Commandment Number Five

The fifth and final element of story form is the least respected and often forgotten.  But it’s indispensable.

The resolution of a beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot or global story is crucial for the reader or viewer to fully metabolize the story. Many writers dash these moments off in epilogues or one or two sentence updates at the end of a climactic scene.

One exception, of course, is the innovative ending of Animal House, which was perfect for that movie because the viewer just needed some time to enjoy the outrageous climax and the wonderful music. Having a scene where the Deltas all met at a diner later that evening to talk about what they were going to do in the future would have been ridiculous. Instead the director John Landis created stills with biographical updates for each of the characters one by one, resolving their stories with a little bit of fallout action from the panic at the Homecoming parade and then a cutaway to a photo and bio.  Just like they do in college “class notes” magazines years and decades after.

The ending of Animal House was a perfect resolution (easy, funny, smart and just enough tag moments to bring the viewer down from the hilarious climax). But like all things that have been done over and over again, the photo-montage movie resolution has lost its effectiveness with each new repetition. The most recent I can remember was the movie Argo. The trick, as is the trick in not creating cliché moments in the other four story commandments, is to not settle for the first idea that comes into your head.

Dig deep inside yourself and create something new, something fresh that we have not read or seen before.  That takes a lot of time, but it’s worth the effort.

So how does a Resolution scene work? That is, how does it move from one pole of a value to the other? Isn’t it really just a summing up of what has already taken place?

One way to approach a resolution is create a fable or a metaphor to reinforce the way in which the climax changed the character or characters in the story. Some of the best fables come from old war stories.

Here’s an example of a perfect resolution scene from a longer chapter from Steven Pressfield’s book The Warrior Ethos:

A Roman general was leading his legions toward the enemy in a swampy country. He knew that the next day’s battle would be fought on a certain plain because it was the only dry, flat place for miles. He pushed his army all night, marching them through a frightening and formidable swamp, so that they reached the battle site before the fore and could claim the high ground. In the aftermath of victory, the general called his troops together and asked them, “Brothers, when did we win the battle?”

One captain replied, “Sir, when the infantry attacked.”

Another said, “Sir, we won when the cavalry broke through.”

“No,” said the general. “We won the battle the night before—when our men marched through that swamp and took the high ground.”

This is a perfect example of a compelling resolution. In this hundred odd word little story, the reader walks with an Army of thousands, trudges through a harrowing swamp only to be faced with a bloody battle with no sleep. The values at stake are life/death, victory/defeat, honor/dishonor etc. They are all in the negative at the beginning.

But despite the army’s exhaustion, they win the battle, and end the scene on a positive.

So the story turns here from what the reader believes could be annihilation (How can one expect to fight hand to hand with no rest the night before?) to victory. The values move from negative to positive. That’s the surface external War genre storyline for the scene. And it climaxes in victory.

The internal Revelation storyline though is not resolved by the external climax. And yes there is an internal struggle in this story…the struggle to keep one’s shit together before battle and how best to do that. So the resolution of this little story must “tag” and resolve the internal genre.

The reader/listener would be left wanting if the internal lesson wasn’t resolved. Without the General calling his victorious drunken mates together and having a little Socratic dialogue at the end in the resolution scene, the internal “revelation plot” and its value shift from negative to positive (ignorance to knowledge) would be lost on the reader. The way to keep one’s head is to think clearly about strategy and tactics is the takeaway.  That little lesson makes the chaos of war digestible.  It reveals that science and reason can save lives…especially in the preparations for combat.

What’s really great about this tiny story is that the resolution seems obvious once it’s stated.

The General reminds his men of the work they put in before the fight. Of course they won the battle because they seized the high ground before the enemy could. Everyone knows it’s far easier to win a battle from a higher position. Running downhill is far easier than it is fighting while charging uphill. But because the value at stake in the external storyline is so dire (being killed in a nasty battle) and the reader’s anticipation of the climax of the external storyline is so great, the reader forgets, if only momentarily, the internal conflict within the characters.

Fighting the internal enemy and winning that battle is the key to defeating the external enemy is the payoff resolution of the story. Doing the inner work of war is the way to hold off the terror of its commencement.

Thus the resolution of this story…”we won the battle the night before…” really tags the entire scene, reinforcing the substance of the inciting incident (a battle must be fought), the progressive complications (swamps and fatigue), the crisis (do we burn energy for a tactical advantage or rest and fight uphill?), and the climax (they take the tactical advantage).

But didn’t Pressfield just repeat some ancient mini-tale? He didn’t invent this story, did he?

