How to Tell If Your Story Needs a Resolution

sara-letourneau

One of the last things you’ll consider for a story is whether to write a resolution. This short sequence of scenes (or a single scene) after the climax can conclude secondary storylines, offer a glimpse into the protagonist’s new life, or pull a last-minute twist that changes everything. But in certain instances, a resolution might not be warranted. Some writers prefer omitting the resolution altogether, in favor of ending the story as soon as the climax is over.

So, the question we’re posing today is, “Does my story need a resolution?”

The answer is… it depends on what else needs closure after the main conflict has been addressed.

OK, that advice is a little murky. So let’s make it clearer with what we’ll call our Two Questions for Determining the Need for a Resolution.

Question #1: Do any subplots need to be resolved for the story to feel complete?

Most stories, especially novels, have secondary stories (a.k.a. subplots) supporting the main conflict. Friendships might be tested, romances might blossom, and so on. By the end of the story, readers will want to know how those subplots end. Are the protagonist and his sidekick still friends? Did the love interests stay together? Were other important questions answered?

Including a resolution after the climax will allow you to wrap up any subplots in a satisfying way. You can also choose to tie up those threads before the climax, or leave one or two hanging for a sequel. But as Becca warns here, you don’t want to risk annoying or angering your readers with the latter approach.

Question #2: Does a brief look at the results and consequences of the climax enhance the sense of completion without making the story too long?

Sometimes the final scenes or chapters show what happens as a result of the climax. Maybe there’s an unexpected reunion, or a glance at how the protagonist’s world and life have changed. In this way, using the resolution to present such moments can enhance the sense of closure or highlight the story’s most important themes. It can also heighten the emotional impact of the ending, making the story that much more memorable.

When a Resolution Strengthens a Story: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels each present a resolution after its climax. For example, during the climax of the first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry confronts Professor Quirrell and discovers his teacher is after the titular Stone – and the evil Lord Voldemort is living as a parasite in Quirrell’s body. A magical showdown ensues, and it looks like Harry might not win… and then he wakes up in Hogwarts’ hospital wing, with Professor Dumbledore, the school’s headmaster, by his bedside.

From there, Rowling uses the resolution of Sorcerer’s Stone to craft a concise yet thorough conclusion. Harry learns how he managed his victory over Quirrell / Voldemort, what happened to the Stone, and why Dumbledore believed its destruction was necessary. Other questions are answered as Harry reunites with his friends, all of whom are later rewarded for saving the school from disaster. And as the school year closes and students return home for the summer, readers can finish the book satisfied with the ending, thrilled for the characters’ accomplishments, and excited about what lies ahead in the sequel.

Most of the later Harry Potter novels follow a similar formula with their resolutions. Harry acts as the reader’s eyes and ears for the results and consequences of each climax, including the effects each has on the supporting characters. He also typically meets with Dumbledore and receives more information that clarifies past events and added wisdom that eventually shapes Harry into the young man he becomes by the series’ end.

Let’s now examine the resolution of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone using our Two Questions:

1. Do any subplots need to be resolved in order for the story to feel complete?

Yes. Without a resolution, readers would have been left wondering whether Harry survived, whether Quirrell / Voldemort had gained possession of the Stone, and what happened to Ron, Hermoine, and other characters. Also, since the book is targeted for a middle-grade audience, it’s important to answer these questions and offer closure – and reassurance – to young readers through these additional scenes.

2. Does a brief look at the results and consequences of the climax enhance the sense of completion without making the story too long?

Yes. The last four scenes of Sorcerer’s Stone reveal the results of Harry’s showdown with Quirrell / Voldemort and their impact on other characters and the world at large. It also emphasizes the book’s themes of courage, friendship, and good versus evil, and injects a sense of hope and excitement for the next school year.

When a Story Does Not Need a Resolution: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Since resolutions are a common part of storytelling, it’s easier to find novels that end with a resolution than ones without. So what happens in the rare instance when a resolution isn’t necessary? The novel would need to accomplish the following, which would lead to “no” answers for our Two Questions:

1. The story wraps up its subplots before or during the climax, so there isn’t much left to resolve once it ends.

2. The end of the climax has a strong sense of completion, and might hint at potential results or consequences that could happen after the ending.

These reasons don’t mandate a cliffhanger ending (though you can write one, if you want). Rather, they imply that a story accomplishes both points well enough that a resolution isn’t warranted. It’s also important to note that stories without resolutions typically end as soon as the climax is over or a couple pages after.

A great example of a resolution-less story is Dorian Gray’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This dark psychological classic follows a handsome young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty, then embarks on a lifetime of hedonism while a portrait of him grows hideous to reflect his sins. But did you know that the novel’s climax, where Dorian stabs the portrait only to have his own curse kill him instead, happens on the second-to-last page?

Yes. By then, Dorian has dabbled in drugs, broken a young actress’s heart (which led to her suicide), blackmailed his friends, and murdered two men, including the artist who painted his portrait. Even his “companionship” with Lord Henry Wotton, who encouraged Dorian’s self-indulgence from the beginning, appears to have ended after Henry pokes fun at Dorian for wanting to change for the better.

So when Dorian attempts to destroy his portrait, the main conflict – Dorian’s internal struggle with his tarnished self – is all that’s left to address. The final page does show pedestrians hearing Dorian’s dying screams and his servants finding his body and the changed portrait moments later. Yet these moments are part of the climax, not a resolution. The gruesome discovery in particular is not a result or consequence of the climax, but rather the end of the main conflict.

