Wednesday, 6 April 2011

E is for Ends with an Epiphany


You have a character with a goal, he reaches his goal, the end. Right?

A bit boring maybe. Okay, you have a character, he has a goal, he faces obstacles, he overcomes them, the end. Better?

It depends, I suppose. If the obstacles and the way he overcomes them are interesting then that would be fine. It's all a bit mechanical though. Shouldn't there be a more emotional aspect to a story?

You have a character, a vampire kills his wife, he hunts down the vampire and finds an army of them. He sacrifices himself to stop them. The end.

The problem is what I'm suggesting is a variation on a simplistic theme. A person has a goal, when they either achieve it or fail to achieve it, the story ends and obviously that is how most stories work. But when you get to the end of a story you want some kind of moment. A feeling of satisfaction. Everything has been building to a point and now that  you’ve arrived you want it to have some kind of meaning. And the way for that to happen is for the character to not just achieve (or not achieve) his mission, but for him to gain some understanding from it. You want him to have an epiphany.


The thing about epiphanies is this, they can’t strike out of the blue. They have to become as much a realisation for the reader as they are for the character. Whether the realisation is that he loves her, that he doesn’t need her, or that he really wants to be a dancer! The reader has to be able to see that the genesis and growth of that revelation  was always there throughout the book, otherwise it will just feel fake and tacked on.

The problem is that endings come at the end, not leaving much time for adding depth afterwards. The girl thinks the boys a bastard for 300 pages, and then realises her mistake and actually she loves him madly in the last 10. That’s why you have to plant the seeds beforehand, which means it really helps to know what the ending is when you begin. I realise not everyone works like that, and it’s perfectly possible to sort it out later, but if you don’t the story will feel shallow and unsatisfying.

You have a character, he hunts down the vampire who killed his wife, he uncovers a hidden society of vampires and prepares to destroy them. But they are women and children, families, just like his own. If you kill a monster by becoming a monster, the world still contains monsters.

If, for the sake of argument, that was my ending, my moment of realisation, then as the story it would make sense but it wouldn’t  have much impact unless throughout the narrative there was some way of emphasising his values so that they reflect the dilemma he faces at the end. In this case I might change it from his wife being killed to his child being killed and at the end instead of an army of vampires may be this vampire has his own child. Does the grieving man seeking revenge kill the child vampire? 

Now the story has weight, but it doesn't have an ending. I have set up a situation that puts the reader in a place where they understand the complexity of the problem but there’s no easy solution. The child vampire hasn't done anything wrong (yet), the man knows what it's like to lose a child. The child vampire will grow up to be a killer (probably), but the man is no longer driven by rage, the pause for thought means if he kills the child it would be in a calculated cold manner, and what would that say about him? So the reader will be interested to know what I come up with, and judgemental if they don't think it's good enough or believable.

At this point we’re ripe for an epiphany. But it requires all that build-up to make it feel appropriate, all those different issues at play. It’s not enough that a man made a choice and the writer is relaying the information to me, the reader. There was a girl, she was in love with a geek and a hunk, and she chose the hunk, because he didn’t spend all night on his X-box – that’s just a matter of preference, maybe common sense, but not an epiphany. It’s not much of a story however you dress it up, because making a choice that has no consequences is, literally, of no consequence.

You have to make it tough. You have to know the character well enough to produce something that not only is in keeping with who he is but also provides a satisfying and convincing solution to the problem. It’s hard to fake a moment of genuine revelation, it is after all meant to be a religious experience offered by God. In the case of the story, that God is you. No pressure.

Since people always ask me for solutions to the problems I pose (even though they’re hypothetical and don't really have solutions) here are some suggestions for my vampire-child tale (I have no interest in vamps by the way, not sure why I chose that). You could have the man kill both father and child vampires, and live with it, showing him to have turned into a jaded pragmatist. Or he could let them live, strike some kind of deal, showing him to have gained an appreciation for the value of what he himself had lost. It depends what kind of story you’re writing and where you want to get the character to, although personally I find both those options a little obvious.

My solution would probably be for him to kill the vampire and then raise the child vampire himself, regaining his son in a way (something that could be foreshadowed at the start) and yet at a price, maybe allowing himself to be bitten and be turned so he’ll be able to control the child. But how will he control himself?

Perhaps you have an alternative ending?

28 comments:

Alleged Author said...

Great post! I love it when epiphanies come out of the blue. When it stems from a coincidence, it's not as spontaneous; thus, leaving your reader with a "WTF?" moment.

Roberta Walker said...

This is very helpful. I have my ending written, but need an epiphany to really make it sing. Thank you!

The Writing Goddess said...

I'm not sure if child vampires grow up, I think there's a taboo abut "creating" child vampires, but that wasn't your point.

Where I went in my head was Gone With The Wind, where Scarlett realizes in the end she's never really loved Ashley, just the made-up idea of him, and that Rhett's had her back the whole time. Which the reader realized, of course.

Either of your endings work, and I like the idea about focusing on an epiphany. Nice post! (Mine is about something entirely different, posting at 6:00 PDT.)

