This is such a good question that I’m answering it in three separate blog posts. I talked about the first item—it must be believable—in this previous post. I talked about how to make the ending surprising in this post. Here I will wrap up by discussing the last item: it must pay off the theme of your story. To begin with:
WHAT IS THEME?
Theme is the underlying message that your story has. Everything in it should communicate this underlying message. Here are some examples:
James Bond. I once read (I can’t find it on the internet at the moment) that the Broccoli family, which produces the Bond films, considers the theme of these films to be “One good man can take on the world.”
Harry Potter. JK Rowling has said that two quotes from the Bible (Matthew 6:19, and 1 Corinthians 15:26) “almost epitomize the whole series.”
Boyhood. It appears to me that author-director Richard Linklater has the following theme: “The promise of boyhood is often followed by great disappointment in one’s life as an adult.” Depressing! But Linklater is careful to show that it isn’t always that way. He shows the parents of Annie, Mason Seniors’ second wife, as having had a very long and happy life together.
Here’s how these themes are paid off by the endings of these films.
Warning: major spoilers! Don’t click a title unless you’ve read it or seen it.
So there you have it—the 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
I hope this has been helpful.
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“The promise of boyhood is often followed by great disappointment in one’s life as an adult.”
If that was the theme, then the ending certainly reflected it, and I can see now why I didn’t especially like the movie. The concept of a 12-year shoot was clever, but I wonder if it didn’t tie the editor’s hands a little too much.
You say the pay off must be surprising, yet it isn’t in the Bond films. I expect that in those. SO how is it surprising?
Thanks for this great question! In the Bond films we know Bond will win—the surprise has to come from how it happens. In order to avoid giving spoilers for any recent Bond films here, I’ll go back to a classic one—GOLDFINGER. The ending of that film has a number of surprises.
It appears that Goldfinger has killed US troops guarding Fort Knox with poison gas. Then it turns out Pussy Galore has sided with Bond and used harmless gas—the troops get up off the ground where they were playing dead—they’re okay.
In Bond’s battle with Oddjob, there are also surprises. The first is that Oddjob is willing to sacrifice his life in the service of Goldfinger. Another is the way Bond finds to beat Oddjob.
Finally there’s the climactic fight between Bond and Goldfinger on the plane at high altitude, and how that ends, with something that hadn’t been seen in a film before—the tubby Goldfinger being sucked right out the relatively small window of the plane.
Does this answer your question? Please ask me any follow-up questions.
This is important for indie writers. Very rarely do I read an indie book that develops a theme, but themes can tie books together in important ways.
Thanks Phillip! Theme is so important in developing a story.