So you’ve brainstormed to create your plot, fleshed out your characters, and used some tips to make your novel stand out. What else could possibly be left? Resolution! You may not be at the point where you’re ready to end your novel, but in the upcoming week (the few days of NaNo) you definitely will be. So I’m bringing you this workshop ahead of time! Follow along with this writing workshop to learn how to end your novel in 5 steps. The download for the free 5 step checklist is available at the end of this post.
Here’s an overview of the 5 steps we’ll be working through to end your novel.
- Identify Remaining Conflict
- Resolving External Conflict
- Resolving Internal Conflict
- Finding Your Message
- Wrapping Everything Up
Step 1: Identify Remaining Conflict
The first step is to find all the conflicts that you haven’t resolved yet. If you’ve been following along with this series and updating your character sheets, you’ll already have a list of conflicts ready to go. But if you don’t it’s not hard to find them. The trick is to think about all the problems remaining and list them. We’ll start with the external conflicts. As a little refresher, the external conflicts are anything that prevents a character from completing their external goal. The word ‘external’ here specifies that the problem exists outside of the character’s mind.
Character: Jimmy Jackson
External Goal: kill the evil wizard
External Problems Identified:
- Jimmy’s trapped in a well by the evil wizard
- Karen and Sam are trapped in prison
- The magic wand that can kill the evil wizard is lost in the mysterious abyss
Pretty easy right? If this wasn’t NaNoWriMo I would suggest that you go through your entire novel and make a list of all the problems to be sure you’re not leaving any loose ends. But we’re on a deadline here, so we’ll save that for editing after November.
Now you’ll want to identify the internal conflicts that are left. This is a bit trickier. An internal conflict is anything that prevents a character from completing their internal goal(s). The word ‘internal’ here specifies that the problem exists inside the character’s mind. This one is little harder to figure out if you haven’t already decided it, but we can use the external goal to help.
Let’s take Jimmy’s external goal of killing the evil wizard. The first question to ask is why? Why does Jimmy want to do this? Easy, the evil wizard is going to destroy the world and he wants to stop it. That’s certainly a great reason to do something, but it isn’t the only reason, and it isn’t the internal motivation we’re looking for. Think about why that character specifically is driven to do this. Why them? Maybe they were terrible when they were younger, and they want to feel like they’ve done some good in the world now. Or maybe they want to feel important. Or maybe they want to feel the sense of belonging and acceptance that comes with being a hero. Once you figure this out, you have an internal goal.
Internal Goal: Jimmy wants to feel like he’s made a difference in the world
I.e. Jimmy wants to kill the evil wizard because then he will have stopped a great tragedy and therefore made a difference in the world
Wonderful, now that we have the internal goal, what’s holding Jimmy back from achieving it? Your first thought may be that he can’t get that feeling because he hasn’t killed the wizard yet. But this would be an external conflict. We’re looking for the core thing inside the character’s mind that stops them from reaching their internal goal. Think of all your character’s fears and doubts and use this to help you. Maybe Jimmy is afraid that he won’t be able to kill the wizard. Why? Because he won’t get the magic wand in time? Because he won’t have enough power to kill the wizard? Good external reasons, but what in his mind is stopping him? Maybe he’s scared that he isn’t special enough to defeat the wizard. Extend this to the internal goal, and maybe he feels like he’s not special enough to ever make a difference. Voila! You’ve found your internal conflict.
Internal Conflict: Jimmy doesn’t think he’s special or talented enough to do anything important
Step Two: Resolving External Conflict
As a personal rule, I believe that unless you are writing a book within a series, you should resolve all your conflicts, external AND internal. Resolving a conflict means you address it in some way, either to show the character failing to overcome the conflict, and never reaching their goal, or to show them succeed in overcoming their conflict and completing their goal. If you don’t resolve an external conflict, you’re going to have a plot hole. And if you don’t resolve an internal conflict you may end up with a flat and uninteresting character.
Let’s look at Jimmy’s external goal and conflicts again:
External Goal: kill the evil wizard
External Conflicts Identified:
- Jimmy’s trapped in a well by the evil wizard
- Karen and Sam are trapped in prison
- the magic wand is lost in the mysterious abyss
The first and third conflicts you likely wouldn’t miss resolving because otherwise how else would Jimmy get to kill the evil wizard? The second conflict is the sort that might be easily missed or passed over. If you fail to resolve this conflict by either saying that Karen and Sam get left in prison (failure) or that they escape (success) you’re going to have a bunch of readers wondering what happened to them.
But what about the villain? The evil wizard’s external conflict is that Jimmy is trying to kill him, should you resolve this too? Yes. Resolving a conflict simply means that you address it. Whether the character overcomes their conflict to complete their goal is completely up to you.
Step Three: Resolving Internal Conflict
Internal conflicts are different from external conflicts. All of your major and minor characters will have external conflicts and goals. The only characters that won’t have these will be background characters like townspeople or random henchmen. However, only major characters will have internal conflicts. There’s no reason to give minor characters internal conflicts because you need to flesh out the character to explore this, and once you do that you’ll have a major character.
Just like external conflicts, you should resolve all internal conflicts. The difference is the way you choose to resolve it. In the character’s fictional mind, completing their external goal should also complete their internal goal. However, this isn’t necessarily the case.
One way to understand this is to think about revenge. Let’s say you’re Batman, your external goal is to kill the person that killed your parents, you hope that by doing this, you’ll complete your internal goal of feeling at peace with their deaths. You can succeed in killing that person, and at the end of it all, still not feel better about your parents dying. Probably because you just killed a dude. In the end, it may turn out that you only achieve this internal goal once you start using your powers to help others from suffering like you did. Thus resolving your internal conflict of not feeling good enough to deserve being at peace.
