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Story Design Tips: Beautiful Endings, Part I

You want your players to be awestruck by your endings? Here’s how you do it.

[I’ve been doing a weekly Story Design Tips column for six months, now. Last week I asked you if you had some questions or issues you would like to see addressed in future columns. One email asked me for tips about writing better endings, tips that won’t be found in the usual array of books about writing. Here is my answer.]

Here’s our goal: We want to know how to create awesome endings, endings that will leave the players awestruck. There are three major ways to achieve that. We’re going to devote a column to each of them.

A Borrowed Technique

Almost any technique used in the gaming world is stolen (would you prefer ‘borrowed’?) from another field of art that already exists: film, art, literature, etc. The technique I’m going to talk about today has been used in all the storytelling arts since the documented beginning of literature and theater. But the best way to give an example of it is actually taken from the art of improv.

There are many improv games, as any of you who have seen an improv show or Whose Line Is It Anyway know. Here’s one: a group of comedians stand in a row. One of them begins a story, the second continues it, the third continues it, and so on. And then the last one ends the story all at once.

If done right, it’s hilarious. That’s because the comedians on stage know something the audience doesn’t: the task of each comedian advancing the story is not to simply come up with a continuation of what’s been said, but rather to come up with a complication (or crazy subplot) that makes it impossible for the last guy to end all at once.

The next person makes an even greater complication (and/or goes in another crazy direction), making it seem again that the last guy’s task is even more impossible. And so it continues, until the last guy’s turn arrives. His task is not only to find a way to end the story. That wouldn’t be funny. His task is to end the story as fast as possible with the least sentences and complications.

The more complex the story and the faster the ending that ties it all together, the better the response of the audience: great laughter and great awe. Now, the audience laughs because this is invented live in front of their eyes, and therefore the last guy’s solution is a comic solution. Your game is not invented live in front of the players’ eyes, and so it won’t be funny unless you’ll make it purposefully so. But if you stick to the rule, it will still create great awe.

The Rule

Here’s the simple rule of awesome endings. The more entangled or complex your plot and the quicker and more sudden your solution that ties absolutely everything together, the more awe you’ll get out of your players.

It’s very simple. It’s very old. And it’s true.

The players feel as if they’ve witnessed a technical miracle. They go through a sudden, unexpected catharsis and find themselves completely satisfied and awed. Here’s why.

Why Does It Work?

 

Think about it like this: When you open a plot, your players expect it to come to a conclusion in the end. That’s human nature. If you open more than one loose end, the players will subconsciously want you to close all of them.

Assuming your story isn’t predictable, your players will subconsciously assume that it’s hard to find a satisfying ending. When you close a loose end, the player is satisfied. The more loose ends you close, the more satisfied the player. The faster you close all of them together, the more miraculous it appears (subconsciously), and therefore it creates great awe and a great feeling of satisfaction.

Now, this is not the only way to create beautiful or satisfying endings that strike the players with awe. We’re going to cover the two other major techniques in the next two weeks.

P.S.

If you have any more suggestions for future columns about story design or if you have questions you want answers to, please leave them in the comments below or email me at guyhasson at gmail dot com. I’ll try to address them.

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