Deep Story thought of the day. What’s the hardest part of a story? Most writers would say the middle. The second act. We even have a phrase for it: The Trough Of Hell.
But is that true? Sure, the beginning of the story, the first act, is pretty easy. It’s the first thing that comes to you fully formed in most cases. But what about the third act? What about the conclusion?
Now, let me preface this by saying this is a radical statement. Frothing fundamentalist stuff. But for me? I’ve come to believe that the FIRST THING you must do when you take your story from a notion, idea, or logline and flesh it out, is to plan your ending. Before the first act??? Surely I jest!!!
I do not.
If you figure out the third act first, there is no Trough of Hell. There is no first act that’s been rewritten five times. The story becomes…dare I say… easy.
And let’s face it. A great ending will cover a multitude of second act sins. There’s a thriller that was made back in 1998 called Wild Things. It’s a sexy thriller that on the surface looks simple… cheap even. But it’s quite good.
The spec script it was based on was called Seven Minutes Alone I believe, and it was one of the more memorable specs I’ve ever read. I remember getting halfway through and saying to myself “what a piece of garbage, why did my agent send this to me?” And by the end, I thought it was on the level of the Maltese Falcon.
A great ending can do that. And not just in a twisty thriller (but those excel at great endings).
Let’s face it. Endings are hard. Great endings are crazy hard. Which is one reason to focus on them. Another reason is that the power of your ending is what lives in your reader (or viewer) long after they’ve finished consuming your story. A great ending gives your story longevity.
But the biggest reason to cement a great ending first is Setup and Payoff. Setup and Payoff is what makes writers seem smarter than they are. The hero needs to escape the deathtrap at the end? Give them a lighter to burn through their ropes. That’s the payoff. How did they get the lighter? That’s the setup. Is the protag trying to quit smoking? They play with that lighter all the time, reminding them not to smoke. Is the protag haunted by their father-wounding? Is the lighter the one thing of dad’s they’ve kept, and they hold it like a talisman?
Make your ending real. Make it surprising. Make it suspenseful. Make it cost your protagonist. And leave us breathless.
And remember, without a first or second act, you can do ANYTHING!!! And whatever you do, whatever you create, it will tell you a laundry list of things you need to plant earlier. It will give you SYMBOLS to pepper throughout your story, that will create THEMES.
Endings are hard. Do the hard thing first.