The easiest part for most writers is to come up with a premise.
A computer hacker learns about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. (The Matrix)
A serial killer helps an FBI agent hunt another serial killer. (Silence of the Lambs)
The patriarch of a crime syndicate transfers control of his empire to his reluctant son. (The Godfather)
You know what these are without seeing the title. And if you’re ambiguous with a few words, a premise describes multiple stories.
An orphaned boy is raised in the care of a powerless uncle but watched over by an aged but powerful wizard/warrior. When the boy reaches a certain age, the old wizard tells the boy about his true heritage and helps him develop his powers until he is able to avenge his father’s death. (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Eragon, King Arthur, etc.)
That’s the power of the premise—even a simple one can be used multiple times with small variations.
But some writers really struggle when it comes to the back end of premise, resolution. They come up with amazing premises that keep you riveted to the page or screen and then the end is a huge letdown. It should come as no surprise that these writers generally consider themselves “organic” in the sense that they do not plan.
Stephen King believes that the story exists within you and your an archaeologist brushing the dirt away to find the fossil underneath. As such, many of his stories had the exact same resolution.
A killer clown comes out of hiding every few years to kill kids. (It) Resolution: the monster was an alien.
An invisible dome cuts a town off from the rest of the world. (Under the Dome) Resolution: aliens did it.
M. Night Shyamalan has this issue as well. After the brilliant Sixth Sense, he decided all of his movies needed a twist ending (Dr. Crowe is dead, Mr. Glass is the bad guy, The Village isn’t real). I don’t have a problem with that, but if you’re not O. Henry, then this can cause problems.
So, when setting out to write a story that has a good resolution you need to start at the beginning. Yes, you may stumble upon the right ending by writing organically, King nails it in Pet Semetary, but it mostly you’ll get bad endings or obviously tacked-on endings where he just ran out of steam.
(For a better synopsis of this than I can write, go here)
Once you had your premise, you need a goal, something the protagonist has to achieve. Then you set the antagonist up in opposition. Some writers put the cart before the horse and come up with a hero and a villain before they know what the hero wants. That’s fine, but realize that you may realize as your planning that the antagonist is not a true antagonist but may be a contagonist. If you have a story goal, you can more clearly set your protagonist and antagonist against one another.
Once you have these basics, you need a solid climax. To me, this is the hardest part. I almost always know how a story is going to end, which you may think is the only thing you need, but for me it never is. A resolution without a convincing climax is not possible. The resolution flows from the climax, so even if it makes sense with the original premise, if you cheated to get there, your readers won’t ever trust you again.
The reason most climaxes struggle is that they come from outside the MC, and that’s no way to sell a story. You’ve shown your MC as either a tragic or a heroic figure and then you’re going to let the sidekick save the day (Star Wars)? No. The climax is about your MC either changing or not changing a fundamental trait that your story is based on. Andy Dufresne in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption wins because he never gives up hope. Michael Corleone in The Godfather loses because he is unable to stay true to his convictions at the beginning of the novel and turns into his father.
Once you have that decision in place, the resolution follows. If it’s a comedy, it ends happily, and if it’s a tragedy it ends badly. Right before the climax of a comedy, everything should look impossible for the MC. Right before the climax of a tragedy, it should appear that the MC is going to pull it off.
In a poor resolution, these things either aren’t connected, or the final resolution is affected from without instead of within. In Under the Dome, we see Barbie trying to maintain control of the town despite Big Jim’s machinations and the town survives because the aliens release the dome. How is that in any way satisfying?
And it took King three tries to finish this novel? I hate to think what the first two ended like because the last one is awful.
And it’s that way because the ending was never planned from the beginning and King was looking for a resolution that was at least plausible. But why not have the govt in charge of the dome? Why not have Barbie, who is trusted by the govt, realize that he is being manipulated and finds a way overthrow our domestic overlords? That would’ve been a fantastic finish. Just as everything is about to fall apart, Barbie makes a last ditch effort to find the source of the dome. He finds it and it reminds him of some govt research plan from his past military career. He puts two and two together and blows the whole thing up.
I can’t have a post without a Breaking Bad reference. In the final episode, Jesse is at absolute rock bottom. He’s being held prisoner and forced to cook meth for a bunch of new-Nazis. He tries to escape and to punish him they kill his ex-girlfriend, who happens to be a single mom. He knows that this is life. He will cook until there’s no more methylamine and then they’ll kill him.
Throughout the series, Jesse Pinkman has the most dynamic arc. In the beginning, you hate him and want him to die. Slowly, you understand him, then you pity him, and then you root for him. More than anything you want him to get free of all of this.
And when he breaks through that fence at the end, I cheer every time, choking back tears. That, my friends, is resolution.