’t get rid of that, that was good.

Oren: Alright, well, I think we are pretty much out of time here now that we’ve gotten the chance to vent our spleen about the lack of episode arcs in TV. Bring those back.

Chris: If you enjoyed this episode, consider supporting us on Patreon. Just go to

Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First there is the popular writing software Plottr, which you can learn about at Then there’s Callie MacLeod. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Kathy Ferguson, a professor of political theory in Star Trek. We’ll talk to you next week.

[closing song]

This has been the Mythcreants Podcast. Opening and closing theme, The Princess who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.

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