Laura Josephsen said...

I agree that there have to be seeds planted along the way so it's plausible when you see the steps your characters take. I almost always know the end of my stories when I start them (or before I start the or shortly thereafter), which is fantastic because it gives me that goal of "here's where I need to be by the end; how do I do that?"

Her highness, Samantha Vérant said...

Yes, you have to drop seeds along the way. If something comes out of the blue, as you say, it isn't all that realistic. As for the child vampire, he/she can drink True Blood...

Ellie said...

You've really hit the nail on the head here (excuse the cliche). As well as solving the problem he or she faces, the character must also grow.

Ellie Garratt

Rachael Harrie said...

Ooh, I love this post! You've given such great examples, and really shown what you mean by epiphanies. Well done :)

Hugs,

Rach

Mary Vaughn said...

Very well put. Something we all need to review from time o time.

GigglesandGuns

Word Nerd said...

I don't have an alternate ending to the vampire story, but I loved this post. Too many stories, even those by well-know and big-selling, authors, just mosey along without much to pull readers with them beyond the hope that something really cool might happen. Often, it never does.

My favorite books usually drop little clues along the way, that may go rather unnoticed until at one point, it all comes together for the reader (because of course, it is all about me, me, me) in an "oh, of course!" kind of way.

Hart Johnson said...

I am SO with you. I really love books in which an MC holds some deep set of beliefs (perhaps prejudices, perhaps just history of some event as they understand it) and by the end they realize they had been looking at it all wrong. YAY character growth!

Jennifer Shirk said...

Yeah, that's true. Endings and wrapping up a story involve a lot more than just the MC getting his/her goal. I love to see character growth too or an ending that lingers with you.

Alexis Bass Writes said...

"The problem is that endings come at the end..." Loved this phrase. Great post on how to create a meaningful ending!

Ann said...

Are the stories that end with questions or the stories that end with answers better.

mooderino said...

It doesn't really matter if dessert is peach cobbler or pecan pie, it only matters how well it's made.

Thanks for all the commetns guys, much appreciated.

Madeleine said...

Absolutely yes. Great minds, we seem to be thinking of the same subjects :O)

Jeffrey Beesler said...

I need to work more on my own epiphanies on my stories. Thanks for the wonderful advice!

Paula Martin said...

Excellent post (even though I don't like vampires either!). It's not sufficient (in a romance) that the hero and heroine are reconciled after overcoming the obstacles keeping them apart (the reader knows this is going to happen anyway!). Far better than one (or both) have learnt something about themselves or about the other person. As several commenters have said, it's character growth which leaves the reader feeling satisfied, and not cheated by a convenient or coincidental ending.
http://paulamartinpotpourri.blogspot.com

Austin James said...

I love the epiphany... it's one of my favourite aspects in fiction... I've seen epiphanies placed throughout the story... to me it depends on what the epiphany is - then I decide where it goes.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Mine certainly did! Yes, we want to see a transformation.

mooderino said...

@Austin - absolutely, you can have numerous epiphanies of varying impact happening to different characters throughout a story.

Lots of great comments, cheers guys.

Clarissa Draper said...

I loved the post. However, am I the only one who found the woman in the video haunting!? The way the woman stared at me sent a shiver down my spine. She's pretty but haunting. Her face says so much.

Carrie Dair said...

Fantastic post! Love the process you took us through. And after going through a workshop myself yesterday this was so insightful! Love. Love. Love. Not sure how I would actually end this. Perhaps another nemesis arrives on the scene and the father finds himself protecting the vampire child, but fails. He has his revenge per se but wasn't the one to do it. He's conflicted even at the end by his feelings of what if. What if he had been the one. Should he feel happy or sad? Maybe it's time to cut his secretary some slack and start getting his own coffee in the morning. Don't know. :) Good job though setting it all up.

Rebecca Bradley said...

Absolutely. It's a bit dull if they just move through the actions of the story. Real character growth or even downfall is needed to connect with the book.

Melissa Bradley said...

You are so right. Great post for E. Abrupt transformations don't work. Planting the seeds throughout is very important. The revelation should include some personal sacrifice to make it tougher and more believable. No one makes important choices without leaving something behind.

Talei said...

Definitely we want to see the transformation. Enjoyed this post! Nicely done.

Donea Lee said...

What a great topic - I loved how you laid it out for us! There's so much that goes into the decisions we make, unique experiences that color our growth in life. And the epiphanies, should we be lucky to have them, will come from this. Our characters should have this progression and life experience, too.

Anonymous said...

It absolutely matters. Pecan Pie. One scoop vanilla ice cream.

And my alternate ending is the human father does raise the vamp child but(as Gandhi sort of suggested) he must raise him as a vamp!

janmorrill said...

Excellent post. I love the challenge of finding the epiphany. Sometimes I interview my characters to draw the "lesson" out of them. Here's my "E" post: http://theredkimono.com/2013/04/05/atozchallenge-e-is-for-executive-order-9066/

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