A much different ending than that of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, right? So let’s evaluate why The Picture of Dorian Gray’s absence of a resolution works using our Two Questions:

1. Do any subplots need to be resolved in order for the story to feel complete?

No. All of the subplots, including Dorian’s relationships with other characters, are resolved before Doran “confronts” his portrait.

2. Does a brief look at the results and consequences of the climax enhance the sense of completion without making the story too long?

No. Some readers might be interested in an additional chapter that shows Henry’s and other characters’ reactions to Dorian’s death. But since the novel focuses on Dorian and his downward spiral, adding more scenes after the climax would serve no purpose.

In the End, It Depends on What You Believe the Story Needs

Remember that the key to a story’s ending is closure. A resolution can provide this if certain subplots still need to be addressed after the main conflict is over. But if all questions have been sufficiently answered, and if writing more scenes might make the story too long, then maybe a resolution isn’t necessary.

That decision is yours to make. Yes, it’s more common for stories to have a resolution than to not have one. But in the end, no one but you, the author, can determine if your story is stronger with or without those extra scenes. You don’t have to write a resolution because most stories include one. It simply has to feel right for the story you want to tell. And if your decision makes sense to your readers, it could mean the difference between a good story and a great one.

What are your thoughts about resolutions in a story? Have you ever struggled with choosing if a resolution was needed after a story’s climax? If so, what did you decide? Also, what are some of your favorite stories that either had a purposeful resolution or worked well without one?

sara-_framedSara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA/New Adult magical realism manuscript. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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14 Responses to How to Tell If Your Story Needs a Resolution

  1. This is a really intriguing post. Another story without a resolution is the Giver. It ends right after the climax as well.

    • Thanks, Tori! And would you believe it, I still haven’t read The Giver?? How my teachers never assigned it in school still boggles my mind. I’ll definitely pay attention to the ending when I finally get to it.

  2. Sara, I’m a little late popping in to say THANK YOU for this post (I’ve been traveling). With so much of writing, starting and ending are notoriously difficult. These are great tips!

  3. Bryan Fagan says:

    When my editor and I begin work on my novel one of the things I addressed was keeping the epilogue. It answered questions and served as closure for the reader. A sort of gentle goodbye, you might say. If I read a book that I really liked sometimes I don’t want to say goodbye right away. I want it to last just a bit longer and I appreciate it when the writer recognizes it. Thank you for the post. Good Stuff!!!

    • You’re welcome, Brian! I’m glad that you not only liked the tips, but could agree with them from your own experience. I don’t mind epilogues as long as they do (or continue to do) what a good resolution should do. So if you wanted to keep your epilogue because it answered questions and offered closure, then it sounds like you made the right choice.

  4. Great post, Sara! The ending, ah! It is so critical for us to get right. 🙂 Nothing drives me more crazy than a book that leaves me with big unanswered questions, especially those that end in the middle of an important event. This is sort of a death knell I think for book series that are traditionally published, because when I read and ending like that and know I have at least a year, maybe a year and a half to wait to see how things turn out? Nope. Too many other good books to get lost in.

    • Thanks, Angela. 🙂 I’m not a big fan of questions being left unanswered or plot threads left hanging so the author can address them in a sequel. Anytime a book has done this, I’ve typically been dissatisfied enough that I won’t read the rest of the series. So that’s a big reason why I want to ensure my own stories have a strong sense of closure, regardless of whether they have a resolution after the climax.

  5. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Thanks for this, Sara!

    I gave my WIP a resolution in the form of a sort of epilogue. I do believe it needs it, but I’ve changed it several times and I’m still not quite happy with it. The actual climax, a hugely violent and technically complex setpiece, was easier to write!

    It is interesting how movies tend to omit or severely truncate the resolutions of books they’re based on. A notable exception is John Boorman’s 1972 film of James Dickey’s 1970 novel ‘DELIVERANCE’. Boorman’s movie surprisingly retains most of the novel’s very long epilogue-like section AFTER the violent climax.

    On the other hand, I think we can all rejoice that the ‘THE RETURN OF THE KING’ movie dropped Tolkien’s notorious ‘Scouring of the Shire’ section, a legendarily anticlimactic epilogue to an otherwise great story.

    • You’re welcome, John! And keep your chin up regarding your story’s resolution. I’m sure you’ll eventually revise it to your satisfaction.

      That’s an interesting – and true – point regarding resolutions in book-to-film adaptations. One that always angered me (and still angers me to this day) was the ending of the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. The filmmakers decided to cut out the last three chapters – and all three were so important! I still remember saying out loud in the movie theater, “You’re ending the movie NOW?!”

      I actually didn’t know about the Scouring of the Shire until I’d seen the LOTR film trilogy and then read the books. I’m not sure if I have a real opinion about its necessity, to be honest. The ROTK film felt complete without it, but its inclusion in the book is a way of reminding readers that no place in Middle-Earth was safe from Sauron and Saruman.

  6. sjhigbee says:

    An excellent article that provides crucial advice when writers are approaching that tricky end phase of their book, Sara. I really enjoyed reading this one. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving:)

    • Thanks, Sarah! I was planning to do a Character Evolution File on this topic earlier this year, but that was before I decided to slow things down at my personal blog. So I’m glad I was still able to share this topic here, with Becca and Angela’s blessing. 🙂

  7. Thanks so much for these tips about resolutions in story. The examples you give are clear and helpful. I’ve shared this post online. Happy Thanksgiving!

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