Welcome to the final post in this four-part series on ANTS. As I mentioned in my first post, ANTS is a goal-oriented framework for storytelling. It’s what you’re trying to achieve by making great characters, settings, and plots for your stories. In the previous posts in this series, I’ve covered attachment, novelty, and tension. Now it’s time for our final effect: satisfaction.
Satisfaction is tension’s alter ego. Whereas tension is created when you introduce problems that hold readers in suspense, satisfaction is derived from resolving those problems. A well-structured novel will include smaller doses of satisfaction throughout the book, as the protagonist tackles smaller challenges before the climax. Because creating satisfaction often involves reducing tension, the lion’s share of it is reserved for the story’s end.
However, crafting a satisfying conclusion isn’t as simple as giving your story a happy ending. In fact, satisfaction does not require a happily ever after. We’ve all had the experience of reading or watching an ending that brought tears to our eyes but that was still undoubtedly good. Instead, satisfaction relies on following a series of principles that are rarely spelled out to new writers.
An End That Matches the Beginning
The first thing satisfaction requires is an understanding of the sources of tension in the story. After all, satisfaction is created by dispelling that tension. But sometimes writers don’t realize when they’ve introduced a problem or mystery that’s created tension. Other times, they intended to create a problem but weren’t clear enough. If the story’s ending doesn’t bring closure to the specific problems that were introduced, it will be unsatisfying.
Next, the ending of the story – good or bad – must result from the actions of the characters. And generally, the main character must make the biggest difference to the end. It’s deeply unsatisfying if the problem is resolved by pure chance. It’s equally frustrating if a side character swoops in and saves the day instead of the story’s hero. The central protagonist of the story must struggle against problems and then overcome them – or succumb to them – through their own choices.
Last, audiences apply value judgments to character actions, and those actions must create an ending that rewards or punishes characters appropriately. A character can earn a positive outcome by showing clever thinking, by sticking to their guns when it’s hard, or by being willing to sacrifice to achieve their goal. Characters that give into temptation or make selfish choices show that they deserve a bad ending. This is why the main characters in tragedies have a tragic flaw. Ultimately, it is acting on that flaw that brings about their downfall.
Generally, creating satisfaction comes down to one critical moment in the conflict: the turning point. You can think of a turning point as the climax of the climax. It’s the moment when the story’s outcome is determined by the protagonist. Let’s have a close look at the turning point in Star Wars: A New Hope.
The big problem of A New Hope is the threat of the Death Star. Using this weaponized space station that can blow up entire planets, the Empire will soon crush the Rebel Alliance. The tension in the story escalates as the Empire locates the Rebel base and sends the Death Star to destroy it.
The movie’s climax appears as the Rebel pilots fly their X-Wings to the Death Star in a last, desperate attempt to destroy it. But to succeed, they have to fire at a very precise weak point on the station, and they are being picked off by enemy fighters. A senior pilot in the Alliance manages to fly down a trench in the station’s hull to get to this weak point, but he fails to hit the target. To give the Rebels one last chance, Luke decides to make his own attempt.
As Luke approaches the weak spot, the turning point comes. He hears the voice of his mentor, Obi-Wan: Use the force! Luke has to decide whether to rely on the targeting technology in his ship or risk everything on a leap of faith. He chooses to trust in the force and in himself, and because of that, he succeeds. The ending to A New Hope is satisfying because the tension surrounding the Death Star was resolved, Luke is the one who resolved it, and he earned his happy ending by making the right choice.
The principles behind ANTS are like any other principle in storytelling: they can be broken in the right circumstances. However, because each ANTS effect is fundamental to reader engagement and enjoyment, storytellers need a very compelling reason to abandon them. So unless the entire purpose of your story is to comment on humanity’s helplessness in the face of cosmic forces, you’re better off sticking with a climax that makes the hero matter.