There are two important things I want to cover in this article: the first, is how to get your book finished and make sure you have a strong conclusion and plot resolution. The second is how to resolve a plot with multiple main characters and give each of them a satisfying character arc.
To do this, I’m going to do a deep dive through popular movies and TV shows that hit the tropes hard, so they’re clear and obvious, which will make them easier to see – especially when I show you how similar these tools can work for vastly different genres.
Specifically, we’ll focus on two things:
- 1. The drawn out tension and resistance
- 2. The point of change (fatal flaw/transcending limitations)
For a story to be powerful, the external conflict has to put incredible pressure on the main characters, until they are forced to grow and become something more than they were at the beginning. You can do this by setting up the rule or fear or failure early on, and having that be the one thing they later overcome; you can do this for multiple characters.
Then, you can show how critical and difficult this change is, with a long, slow, physical representation of resistance or refusal – opposing tensions that play tug-of-war against the protagonist’s psyche. You also need to stoke the fear and the stakes, by showing the consequences of failure, and that this battle is not over yet, nor easily won.
Snyder’s Cut Justice League – SuperHero
The four-hour “Snyder’s Cut” version of the Justice League movie is a great writing example, because the craft is so obvious and overstated: slow motion, deliberate shots that focus your attention on small, touching details that deepen character’s background and emotional motivations, leading to the point of change.
Each superhero character has a specific unique ability that makes them crucial (this is a big problem, a problem that has external consequences, and all players are “main”). Each of them must act collectively against the point of the resistance (to show how much this matters, that it’s remarkable).
In the final battle, there’s a part where Wonder Woman and AquaMan tug together on the Lasso of Truth. They’re literally forcing against the powers of darkness (darkseid) with the light of truth; vividly showing how much pressure and resistance it’s going to take to resolve this massive conflict. And even then, they are uncertain of the outcome. They have no guarantee that this risk won’t destroy them, yet they have no choice but to do it anyway. Their action and belief are fulfilled, when Superman shows up last minute, representing hope. The victory is surprising and satisfying, only if the resolution is truly in question.
And then, once hope is restored and everything is finally together, and they’re ready for that one moment of transcendent expectation, you need that one extra challenge. The plan fails, the expectations are dashed, at the most vulnerable bit, the panic is profound… the sudden potential for a failure after we’re now so invested and desperate for a successful resolution, puts our hearts on edge. In Snyder’s Cut Justice League, while the whole team is battling the resistance, generating tension,
Cyborg has hacked the computers, and just needs a charge from the Flash, who’s desperately maintaining an impossible speed to do this. Everyone is at their most maxed limit. And it’s just then that some rando alien dude spots and shoots him, sending him into a freefall, losing all that energy he’s been building. Barry (the Flash) gets shot and injured… there’s a slow, pregnant pause, dreadful music, apprehension… what will happen next?
Batman says, “Oh No.”
The enemy says “He’s here.”
It’s all over. It’s too late.
All the physical components are there, but to achieve victory, we need an internal shift of identity as well.
Barry, the one who fails (who cannot fulfill the task), is the only one who can then run fast enough to go back in time and not fail (becoming the one who can fulfill the task). The inability leads to a new ability. He had a firm rule, introduced earlier, and says out loud to himself, “I have to break the rule Barry, and I have to do it now.”
There are existing prohibitions (implicit or explicit) around the necessary task. These existing conditions and limitations must be shattered to make room for new, limitless experiences. He takes a moment to say goodbye to his dad, recognizing that this moment might end him; fulfilling an earlier story question about his core identity: “your kid was one of the good ones, one of the best of the best.”
Each pounding step is echoed by symphonic music of triumph.
“Make your own future,” he whispers to himself. “Make your own past. It’s all right now.”
(Theme/premise of the book or movie, revealed in a dramatic moment of insight.)
This triggers Cyborg’s sudden flashback or vision with the family he’s lost, “you don’t have to be alone anymore, we’ll be together again” says his dead family. “We can put it back. Make you whole again” (exact obvious thing he desperately wants, but must refuse). “I’m not broken!” he responds (point of insight, sudden clarity). “And I’m not alone” (full awareness, confirming the change).
