I’m not really one to spout “rules” about writing, other than the golden one about sitting your butt in the chair and actually WRITING. The big lists I often see published about “the way things should be done” tend to get on my pecs. Everyone writes differently, and often the best books are the ones that break the rules. However, I do have one rule that’s pretty much inviolate.
Victory must come with a price.
It’s an extraordinary series that can end with the Dark Lord™ cackling maniacally upon a mountain of heroic corpses and still satisfy the reader. In our heart of hearts, we all know the good guys are eventually going to kick ass and drink lemonade. This is given. What makes an ending compelling is when our heroes have to pay an extraordinary price for that glass of fizzy lemon-flavored water.
If it’s simply a matter of a training montage and swinging a magic sword about for a moment or two, the victory has been bought cheaply and will fell cheap to your reader. However, if the hero pays some horrible toll, something that truly matters to them, that tears them up so badly that victory is almost as terrible as defeat, then you’re onto a winner. You’ve achieved zen mastery if you can make your readers believe, if only for a second, that there’s a chance you hero will actually fail. If they find themselves wondering “how the hell are they going to get out of this?”
I really loved Joss Whedon’s Firefly series, and the movie Serenity that closed the series out. And one of the things Joss said in the Serenity commentary that I’ve never forgotten was about (SPOILERS) the death of Wash.
Wash was this lovable, goofy dude who played with dinosaur action figures on the bridge of his spaceship; probably the most upbeat and likeable of the entire crew to my mind. And just before the finale of Serenity, he gets killed. And not just killed. I mean brutally, BRUTALLY murdered. And when asked about it, Whedon said he killed Wash to make the audience believe the heroes could lose. And it worked, because if a lovable goof-ball like Wash wasn’t safe in that finale, then NOBODY WAS.
So here is my rule about endings and you may take it or leave it as you wish. For your victory to be compelling, believable, and above all, satisfying to your reader,
bitches gotta die victory must come with a price.
How about y’all? Can anyone think of an ending they liked where heroes paid pennies for their lemonade?
Jay Kristoff is the author of STORMDANCER, a dystopian fantasy set in steampunk feudal Japan, out in Spring 2012 through St Martin's Press & Tor UK.
And yes, his protagonists pay a very steep price for all their lemonade. :P