Here’s a little secret. I’ve read a LOT of ancient war stories and histories. I can’t recall reading this mini-story in any of the classics. It doesn’t mean it’s not there, of course. Pressfield has read far more in this arena than I have. But it may not be any one place.

What I think Pressfield did here was what Homer and Thucidydes did way back in the pre-digital age. Pressfield opened his mind and allowed all of the reading and work he’d done in his forty plus years of studying writing and ancient history and came up with that Roman General anecdote. Pressfield the writer took all that he read before and created something unique and fresh and true. In less than a hundred words.

Pressfield came up with that resolution. And he came up with the rest of it too. Somehow a guy in Los Angeles in 2011 was able to create a mini-story using the fable form (a form that was not prevalent in ancient times by the way) that rings true for ancient warriors and of U.S. Special Forces today. And he did it so effectively that The Warrior Ethos is now mandatory reading for the U.S. Marine Corps and for first year plebes at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Resolutions and turning them masterfully so that they are unexpected, yet on reflection obvious, is what takes a very good story from entertaining to memorable.

So, don’t dash off resolution scenes. Don’t settle for “summing up” what happened previously in the climax. The reader already knows what happened. What the resolution moment does is it tells the reader exactly what the climax of the story MEANS. How the worldview has shifted.

Another trick to keep in mind is if your global story rests on a massive internal shift in your lead character, then the resolution scene should resolve the external changes in that character. If your maturation plot is the global story climax, the resolution scene should revolve around a subplot external genre. Likewise, like the Pressfield example above, if your global story rests on a massive external shift like WAR, then the resolution scene should resolve the internal changes in your character.

In The Silence of the Lambs, the external climax scene of the global story is Clarice Starling killing Buffalo Bill. So for his resolution scene/s, Harris does not dwell on the external storyline. There isn’t a big recap of the action from Starling’s FBI colleagues…we already know what happened. The external climax is firmly established—Buffalo Bill is dead and Starling killed him. Instead Harris focuses on the internal change to Starling after she attains her conscious object of desire.

The resolution scenes do not go over her being patted on the back etc. reviewing exactly how she figured out everything and found Buffalo Bill’s lair.

It ends with Starling accepting the fact that she did not get her unconscious object of desire (safety and protection and rewards from an esteemed social institution). We watch her settle into a new worldview shift. She’s moved from blind belief in the righteousness in strict hierarchical law and the order of institutions (FBI) to disillusionment. Even though the external genre has moved from negative to positive (the killer is dead), Starling’s view of the world has gone from naively positive to justified negative.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

20 comments on “Commandment Number Five

  1. Resolution scenes: least respected, often forgotten, but indispensable.
    Thank you for this, Shawn. I’ve been patiently waiting for your thoughts on this ever since you told us about The Commandments. Is it fair to say that resolution scenes (at least those that resolve the global story) are the goosebump moments for the reader? Should we aim for all of the above in every resolution scene or does it make sense for the resolution of a scene that isn’t the resolution of the global story to be more simple? (I think I’m still trying to figure out the subtle differences for all The Commandments between say a scene or a beat and the global story.)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Debbie,
      My advice is to always zig when the reader expects a zag. What I mean by that is that is Resolution should be a Big External Scene if the global plot is miniplot/internal of say a coming of age/maturation story like WHIPLASH (great movie, resolution is a huge external performance scene at the very end) or in the case of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, it should be a smaller internal scene to follow up the huge external climax (death of Jame Gumb) where Starling and Mapp share a pint of Jack Daniels in the back of the van on the way back to Quantico.
      I’m going to go through all of the units of story next. So next post will be on the beat. The easy answer is that all of the units fit into each other like Russian dolls, so the beat builds the scene which builds the sequence which builds the act which builds the subplot which builds the global story.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks so much for this Shawn! I have to ask, though, if the story is part of a series, does this necessitate a dual obligation of providing resolution while leaving a door open inviting the reader back for the next story? It seems like a tricky proposition to me – the writer cannot fail to deliver in the current story, but can we accomplish both delivery and tack on an enticement without alienating the reader?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Good question Mary. The best thing about using an internal content genre alongside an external one is that it leaves the story open. Some questions remain unanswered. In the case of SOTL, we have Starling left in a sort of limbo and Lecter is loose. But the resolution works because the internal component of the story was so thoroughly baked into the external that the reader didn’t expect a clean final ending. In the case of mystery/master detective stuff, the resolution is rather firm. But because the genre is so clearly entrenched in the culture, there is an expectation that the resolution of the story is like the ending of an episode. So Lee Child can have his books end cleanly. And we know Jack Reacher is going to move on and find himself in another mess anyway. So the genre choice/s again are crucial. And thankfully once you make those clear choices, you can sort of not worry about the reader/audience being enticed for another one. HANNIBAL sold about a million copies its first day on sale.
      Hope that helps

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        It absolutely does – thanks!

