[I’ve been doing a weekly Story Design Tips column for six months, now. Two weeks ago I asked if you had some questions or issues you would like to see addressed in future columns. One email I received asked for tips about writing better endings, tips that won’t be found in the usual array of books about writing. This is the second out of three articles giving three approaches to designing beautiful endings.]
We’re talking about designing beautiful endings for your games. Not just good endings – beautiful endings. Today we’re going to talk about the difference between the two, and how to turn the former into the latter.
Let’s start with the classic ‘good ending’. We have designed our game with a rather long story, one that has missions, tasks, perhaps even a mystery or two. Since this is a long story, the payoff the player is waiting for is rather big. Now, we all know the classic way of doing that.
We have to close everything that we opened. If there are tasks, they need to be resolved. If there are mysteries, they need to be solved. If a solution/ending closes all that has been opened, then it is good and satisfactory to the player. The player feels satisfied. He feels not only a sense of closure, but also a serotonin hit of having witnessed and liked something extra-smart.
Good endings, therefore, go for the head, not the heart. In addition, good endings should have an emotional core (we’re going to cover that next week). But although both of these are satisfying, neither is beautiful. Let’s add something new. Let’s add a feeling of great beauty to the ending which is already good.
How Do We Achieve Beauty?
Here’s a small caveat before we go on. In the articles so far I’ve given you borrowed knowledge – knowledge from theater theory, comedy theory, film theory, and prose theory. This time I’m offering something I came up with on my own. You can take it if you want. You can dismiss it as ridiculous. It’s up to you. Personally, I believe it’s true.
Here’s how I came upon it. When I finished writing my last book, Secret Thoughts, I decided to write a novel about fairy tales that explored the nature of beauty in story. The more I wrote, the more I tried different types of beauty, and the more I achieved beauty, the more I tried to find its secret. I think I came up with a few solutions. This article is about one type of beauty: beautiful endings. (If you’re curious, this new novel is currently seeking a home.)
I said all this because I can’t give you classic examples of what I mean. The only examples I can give you are ones I wrote. So bear with me. I’ll give you one example, one fairy tale, which we can take as an example and proceed to learn from it.
Here is a fairy tale, retold (not phrased as it is in the book): Once upon a time, there was a beautiful woman who possessed glorious charm and liked to dress in the most glorious red skirt. Magnifying her glory even further was the fact that wherever she went and whatever she did, the wind always played with her skirt. Even when there was no wind anywhere, her skirt would catch an uplift of a wind. Even when she was at home and all the doors and windows were closed, the wind, out of nowhere, caught her skirt.
And so, one day, she went to the king and claimed that she must be under some sort of curse. The king listened to her story, then told her he would take care of it and asked her to wait in the hall. While the woman waited in the hall, the king called upon the wind. The wind appeared before him, and the king asked him plainly, what are his intentions towards the girl? The wind answered that he did not care for the girl at all, but rather he was in love with her glorious red skirt.
And so the king decreed that the woman relinquish her red skirt and wear other clothes. And the king gave the red skirt to the wind. And so, if you ever see a beautiful red skirt dance in the wind by itself, know that you are witnessing one of the greatest romances of all times.
--All right, that’s the story. Here’s the reason most people would find the ending beautiful. The solution of the story solves not only the problem that needed solving (the girl had a problem with her skirt), but an entirely different problem at the same time, one that you were not aware needed solving until you read its solution (what does it mean when you see a skirt dance in the wind by itself).
I propose that the feeling of beauty is evoked in an ending when the ending resolves not only that which has been plainly opened, but simultaneously solves an entire and equal set of problems that only reveals itself as problems when solved.
Cerebral beauty comes when everything is solved (the classic ending). Emotional beauty comes when everything is solved plus another level of unknown mystery is solved at the exact same time.
It’s a strange and new concept. Take a while to think about it. Read the story again. Analyze your reactions.
How Do We Apply This to Your Game?
Think about everything that needs solving. Is there a way to solve everything plus a whole set of mysteries which you didn’t even think about? Can you solve them at the same time with nearly the same solution? Can you come up with a better solution to your mysteries/problems, one that includes the problems you’ve raised as well as an entirely new set of problems? If you can, your endings will become beautiful. (You need to do it seamlessly, of course, and to make it a natural part of your story.)
Think of beauty as superior logic. Regular logic solves everything that needs solving. Beauty is instinctual and it recognizes the ultra-intelligent: solving Everything Plus.
This is a radical concept, but it works. I applied it not only to other tales in my book, but to the ending itself. I sought and found a greater solution than the one needed, and the ending was so much the better for it.
Like I said. It’s a new concept. Take your time and think about it.
Next time we’re going to cover the third way to make beautiful endings.
[As always, 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. There’s already a queue forming.]