Let’s look at a breakdown of how Jimmy might resolve his internal conflict.
Jimmy succeeds and kills the evil wizard
Internal Conflict Success: He feels that he is special enough now that he’s killed the evil wizard, because that’s kind of a pretty special thing to do.
Internal Conflict Failure: This doesn’t make him feel any better, he still feels like he’s not that special, that he only succeeded because he had help
Taking a look at the internal conflict failure here. You would need to decide if you want Jimmy to overcome his internal conflict in another way, or to never overcome it. Maybe he only feels special and significant when Karen confesses her love to him, or when he helps all the orphans from the battles find new homes. Or maybe the book ends with him still feeling inadequate. Which internal conflict you choose to make a success or leave a failure is entirely dependent on what you want for that character, what you want the reader to feel, and the message you want to convey.
Step Four: Finding Your Message
To recap what we’ve done so far we’ve: resolved all the external and internal conflicts and decided which internal conflicts to have your character overcome or fail. This section will focus on forming an ending that presents any messages or morals you want to convey.
The first thing to decide is what you want your novel to say. You’ve been writing your novel for this long, so likely you have some sort of idea in mind. A method for finding your message is to looking at your main character. How do you want your main character to end all of this? Take Jimmy for example, there are a few options for how to end his story:
- Jimmy kills the evil wizard
- Jimmy lets the evil wizard live but imprisons him
- Jimmy lets the evil wizard live, and somehow the wizard kills himself
- Jimmy gives the evil wizard a chance for redemption
- Jimmy gives the evil wizard a chance for redemption, the wizard denies it, Jimmy kills him
- Jimmy can’t kill the wizard for some reason, someone else kills the wizard
And I could go on and on and on like this. But you likely already have an ending in mind for your main character. What does your ending say to the reader? Jimmy killing the evil wizard could have the message: not everyone can be redeemed, sometimes murder is permissible, murder can be mercy, humanity is brutal, and so on.
As an example, let’s say the message is that not everyone can be redeemed. You can be consistent throughout with this message, maybe by having a character who spares a henchman who later does something terrible. OR you can challenge this message. You can have a character spare a henchman who later comes back to help them. This way you leave your reader to decide for themselves which message they believe in, and this will in turn shape how they feel about certain characters.
Once you hone in on your message, you can add details to strengthen it. For example, if Jimmy is going to kill the wizard, then he believes some people just can’t be redeemed. This is a great opportunity to show Jimmy giving some other character a chance for redemption. If that character fails Jimmy, and isn’t redeemed, then it shows readers that this past experience is why Jimmy is so determined to kill the evil wizard. But if the character does become redeemed and helps Jimmy out, then maybe Jimmy hesitates when going to kill the evil wizard.
Using a message is a fantastic way to add more layers to your story and enrich the experience for the reader. And it doesn’t have to be anything as profound as a play on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. J.K. Rowling has what is certainly the best selling children’s book series in the world and one of her messages is “love conquers all”.
Step Five: Wrapping Everything Up
It’s the end!! This is where you wrap everything up in a nice little package, or set the stage for the next novel if you’re working on a series.
Not all novels end with conflict resolution, in fact, many continue past that, or even stop short of it. Which one is yours? This is dependent on what you want the reader to feel and also what you want for your own novel.
Endings that happen as soon as conflict is resolved
These great for leaving the reader wanting more, it ends at the height of action, it has the feeling of a big finish. The cons of this ending is that readers may feel jarred by the sudden end, they may have a “that’s it?” feeling, and you may not have a lot of time to make your message hit home.
Endings that happen after conflict is resolved
These are great at making a message hit hard, showing readers the fates of the characters and eliminating lots of questions, and can give the reader a sense of peace/fulfilment. The cons of this ending is that you can bore the reader, you may upset some readers by closing off any futures they imagined for characters, and you risk having a more muted feeling to your ending.
Endings that happen before all conflict is resolved
These should—and this is my personal opinion—never happen in a stand alone novel. In a series, yes. In a short story, yes. It’s one thing not to answer every question the reader has, I mean, you can’t always dot your “i”s and cross your “t”s. But it’s quite another to deliberately not resolve a conflict for the purpose of leaving something ‘open-ended’, or up to the reader. Leave the fate of the characters/universe now that the conflicts are resolved up to the reader if you want opened ended. Not resolving an on-going conflict is more frustrating than anything else. I’m sure there’s a crazy amazing writer somewhere out there who can pull this off, but I would never recommend it. My belief is that if you introduce a conflict, you should resolve it, and if you don’t, you’re making a plot hole. But it’s your novel and if you think it’s really important to leave off a conflict then go for it.
If you are writing a novel in a series then there are a few things you’ll want to accomplish before you end your book:
- Leave at least one external conflict unresolved, this will likely be a conflict that you carry on throughout the series to keep the story going
- If you resolve an internal conflict, introduce a new one. So if Jimmy gains self-confidence in the first novel, have something come up in the second novel that makes him lose it again. Or introduce some other insecurity to keep your main character rounded and realistic
- Give the reader something to look forward to. What’s going to make them read the next book? One way to do this is to introduce a new external conflict right at the end of the novel, on top of the old external conflict that’s hanging over their heads
What did you guys think? Helpful? Agree or disagree with some points? Let me know!
Don’t think this is the end of the series! There’s still one more Sunday in November!