Audiences go mad for resolution. Because it’s among the main attributes of story. So audiences get mad when deprived of resolution, or when it happens too fast for either fun or credibility. The finale of Mad Men, justifiable winner of numerous awards, is no exception: we want the resolution we’ve waited for.
Sure, pressure exerts terrible pressure. Enough that someone can change years of selfishness quite rapidly. But the audience has a hard time believing change that happens too quickly or out of sight. Set up is needed. Gradual build-up is needed. Even for as superb a writer as Matthew Weiner.
Because, as Mark Twain put it, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” People, whether in fiction or life, tend to go on as they always have. What disrupts the status quo? Screenwriting guru Linda Seger calls these moments “pressure points.” Intervention, divorce, and death leave no one unscathed. Upheaval brings out the best in characters. And fiction has always been about human beings at their worst—and best.
After all, we trace our novelist roots back to moral instruction thinly disguised as plot: Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is saved by the wise, upstanding, symbolically named woman he adores: Sophia. The hero earns his beloved—and the novel’s resolution—because morality triumphs in the end.
What about character arc and plot resolution in your own ending? Here are a couple tricks.
Plant them in the very first chapter. If you protagonist has moral fiber or quiz show potential or a dynamic pas de deux, introduce that early. Then the final resolution doesn’t feel like an unjustified miracle, or deus ex machina (miracle-making machine).
~ Pressure points.
Space them out. Successful novels usually have an arc of character development from flawed to worthy of happiness. Use five or six weighty events to make that happiness seem justified.
Make them too obvious, and you’ve fizzled all the fun from your book. But make them too arcane or oblique and readers won’t believe or accept the ending. Every novel is a kind of mystery. Treat yours accordingly.
Recollection often saves us. We revisit fleeting images from childhood, recall small victories or big leaps into forgiveness or discovery. Changing our thinking about the pattern helps change the pattern. But the key word here is “fleeting.” You don’t need a whole flashback—just a moment, maybe just part of one sentence. Anything longer is usually a waste of the reader’s precious time.
Leave them open. Dickens is a great, great writer. But it’s too late to imitate him.
Tip: Set up the ending right from the start, so readers can enjoy a credible, causal climax.