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?