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.
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