This is a great question. There are four keys to a satisfying ending:
- It must be believable, i.e. accepted by the audience as making sense.
- It must be surprising
- It must be set up by what came before in the story
- It must pay off the theme of your story
It’s such a big subject that I’m going to talk about it in three separate blog posts. 🙂 This post talks about the first one:
It Must be Believable
Teresa, you brought up one of my favorite topics—what is considered believable in a story. After all, if Superman can fly, isn’t there suspension of disbelief? And if the audience is going to suspend disbelief, then why does the writer have to worry about being believable at all?
And yet we all know how important it is for a story to be believable. Haven’t we all walked out of a movie, and the first thing we say to a friend is that something important in the movie didn’t make any sense? YouTube has lots of videos with examples.
Alfred Hitchcock had a name for subtle versions of this: fridge logic. The idea is that you see a movie, you go home, and at 2 in the morning you get up to get a snack. You go to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and as you’re reaching for something it pops into your head: “Wait a second. That thing in that movie didn’t make any sense.” AllTheTropes has an extensive list of examples.
So where does suspension of disbelief stop, and where does the writers’ responsibility to have everything make sense begin?
Here’s the answer: the story must make it clear in the very beginning, exactly the things for which the audience is being asked to suspend disbelief. You are saying to your audience, “Okay, here’s what you have to give me—what you have to suspend disbelief of—so that I can entertain you.” At the beginning of the story the audience will suspend disbelief of anything. Superman can fly. Peter Parker got bit by a radioactive spider. Identical doubles of people are walking around. People jump between the past and the present. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. The ghost of Hamlet’s father has a message for Hamlet. Mars attacks. Anything will be accepted by the audience, as long as you tell them what it is in the very beginning.
After that, the author’s opportunity to ask for suspension of disbelief is over. After that, everything has to make sense. And here’s what “makes sense” means: it means the logic of your story must be internally consistent, and consistent with what the audience knows about how things work.
The Logic Must Be Internally Consistent. To make up a few examples at random:
- If Superman gets knocked out in a fistfight with an ordinary human being, that wouldn’t be internally consistent with the setup that Superman is super-strong and invulnerable to everything except Kryptonite.
- If Peter Parker flies without using his web shooter, that wouldn’t be internally consistent with the setup of what Spiderman can and can’t do.
- If Romeo and Juliet start insulting each other, that wouldn’t be internally consistent with their relationship.
I’ve coined a term for internal inconsistencies like these, and that term is:
Here are a few more examples:
- If Martians build advanced technology and attack Earth, but can’t figure out how to push open a swinging door, that is a LOGIC BREAK.
- If the Chief of Police doesn’t know it’s against the law to break into a house without a search warrant, that is a LOGIC BREAK.
- If a guy is desperate for $10,000 to pay off a bookie and later in the movie it turns out he has $500K in a bank account and a vacation home in Bermuda, that is a LOGIC BREAK.
The Logic Must Be Consistent with What the Audience Knows about the World. AllTheTropes has a great example of this: a regular guy or gal goes from Hungary to Melbourne, Australia, then to LA, all within 24 hours. Here are a few more examples, made up at random:
- If a normal guy or gal glances through a 500 page document in 10 minutes and then remembers details from each page throughout the rest of the story, that is a LOGIC BREAK.
- If a chef uses only the food available in a McDonalds to create a 5-star restaurant award-winning main course, including ingredients that McDonald’s doesn’t serve, that is a LOGIC BREAK.
- If a guy who’s got a million friends and a great girlfriend complains about being lonely, that is a LOGIC BREAK.
The penalty for logic breaks is that the story is not believable. If the logic breaks are big and obvious enough, it can be a serious drawback to your audience’s ability to enjoy your story.
Conclusion: to make your story believable, avoid logic breaks!
I will talk about the other keys to a satisfying ending in future posts.
I hope this is helpful!