Storytelling: Finish

Posted on May 18, 2011


I want this column to be about storytelling, and not just writing, so today I want to talk about endings because that’s a topic that applies to both.

Know When to Fold Them

Have an ending in mind when you start telling your story. The ending should flow logically from the beginning. A story is about a protagonist in a place with a problem. That “problem” is your plot. The story is how the protagonist tries to deal with the plot. The protagonist should fail twice to deal with it. He should succeed the third time, using what he learned from the first two attempts. The climactic moment should be when the protagonist faces his (or her) greatest fear to achieve his (or her) greatest desire. Everything after that is denouement, which is a fancy way of saying cleaning up loose ends.

Know When to Hold Them

If you’re a gamemaster/storyteller/dungeonmaster, then your protagonist is a party of adventurers rather than a single character. You cannot count on them to fail even once. In fact, as a GM, you should want them to succeed. A good DM has a plan in place for failure. If the heroes fail at one encounter, he knows what happens when they try again, and he has alternatives to TPK (total party kill). This “branching storyline” is an important part of writing adventures. You can’t always know greatest fears and greatest desires, but the climactic moment should be when the party faces the biggest challenge of the adventure, in order to complete the adventure.

Know When to Walk Away

Work toward the end every day. Bit by bit, move closer to your goal. Whatever you do, you must finish. Finishing is a test of moral character, and you need a lot of character to be a storyteller (pun intended). You’re either the kind of person who completes goals, or you aren’t. You can become the kind of person who finishes, but you have to want to. If you are a storyteller, you must become a finisher. Finish your stories.

Know When to Run

When you get to the end, stop. If you’re writing a story, finish the action, tie up the loose ends, and write “The End.” If you’re running an adventure or a campaign for a game, thank everyone for playing and figure out who’s going to be the DM next. When you’re done, be done. Don’t drag things out.

Storytellers face a conflict about endings. On the one hand, finishers love a sense of completeness. They like wrapping everything up. On the other hand, if you have success with your story, then you want to write one or more sequels. The trick with sequels is to take something relatively minor from the first story and turn it into something major for the follow-up. Joss Whedon demonstrated mastery of that with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Every season wrapped up as if it were the last of the series. When the show was renewed, he used existing material to spin new tales.

The Denouement

I want to say a word about self-publishing. First of all, some people will tell you that self-publishing is nothing but vanity, that it’s a last resort for people who can’t handle, or learn from, rejection by traditional publishers. If you’re publishing out of vanity, and you can afford to, go for it. Don’t listen to the doubters. Finish your work and get it out there. That said, be wary.

I cannot urge you strongly enough to stay away from many of the deals offered by agents and publishing houses (including vanity presses) these days. When you finish, you should try to publish. Start first with a reputable agency. Check your network of friends, family, and co-workers to see if they know any publishers. I was surprised to find out, for example, that my mother knew a woman who just got a publishing deal, and that woman was happy to introduce me to her publishers. Nothing has come of it yet, but the connection exists.

You should take any contract to a lawyer or agent that you trust. Protect yourself first and foremost. If you can’t get an acceptable deal, then self-publish. You can create a PDF document using MS Word, and post that (I recommend this site, because I know the people who run the company). You can create Kindle documents and sell them on It’s easier than you think.

The Gambler

Got a publishing horror story? Have questions about self-publishing? Sound off in the comments!

Posted in: Self-Reference