Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.
This week’s installment is by M. K. Hutchins.
Endings have always been hard for me. I love setting up worldbuilding and cool plots, but I have a tendency to just stop when all the interesting-to-me bits are done. That makes for a bland finish, instead of something highly satisfying (how grateful I’ve been to critique partners and editors who call me on this).
In any case, I’ve spent a lot of time gnawing over what makes a good ending. And I’ve also seen Toy Story far, far too many times.
Toy Story teaches two really important lessons about endings that have vastly improved my writing.
LESSON ONE: The climax needs to cohesively dramatize the main conflicts, not just any conflicts.
Sid’s house is super-creepy. Woody and Buzz escaping Sid’s house is highly dramatic and action-packed. Heroic deeds, conflicts, stakes.
But for all that, it couldn’t be the climax.
The story isn’t about Sid. It’s always been about Woody’s relationship to Andy, and his antagonism with Buzz. Sid’s only important because he serves as an obstacle for getting to Andy, and as an opportunity for Woody and Buzz to overcome danger together and grow as friends.
So action follows action, and we get the chasing-the-moving-van scene. Will they get back to Andy? That’s the real question. First Woody and then Buzz sacrifice their own safety to help each other out, showing us in a dynamic way how their relationship has really, truly changed.
The writers also nicely nod to other parts of the story while following through on the main plot. We can’t forget about Sid, thanks to the presence of his dog, and the other toys play an important role, too. Everything that came before in the movie has been pointing toward, and ultimately contributing to, this scene.
LESSON TWO: A good denouement demonstrates change.
Okay, sometimes the point of a story is that nothing has changed, but the majority of stories are about life- or world-altering events. To show the reader that what happened was important, show them how things changed.
Toy Story is especially easy to examine because the last scene (listening to Andy open Christmas presents) mirrors an early scene (listening to Andy open birthday presents). Here’s at least some ways these two scenes differ:
*Old House, with all-cowboy décor
*All the toys are super-nervous
*T-Rex is terrified Andy will get a scarier dinosaur
*Mr. Potato Head is disappointed by the lack of a Mrs. Potato Head
*Bo-Peep is flirting
*Woody’s easily Andy’s favorite.
*New House, with cowboy and spaceman decor
*All the toys but the newbie, Buzz, are laughing and joking together. They’ve been though this before and know they’ll be fine.
*T-rex is hoping for an herbivore to terrorize
*A Mrs. Potato head actually shows up
*Bo-Peep kisses Woody
*Woody and Buzz are both favorites. They’re also best buds, ready to take on the world (or just a puppy) together.
Woody hasn’t just personally changed; his environment is different, and his friends are also different and more confident because of his experiences. Some of the changes have nothing to do with Woody directly (like the Mrs. Potato Head). But even so, the short ending scene shows us the impact of Woody’s journey.
BIO: M.K. Hutchins is the author of the YA fantasy novel Drift. Her short fiction appears in IGMS and Daily Science Fiction. She studied archaeology at BYU, giving her the opportunity to compile ancient Maya genealogies, excavate in Belize, and work as a faunal analyst.