I recently (by which I mean almost a month ago) received my pre-order of the re-release of Victoria Schwab’s The Near Witch. I haven’t read it yet, but it got me thinking about why I like fantasy so much, and especially the stories that feel almost like a fairy tale from an alternate universe. Give me some legendary heroes and monsters and I’m happy. There’s something comforting about knowing that no matter what else happens, the protagonist will achieve their ultimate goal, and the antagonist won’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I read and enjoy stories without strictly good characters or happy endings all the time—Robin Hobb’s Mad Ship trilogy is one of my all-time favourites, and that is just jam-packed full of moral compromises, bad guys getting away with evil and good characters going through some awful things. The ending doesn’t have to be happy, just satisfying.
There are a few things that—in my opinion—control whether or not a story is satisfying, and I’ve explained them all in a little more detail below.
First and foremost, the conclusion of your story should make narrative sense. There’s a whole lot that goes into this—your main character should be sufficiently motivated to take the actions they do; the obstacles that have prevented the ‘solve’ up until this point should be resolved—maybe your hero finally sacrifices the standards or person they didn’t want to give up until now (and ‘trying really hard until they get a nosebleed’ is not a satisfactory obstacle), but ultimately, your conclusion makes narrative sense if your protagonist has—over the course of the novel—developed in such a way that they can now tackle the problem facing them in a way they couldn’t have at the beginning of the story. The climax is where you show how far your protagonist has come.
Second, the solution should be foreshadowed well so the conclusion doesn’t require too much explaining, but also isn’t too obvious—destroying the tension you should have been building up until this point. Having a convenient power appear in the hero is not satisfying, and it would take a lot of foreshadowing, and probably some difficulties caused earlier by the ‘gift’, to make it so. Foreshadowing should draw in hints and seemingly irrelevant details together in a flash, convincing your readers that on some level, they already knew what would happen. To be extra sneaky, make the trickles of foreshadowing relevant to the story in other ways—perhaps they illuminated a detail of the world you were building, or were important to developing a minor character’s backstory. This will help your writing feel intentional, and avoid confusing your readers, or leave them feeling cheated at an overly convenient plot development.
Any genre specific requirements
This is the most important aspect of ensuring your writing leaves your readers feeling satisfied, and inclined to read your work again—providing what they picked up your book to find. Popular authors stay popular authors because their very name becomes tantamount to providing a specific sort of story. Genres serve the same purpose, as a way of giving the reader an idea of the kind of tropes and archetypes they may encounter.
So how do annoying tropes become so prolific? Let’s look at a classic trope that a lot of people point to as an example of poor writing—the deus ex machina ending, where a mysterious stranger, object, ability or solution appears in the eleventh hour to conclude an otherwise unsolvable plot line. We’ve all read that ending before, right? Probably more than once. So how do authors get away with that?
Well, if plot is just a vehicle to deliver something else, all other ‘requirements’ of your writing1 can pretty much be ignored. Romance novels for example, focus on developing characters and the relationship to build them, with the plot serving only to throw them together. Children’s books likewise usually serve more to teach or reinforce a lesson than to tell a dramatic and unique story. I personally overlook a hell of a lot if the worldbuilding or character development are strong enough in a novel, and my preferred genres—science fiction and fantasy—are a pretty direct example of this.
Of course she can shoot a bow with her feet, she’s an acrobat. Now tell me more about the effect a highly trained force of circus-assassins has on the nation’s political system!
I’ve read more ‘good vs evil’ books than I have anything else, because I love the light this shines on characters, and the political and social situations they find themselves in. No matter your genre, hell, even if you’re writing non-fiction—figure out what your audience is reading for and provide it, and you’ll have a satisfied reader-base every time.
Before I end this article, I thought I’d add a fourth thing that your story doesn’t need to be satisfying (I know, I know, I’m a genius).
Gasp! Am I suggesting you plagiarise, or develop a joyless, formulaic approach to writing that produces a bunch of mediocre books similar in depth to an episode of a sitcom? Absolutely not. But your story doesn’t need to end with an elaborate, unique twist to be satisfying. Classic ‘good conquers evil’ stuff is still popular, even if ‘relatable morally grey conquers annoying, marginally darker grey’ is slightly more popular right now, in the fashion of Deadpool or Game of Thrones.
I could write a whole other blog post on lines that, once crossed, justify any evil the protagonist perpetrates on the antagonist—often involving children or animals—and probably will, because once you start noticing the ‘villain coding’ it’s hard to stop, and I find it fascinating—but I’m getting off topic. The point I was making (promise), is that especially in the age of the internet, striving to be unique is pointless. Someone, somewhere, has made something similar to your idea. If you try to make something no one has ever come close to creating, there’s probably a reason. Tell the story, just make it yours. Add little bits of your passion or scars, make sure the writing reflects your unique (promise) view of the world, and watch as the ‘standard’ story line comes to life.
1Not that those exist—this is general advice based on my personal preferences and opinions, not hard and fast rules that all writers follow (or even should follow)