Answering the major dramatic question
Compelling stories are driven by a problem that needs to be solved. As many writers say, you don’t have a story until something goes wrong. From a structural point of view, the ending needs to provide the solution to that problem. Another way of thinking of this is to look for the major dramatic question that arises from the problem. In story theory, the major dramatic question refers to the key question that forms in the reader’s mind in the opening chapters, sometimes unconsciously, and propels them to keep turning the pages in search of the answer. It will involve the central protagonist. Every story will have more than one question that needs to be answered, but there needs to be one major question that is set up early on and drives the narrative through to the very end, with the answer coming only in the story’s resolution. It is helpful to think of that question as closed – one that can be answered with yes, no or maybe, or yes and no, or even yes, but not in the way expected. For example, Will Romeo and Juliet overcome their families’ rivalry and live happily ever after? Will Elizabeth Bennet see past her prejudice towards Mr Darcy? Will Harry defeat Voldemort?
Using the ending to find the beginning
If you know where you want the story to land, it can help you to set up the beginning and to identify the major dramatic question. Think about it like this: if the ending provides the answer, what is the question being asked? If the question and answer don’t match up, one of them needs changing. For example, one manuscript I read set up the question early on, Will Sara achieve her goal of becoming a successful actress? However, the ending seemed to provide the answer to a different question: Yes, she has learned to love again. In this case, the writer needed to clarify for herself what the central plotline was about, and what was going to drive the narrative. In the next draft she needed to make sure the question and answer matched up.
What about if I’m planning a series?
If you are planning a series of novels, each book needs to have an ending that provides a satisfying resolution to the central plotline of that particular volume, while allowing for a larger story arc to unfold in a sequel. This can be done by leaving a specific story thread hanging or by introducing the potential for a new story thread near the end. Each individual book will have its own major dramatic question which needs to be answered, and there might be an overarching dramatic question that covers the series. Some series follow a character or group of characters across titles with stand-alone plotlines (think Harry Potter). In these types of series it is the featured characters that connect the stories, with an overarching character arc engaging readers across titles.
Finding the right ending
When you are crafting your ending, think about whether you have said what you wanted to say. Are there any loose ends? Are there story questions posed that aren’t answered? It is important that your ending satisfies readers at some level rather than frustrates them or leaves them disappointed. This doesn’t mean all stories have to have neatly resolved conclusion. Your ending can set up new questions, or provide a twist, but at some level it needs to answer that major dramatic question.
For example, one writer I worked with had a story focused on a character at a fork in the road needing to choose which path to go down, a choice that would have huge ramifications for his working and family life – a classic dilemma of path A versus path B. The character spends the entire story working out the best decision to make. In the end, he comes to realise that he’s been asking himself the wrong question all along. It’s not about choosing which fork to go down, it’s about understanding that either path will get him where he wants to end up. His major dramatic question was something like, Will Elias work out the best way forward? with the answer being Yes, but not in the way expected.
For writers struggling with an ending, or feeling like they haven’t yet nailed it, I often suggest they consider the following question, which is, as it happens, where I’d like to end this blog: What do you want the reader to be left thinking about when they have finished the last page?