It takes (six) heroes, together, all their strength to defeat their own big antagonist. Each character has their own slow-motion soundtrack that hints of their unique past and experience. But there’s a bigger, meaner antagonist just behind him (the end is not the end). This battle is won, but the future continues with uncertainty (this is a constant battle to maintain truth and justice, that must be carefully tended). Slow motion pan of the attractive lead characters, hair blowing in wind, trumpets, gazing into the setting sun like an old western.
The final battle scene is resolved, when the main characters (those who need the most healing or growth, usually the most human or weakest or most insecure or filled with shame, guilt or anger) heal their core wound or fatal flaw. Then, after the antagonist is defeated, there are some slower, meaningful epilogue scenes where the now-healed characters – changed in the forge of combat – are ready to process and consider new truths.
Cyborg unbreaks the recorded message he smashed from his father; now he’s healed enough to be ready for his dead father’s unspoken praise and love… I’m proud of who you are, of who you’ve always been, I’m sorry, everything breaks, everything changes.
The voiceover continues as the heroes resolve their core challenges and heal their societal conflicts. AquaMan reunites with his family and claims his throne and responsibility, which he had refused earlier. The world is heart, broken… unexchangeable. But the world’s not fixed in the past, only the future the not yet, the now.
Bruce is talking about the future. The now is you. The Flash reunites with with his inmate father, after being accepted into a new job (to contrast with the opening scene where he was failing yet another job interview). “No stopping you now.”
Now, now’s you’re time to rise. Batman and Superman are reunited. Touching show of support and friendship, as Bruce buys back the family farm which had been seized by the bank. Do this, be this, the man I never was, the hero you are. Take your place among the brave ones that were, that are, are yet to be. It’s time you stand (all characters stand heroically, longingly) fight, discover, heal, love, win. Joy and happiness. The time is now…
The plot was about a big fight: defenders of earth against alien planet-destroyers. But the story is about hope, life, friendship, happiness, potential. The rift and conflict was necessary to force the characters to dare beyond their own limitations.
There’s a final cut scene, showing Lex Luther has escaped (opening new potential story loop to get readers thinking creatively on their own). Then there’s a final-final cut scene: an apocalyptic future, opening a new thread with the Joker and Batman. “You won’t kill me, I’m your best friend. You need me. You need me to help you undo this world you created.” A truce is made (Batman makes peace with his inner self and demons). And… Superman attacks. The fulfillment of that hope has unleashed a bigger challenge. Superman is against them now. But it’s revealed to just be a dream. The hint of a potentially terrible future in vivid detail, but a reset to a normalcy where that hasn’t yet come to pass.
And a final-final-final cut scene. The reveal of the wise, kind mentor, who was nudging them along in secret, but can now make direct contact and explain their purpose. “Your mother and father would be proud, Bruce. You’ve united the defenders of earth. There’s a war coming, I’m here to help.” This will often by something like a Gandalf/Dumbledore figure who understands the bigger picture, but refrains from sharing too early… after the conflict is resolved, he can fill in the blanks and story holes with explanation and answers.
What’s the point of all this? Your book should probably focus on a main character’s change or transformation. There’s an inner war, the character’s emotional healing, and an outer war: the conflict that forced the reckoning. If it’s a purely symbolic internal realization, you can mirror that with actual conflict in the real scene. The breaking of a dish, a fit of rage, a sudden ray of sunlight (or a storm… this should not be pleasant, it should be traumatic. It’s a breaking point and spiritual death/rebirth). You can clarify the moment of change, by setting up an illustrative contrast, a before and after, that shows how those internal changes have resulted in real-world consequences or benefits.
Rim of the World – SciFi Alien Apocalypse MG
Once you know these formulas you’ll see them everywhere. In the Netflix move, Rim of the World, a band of young misfits team up to save the world. When they finally reach their goal, delivering a vital key to a bastion of resistance… their contact is already dead. There’s a moment of reckoning, of counting and taking stock of their own limitations.
