The stories we write are like life itself.
I’m not referring to how they reflect life – which they absolutely should do – or how poignantly you’ve rendered a character and how powerful your themes may be.
No, I’m talking now about structure and exposition. About what happens. The way we close out our lives is also the way we close out our stories – the ending is held hostage to what happens earlier.
Frustration, pain, satisfaction, peace of mind, business left undone, the state of our relationships – it’s all a function of how we’ve lived and what we’ve done prior to the commencement of the final act.
We must live out our days bearing the weight, and to whatever extent possible, celebrating the essence, of who we have been.
Our entire life, it could be said, is a set-up for how it will turn out in the end.
So it is in our stories – very little changes in the final act. In fact, very little happens that isn’t completely and totally obvious. It’s all just a chase scene culminating in a final showdown.
Most of the time, the hero gets what she or he deserves.
And so it is in the final act of Avatar.
The Structure of Denouement
You’ll find very little substantive structural mentoring in the vast oeuvre of storytelling – including my own work – about how to end a story. There are no Pinch Points to remind us of the central conflict, no new plot twists are allowed, there is no more setting up and foreshadowing. Everything that becomes a factor in the story’s conclusion needs to have been previously introduced and put into contextual play.
You could almost – but not quite – say that the final act writes itself if you’ve done everything right prior to the 75th percentile milestone, also known as the Second Plot Point.
In real life, that’s often when we retire and move to Florida.
You can test this with Avatar.
Imagine walking out of the theater at the Second Plot Point, where the Corporate Boss tells the Security Chief to “pull the trigger,” to wipe out the Na’vi so they can bulldoze their land.
This is nothing other than lighting the fuse for an inevitable explosion of confrontation.
Would you – do you – have the slightest doubt about what will happen next? Didn’t think so.
The evil corporate troops, under the leadership of the sadistic Security Chief, will mount their flying machines and attack the Na’vi. Jake will fight through his status as a perceived traitor to emerge as their salvation, their leader in battle, and in the process win back the heart of Neytiri. The corporate soldiers will go down in flames, and we’ll most certainly see a mano-a-mano confrontation between Jake and the Security Chief, which won’t be pretty, but won’t have a surprise outcome, either.
The Na’vi will be saved, the land will remain theirs, and Jake and Neytiri will, after a trail of bodies and much soap box pontificating, live happily ever after.
Everybody in the theater knows this is precisely what is about to happen.
And with one little surprise, it does. I’ve just described Act III of Avatar, rendered in about 16 scenes, two or three of which are composed of a series of quickly edited intercuts and battle montages.
There is no suspense other than wondering which of the bit players we’ve come to know will die in the coming fight. We know this confrontation is coming, we know Jake will be in the middle of it, and we know that good will triumph over evil.
And because of Cameron’s skill as a storyteller, we know it will work. This is the essence of almost every final act of every thriller story ever told. And with a little less straight-line obviousness, every other genre of story, as well.
It’s not a bad thing, it’s a natural thing.
As writers, our job is to imbue these inevitable ending sequences with pacing, visceral realism and the leveraging of emotions we’ve worked so hard to bring about within our readers. To make sure our thematic intentions receive a strong voice in the way the consequences of certain decisions and actions come to bear on the outcome.
In other words, that everybody gets, to some extent, precisely what they deserve. And that – however it actually ends – there is some satisfaction, justice and peace to be found.
Unless that’s not your theme. Then you can end it with all the darkness you can muster up. Stephen King, Peter Straub and Clive Barker are living like kings by doing just that.
The Concluding Scenes of Avatar
Cameron gives us a couple of nice (if not transparently inevitable; his foreshadowing was a bit on-the-nose here) surprises at the eleventh hour.
First – spoiler alert here – it’s Neytiri that kills the Chief, not Jake. Then she saves Jake himself shortly thereafter . I suppose Cameron could defend this violation of the never-save-the-hero ethic of storytelling by pleading that he’s made Jake a literal martyr for the Na’vi cause, thus completing his character arc in the name of his mythic, archetypical thematic intentions.
Hey, this guy made almost two billion on Titanic, nobody’s gonna get in his face about fudging the rules at the end.
And then, because we’ve seen the attempt to save Grace by transferring her soul from her dying human body into her avatar form – which doesn’t work – we know that’s precisely what Jake’s ultimate destiny will be. Why else put him in a wheelchair? We also know that this time it will work.
So where’s the suspense? Answer: Cameron doesn’t care. The battle is over. He’s all about delivering a big warm hug to your emotional core at this point. It’s the wrap-up, the character-outcome, the parting gift.
Looking back on the story, it’s easy to see that Cameron’s thematic agenda was as ambitious as his dramatic one. The story is rich with environmental proselytizing and religious allegory about the arrival and sacrifice of a messiah-like figure, rendering the story mythic and timeless as it frustrates critics who saw it coming from the opening scene.
So what do we learn from the final act of Avatar?
We learn that the ending makes or breaks itself on the amount of reader empathy and affection that the story has earned up to the point at which it all hits the fan. That empathy licenses inevitability.
We learn that the course of action on the part of both the hero and the antagonist must be in context to, and a natural outgrowth of, their persona and their demonstrated arc. They must have earned their hero status before they live into it.
We learn that we must immerse our reader/viewer into the thick of the fight, to saturate them with the tension that the character experiences, even though we know the outcome.
This is key to making your ending work. The character doesn’t know the outcome, and that’s the source of your empathy and your vicarious emotional investment.
Or, it can work the other way around – character knows, but the reader doesn’t. Just make sure one or the other of these two dynamics is in place.
We need to make the reader root, and ultimately, make them feel. What they feel is your call to make, but your storytelling success depends on how deeply you take your reader into a realm of emotional empathy.
Box office isn’t always a reflection of how well a writer has done that. It could be argued that Cameron – just as M. Night Shyamalan did with The Sixth Sense – placed his bet on another square, that it wasn’t drama as much as it was spectacle and trickery.
Many true mystery stories depend on the latter, which is fine if it also delivers a vicarious ride and a compelling hero.
Either way, though, we learn by paying attention. If it’s a spectacle or a trick, make it the most spectacular trick you can. If it’s reader emotion, use the tools of structure to create the pacing and exposition required to suck your audience into the heat and heart of the drama, and use the rules of character to make that something you can actually, by the time you write The End on your last page, achieve.