This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here. Epic massive #SpoilerAlert: The whole last paragraph (but only the last paragraph) basically tells the whole ending of The Hunger Games (Just book 1). You been warned.
4. It Really Might Not Work Out
The sense of risk must be palpable. This is distinct from predictability. The general presumption of the reader is that yes, things will all work out all for the best, mostly because it usually does. So the challenge for the author becomes disabusing the reader of that assumption. This starts from the very beginning of the book but ratchets up more and more as the story plays out. Put another way, the hero must surmount seemingly insurmountable odds. Here’s where the whole writers must be sadists towards our main characters piece comes in. Or as they say, write yourself into a corner. Whatever it may be, without some sense that something nearly impossible needs to be accomplished, none of the other shit really matters.
5. But When It Does It Feels Inevitable
This can seem to be in conflict with #4 and I think here’s where the real challenge and opportunity for amazingness come to play with endings. Between these two seemingly at-odds elements, that success doesn’t seem possible at all but then once it happens, it’s the most natural thing in the world, lies the tension that propels the last section of a book into a momentous finale. This tension and its resolution can create a sense of finality and satisfaction that makes you close the book on the last page and just sit there smiling.
In the final moments of the Hunger Games, you’re exhausted from so much narrative climaxing, but not in a bad way. The danger has been coming relentlessly for chapter after chapter and its breathless and brilliant. Then, just when you think it’s all over, the worst possible scenario has been averted and the bad guy dispatched messily with a hint of discomfort appropriate to the humanity of the characters, the government makes a final, ghastly decree that will ruin all that hard work getting to this point. And you’re infuriated. But it makes sense, it’s totally within the scope of manipulation and power plays the government’s been doing all this time. You don’t know how they’re possibly going to avoid total tragedy now and you don’t have time to sit there thinking about a solution because it all happens so fast, you still haven’t caught your breath from Whastiname getting slowly chewed to death beneath the cornucopia. Then Katniss uses the poison berries, which she’d helpfully gathered earlier, but more than that she uses the government’s own sense of theater and fear of martyrdom against them. She outmaneuvers them at their own game. And of course she does: She’s been watching, skeptically, learning, all this time. She understands the theater of tragedy and triumph that the Ones have been playing, so her final, daring move is not only brilliant but has precedence to the earlier story. It all makes sense! But it seemed so impossible! Success.