  3. I’ve read the paragraph beginning Another trick to keep in mind . . . three times and my head won’t take it. I’ll try a guess:

    If our story is primarily external, wrap up by showing the internal change, and vice versa.

    If that’s even close, I’m still way muddy on the why and some of the how.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joel,
      You’ve got it.
      The why is simply that we like variety. When we’re at the ballgame, we don’t eat six hotdogs and nothing else. We want a hotdog, some peanuts, some popcorn and some ice cream at the end. If we are hit with a huge BIG BANG ACTION SCENE CLIMAX and then another BIG BANG ACTION SCENE RESOLUTION, it seems a bit off to us. (the exception of course is in the FALSE ENDING Thriller Genre but even after those two big set pieces, we want to come down a little). In an Internal Global Genre, though, having a big active scene to resolve everything works. Just about all of the PERFORMANCE genres have a big performance to end the story. WHIPLASH movie is a great example. Even ROCKY works with the big fight (the Adrian moment, though is a double resolution to seal the Love Story subplot)
      If I had to give one piece of advice it would be this…trust your instincts on your ending resolution. Even if they break the guidelines I’ve suggested. The great thing about storytelling is you kind of know if it works or it doesn’t. If it does, then let it be. If it doesn’t, then take a look at how you’re resolving the story…the external/internal dynamic playing out at the end. Mix it up, switch the external with the internal and see if that fixes it.
      Hope that makes sense.

  4. Shawn, just finished printing, reading, highlighting and hand writing the last two grafs of my WIP in the margins of said print-out. The synchronicity of your timing leaves me breathless. I put the action in the climax and the reflection in the denouement, but did not have global internal changes on the page. And this is after a day and night of twisting my head in knots, discussing agency with my crit partner. (The other half of the team wanting to hoist your ankles and shake The Story Gird out of whatever pocket in which it hides!) Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Congrats! The book is very near the finish line. So happy yours is too!

  5. Michael Beverly says:

    “HANNIBAL sold about a million copies its first day on sale.”

    If I could only get my time and money back from that one.

    Shawn, perhaps it’s in bad taste, but if you explain at some point, maybe a different book, how/why/what happened with that and other books like it. The sequel to Gold Coast by DeMille is another example.

    I thought Gold Coast was one of the finest novels I’ve ever read, and same goes for Silence.

    But Hannibal and The Gate House were both horrible, and I don’t just say that as my own opinion, just read the Amazon reviews.

    You spend a lot of time deconstructing greatness, perhaps deconstructing some mistakes might be useful as well?

    Oh, btw, I just finished Sleeping with the Enemy, as you’d recommended it as a good “woman in jeopardy” sub genre in thrillers.

    I did enjoy it, but, I found the ending disappointing because the main story problem was solved by the antagonist’s suicide, the hapless helpless woman who I was cheering for the whole novel to become a hero was saved by fate. Boo.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      Clunkers happen because of stress to get something into the marketplace, and a million other reasons. And of course, the lack of time to really analyze and edit before and after a work is put into the production process. There are so many great books out there to analyze and teach. I’d rather spend the time finding the classics to inspire us to write better than to hammer on stuff that didn’t work.
      All the best

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Smart. I reminded myself of the old story about FBI agents being taught to recognize authentic currency and not studying counterfeit currency (which can have untold numbers of flaws).

        But, we all want to stop and stare at the train wreck…

        On another note, I enjoyed the interview with Joanna and had a question about process.

        In that interview you talked about using the foolscap method to figure out the basic story points. Then you said to just write, don’t edit, go quickly, let your freak flag fly, etc.

        Side bar: anyone following along in this blog will want to grab that interview, at the very least it helps to put a voice to Shawn’s writing here.

        So my question has to do with what you’ve talked about in the beginning of this blog, that being applying the foolscap method to a story to edit (developmentally).

        If you’ve done the foolscap method prior; how can they (the story milestones) not be there when you’re done?

        Another side note: I am currently reading Story Physics and I have gained a lot by combining what you’re teaching here with the Brook’s emphatic stress upon planning.

