Devourer of Words 064: Adding the Last Period
Most serialized storytelling takes place in this kind of protracted middle. There is always another bad guy to punch or skyscraper to websling from or vampire to stake. Batman will never actually clean up Gotham City. Of course, there are miniseries and short-burst stories—now more than ever—but comic book storytelling, much like television storytelling, is episodic and designed to get you to sample the next installment.
They are meant to be engines that keep generating story.
But, paradoxically, it’s almost impossible to have a great story that doesn’t end. And the final stories are often the ones that carry the most weight. Those are the ones we talk about, long after the story’s been completed. The Dark Knight Returns. Logan. The Sopranos finale.
Hopefully, you’ll be lucky enough to get to end your story on your own terms. Trust me: It’s no fun when someone tells you, “Oh, by the way, the issue you just handed in is the last issue of the series.” Few things can frustrate a writer more than dramatis interruptus.
There are a couple of things to remember when ending a story:
1. Stories are circular.
The good ones find a way to, in some fashion, end where they began—but in a way that finds the main characters changed by the adventure we’ve just experienced. Think about how Finding Nemo. The movie begins with Nemo excited to go to school, but his father, Marlin, afraid of anything and everything. The film ends in the exact same location and situation. Going to school. But now Marlin is excited to show his son the world and for him to engage with it. Full circle.
Not that every story needs to do this, but the fundamental element that makes a story worth watching is change. What has happened to your main character(s)? How have they impacted the world and vice versa? How can you best underline that point? Often, going back home does just that.
2. Surprising and inevitable.
It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but every narrative builds a kind of math as it progresses. The audience will begin to understand it as it goes and begin to have certain assumptions. And not just assumptions: demands. The trick is to not give the audience what they always wanted, but instead to give them what they didn’t know they needed. Sometimes, that manifests as a complete downer: Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box at the end of Seven. Sometimes, it’s completely triumphant: Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon streaking out of the sun—“I knew there was more to you than money!”—allowing Luke to blow up the Death Star.
Sometimes, it’s both: Tony Stark’s “I am Iron Man” at the end of Avengers: Endgame. (Which is also a perfect example of circular storytelling.)
3. When all else fails, just give everyone a friggin’ medal.
Endings are hard, but if you can do it right, you will have made the entire experience worthwhile for the reader. It will make up for any stutter-steps you’ve made along the way. It will be what people remember. And that’s why we do this, a storytellers: Do tell them a tale that they won’t forget.
Which brings me to the end of this column ... and the end of THE column. This is the final installment of Devourer of Words and for those of you who stuck with me for the entirety of the journey, I thank you. Thinking about all of this has made me a better writer in the process and I hope you found these past 64 columns helpful in some way.
I hope to be reading your stories someday — if I’m not already.
(Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Marc Bernardin’s deep dive into the world of writing for Toucan over the past almost-7 years. One of our OGs (along with Maggie Thompson, Steve Lieber, and Katie Cook), Marc’s body of work will still be available to discover or re-read here on Toucan. Thanks, Marc!)