Hello, 2021! Today is January 1, the time of new beginnings, where we shout “good riddance” to 2020 and look forward to the new year with bright stars in our eyes. Even though today is all about fresh starts, I’m going to get all wild and crazy and talk about endings instead. Because isn’t that the part that really matters to us?
When you read a book or watch a movie, you expect the characters to suffer through all kinds of horrible stuff. Otherwise…yawn…who cares? It’s only by going through the hard parts that they earn the ending, and for that ending to be truly satisfying, there’s got to be some sort of victory.
Villain defeated. World saved. Child rescued. True love discovered. An epiphany that promises to change the course of the main character’s future.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the ending might not be happy. It could be bittersweet. Friends or loved ones might die. The main character might not meet their goal or get what they wanted. But there’s still a thread of victory, of hope, that promises the character or their world will be better because of what’s happened.
(The big exception here is the negative character arc – stories where the MC confronts the events of the plot and fails to learn or grow. In stories like that, I’d suggest the victory lies in the hands of the reader. How can we learn or grow from the MC’s mistakes?)
These lovely endings, which feel so intrinsic when you’re immersed in a story, take a lot of careful work to pull off well. The deeper into trouble your MC falls, the harder it is to haul them back out in a natural, believable way. The last thing you want is to resort to the dreaded deus ex machina (Latin for “god out of the machine”), in which some miracle pops up out of nowhere to rescue your MC from a seemingly impossible situation.
The secret, of course, is planting the seeds of your MC’s victory earlier in the story. The key to their success is already there – they just don’t know it yet, and they wouldn’t be ready to win even if they did because their arc isn’t complete. It’s only in looking back that the reader realizes the answers have been there all along.
I’m about to get deep, ya’ll, because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that 2020 was a rotten year, and I think a lot of us have been scouring its really horrible plot points to look for seeds of hope. What got me thinking about this recently was re-watching Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want spoilers, go watch it now. I’ll wait right here. See you in a couple of hours.
You’re back? How was the popcorn? In the first half of the movie, there’s this absolute doom-and-gloom, perfect-for-2020 moment where Poe Dameron has to tell the rest of the rebels that the Emperor IS BACK. The guy just can’t die. And Poe looks like he can’t keep a straight face while he shares this news, because frankly, it’s almost over the top. Like a plot point from last year, eh?
Now if we back up about ten minutes prior to Poe delivering the WORST NEWS EVER, there’s a scene in which Kylo Ren visits Exegol and the Emperor shows him a monstrous fleet rising out of the ice. Never mind your pesky questions about where those ships came from or how they feed all the people manning them, just look at the enormity of what’s facing our tiny group of heroes. Those star destroyers are going to wipe out every rebellious planet in the galaxy, sealing the Emperor’s rule forever. The odds are hopeless. They will never be able to defeat a fleet that size.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that, in fact, they do find a way to defeat the fleet and save the day despite the odds. The rebels are able to destroy the navigation tower used to guide the fleet, preventing the ships from leaving the planet. Friendly ships from across the galaxy show up to help destroy the sitting duck star destroyers. The victory is neither easy nor cheap, and a few of us might even have cried a bit (or felt like it), but it’s satisfying.
Now take a look at that scene of the fleet the first time you see it on Exegol (within the first few minutes of the film).
See it? The navigation tower, the thing the resistance has to destroy, is right there. Now, it doesn’t end up being quite that easy, since the Sith commanders have a backup plan to switch the navigation signal over to another location (which the rebels are able to take out too). But the point is, in the midst of their utter despair, the key to victory is already there. They just don’t know it yet.
When you watch the movie for the first time, you don’t know it either. All the viewers can see are the horrible odds and the despair on the characters’ faces. It’s not until afterward (you know…hindsight is 20/20… #sorrynotsorry) that we see how the victory falls into place.
That’s the way we want our endings to work as writers, and let’s be honest, in real life too. Right? Trouble is, we won’t see how it all turns out until we get through the worst parts. But the seeds of hope are already there, if we know where to look.
What are your seeds of hope heading into 2021? A vaccine that promises life might get back to normal soon? A budding new relationship? A story unfolding from your fingertips that you’re burning to tell?
Might I suggest one more?
A baby in a manger two thousand years ago, humble and easy to overlook, like a navigation tower that seems irrelevant in the face of an entire fleet of star destroyers. This life will be hard, bittersweet, full of loss and moments of beauty. But through Jesus, we’re guaranteed the victory at the end. He is the one hope that won’t let you down. It’s totally cool if you don’t agree with me, but I’d like to challenge you to at least think about it.
My wish for all of us is that no matter what 2021 brings, we’ll see the seeds of hope and cling to the promise of victory. May we experience a year of peace, joy, and unexpected blessings. And not write books with deus ex machina endings. 😉