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.