        So, for me, it seems to work out best to first use the foolscap method (major skeleton); then to beat out 60 or so scenes, making sure I have a FPP, SPP, and also scenes with conventions (hero at mercy of villain, etc.) and then to start writing. Clear road map.

        I’m not criticizing what you said on Joanna’s show, but the conflicting advice is a bit confusing. It seems that (bringing up the flops we were just talking about again) even the pros screw this up, so why should amateurs/beginners not beat out every single scene?

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Michael,
          Here’s where I come out on everything. Do what works for you. Over the years, I’ve re-written quite a number of novels with the very hard working but struggling writers who wrote things that came in “unpublishable.” I’m a structure kind of guy and it has saved the bacon of a lot of writers who would have had their books cancelled.
          I love the details and I love assignments like “write a red herring scene that pays off in the third act!”
          But I also recognize that some of the best stuff I’ve ever written seemingly came out of nowhere. I banged around with a scene and then it just took off.
          So I give a lot of respect to the “muse” “fly by the pants” writers who can withstand the hours/days/weeks sitting in front of a blank screen waiting for something to happen.
          I can’t do that. I want to have goals every day and I gotta nail my word count.
          So when I say let your first draft fly, I mean by whatever means necessary, get that thing done as quickly as you can. DO NOT RE-WRITE what you wrote yesterday today. Just move the ball forward until you’ve hit you major three parts (beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff) with some semblance of understanding the genre you’re working in.
          Then rip out the principles of The Story Grid and edit the shit out of it. Get the clay and then sculpt it. That’s really all there is to it. Easy right?
          Hope that helps

          1. Michael Beverly says:

            Helps a lot. Really.

            Before I came to your blog here; I’d never finished anything. Ever.

            In January, in under 4 weeks, I outlined and wrote (just under) 80K words, my first finished rough draft of a novel.

            I’m editing now. The easy part was writing it.

            I’m finding editing and seeing the whole picture a real bitch.

            I read a scene and think; f’ing A, I’m a genius….

            But I have no idea if the whole thing works yet, and that’s where coming back here and going over structure is going to be the thing that makes it work (one way or another).

            At the very least I’ll have finished something and I cannot thank you enough for providing the spark that got that fire going.

            Looking forward to reading your book, can’t wait!

          2. Shawn Coyne says:

            Thanks absolutely wonderful Michael. Wow! I’m at a loss for words for once.
            All the best

  6. PJ Reece says:

    I’m looking forward to your book, Shawn. My anticipation is not unlike the spelunker heading deep into the cave. While I too have studied fiction for years, you obviously understand relationships between the myriad parts of a story that I’m keen to grasp. I look forward to returning from the depths with a few more nuggets of story wisdom. I think the true power of “story” is more complicated than we generally think.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks PJ,
      It’s so great to have found other Story nerds like you in the world. Despite all of the BS in the modern world and all the crap I don’t understand, there is no way in Hell you and I would have ever connected without modern technology. For that I am incredibly grateful.
      I have little doubt you’ll enjoy the full plunge. I’m on my last polish now and it’s a ton of fun. Money back guarantee!
      All the best,

      1. Morgyn says:

        PJ, Shawn, OK, just too much synchronicity. I’ve been flogging the two of you to my crit group/twitter feed and just look who I find standing side by side in the tall grass.

        Came out of the night thinking about what comes out of the night — or on the treadmill. That sitting in front of a blank screen trope () not for me. Either flying down the repeating rubber highway to rock n’ roll (jumping off and slamming out a note from said jazzed up brain/body as they come) or semi sleeping, playing a scene over and over until, OMG, out of bed, bleary eyed and telling the forebrain — use words I can freakin’ understand come daylight.

        I don’t do word count (kept track for a while — appalling how much I chew through in a week. Makes the month of Na-no kinda pallid.) Real life has to really up its game to draw my attention from the lure of the story. And putting structure on story is yet another muse in itself. I love putting my stuff through Jami Gold’s beat sheets off Larry Brook’s Story Structure and seeing did I or didn’t I and if not, making it so.

        Just how long would everyone stay awake around a campfire when a storyteller started wandering down some dark hole of personal angst and their battle against navel lint?

        Yeah, right — ZZZZZZZ


  7. DC Harrell says:

    Glad to hear beats are next. Every time I think “I wish he’d do xyz,” then you do. Thanks for this.

  8. Tina Goodman says:

    The Resolution of True Detective was amazing! (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) The way Detective Cohle’s World View finally shifted from meaningless life to meaningful after his near death experience was very touching.

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