“Let’s be honest. Who do we think we are? Nerd, A criminal, an orphan, and a joke. We’ve failed guys, it’s over.” They almost separate, disbanding the group because the objective is gone; but then they come together again. The journey forged their friendship. The objective was the purpose, but now they stay together because they want to. That’s it. They’re resigned, even dark for a kid’s movie… “Well, since we’re all going to die together…”
Then with one last accidental chance, they make contact with someone else and tell them they have to key.
“What do we need to get it to work?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing you can do, you need to get out of there. I’m sorry, it’s over. There’s nothing you kids can do against this thing (impossible quest). Now get out of there immediately…”
The main character, the one with the most growth and progress, says simply, “NO.” Defiance, refusal. He will not let other people’s limits dictate what he’s capable of.
“What did you say son?”
“I said NO. I made a promise and I won’t let anything stop me. So I’m going to keep trying, we didn’t come all this way to give up now. We’re done being told what we can and can’t do.” There’s the recounting of the costs, as they tally up the journey and all they’ve been through. “We made it through all that, all we had was each other.”
The hero has been carrying his father’s watch the whole time; the love interest is given a crucial role that depends on four seconds, so he gives her his father’s watch in a symbolic gesture, only made possible because of the arbitrary limitation.
With multiple main characters, each one has a turn, to reveal their critical, sympathizing backstory, usually just before they do something out of character (beginning to change).
“It’s my turn to be the hero.”
They take turns – doing something brave and necessary that is also directly opposed to their personal lack, fear, doubt or inability. The last one to go is the main hero; the one who resists change the most; the one whose change is the most resisted, and which will take the most power.
But this last mission also matches his fatal flaw; someone has to go to the roof.
- “Me, it’s my turn.”
- “But you’re afraid of heights!”
- “Everyone’s afraid of something.”
There’s the moment of potential death, when the hero is aware he may not survive.
- “If I die, tell her I love her…”
One goes into the deepest basement, one climbs to the highest tower (shows the largeness of the conflict, from hell to heaven, in all spaces). Climbing the radio antenna is an exact reversal of the climbing wall challenge the hero failed at the beginning of the movie, which revealed his fatal flaw. Now his personal obstacle matches his personal fear or limitation.
Everyone is waiting on him to do the one thing, just as they were for Flash in Justice League. There’s the external and internal battle. To add urgency, a horde of relentless monsters are climbing up after him, tearing at his ankles, resisting his ascent.
He zipline-escapes at the last moment.
But THEN; they need two people to launch the rocket. The first passes out from an earlier injury when it was his turn. The others are divided, between the basement and the roof. This last character is all alone and he has to… open a safe. We’ve already learned earlier that he has dyslexia and was teased when he couldn’t open a bike lock, so he’s re-experiencing the exact same challenge again. His personal challenge matches his personal weakness.
First the weirdness (can’t open lock) then the backstory reveal (got into trouble for counting). Now, he can’t do it alone. But his friend wakes up to say “I got you bro, I wrote it down” before passing out again. “We are running out of time! I can’t, I can’t…”
There’s a triumphant return of others, and they are collectively whole again. It will take all of them to defeat this.
There’s a 3, 2, 1… countdown, and an interrupting alien at the last second (almost exactly the same thing, by the way, as what happens in the Snyder-cut Justice League).
The hero tosses a completed rubik’s cube, symbolizing he’s healed his fatal flaw and is ready for action.
Now he’s ready for a powerful weapon (seize the sword).
“You can’t kill that thing with a flare gun!”
“No, but I know what can…”
One of the first lines of the movie was science-stuff about rocket fuel, and it’s noticed again on the way in, casually remarking on the critical key that will save the day later.
FINAL FINAL battle: Alex stops the alien and blows up the building with rocket fuel; the others say “I have to save him, it’s too late, it’s too dangerous, you can’t help him.” This one, unique final challenge, Alex must do on his own. But it can’t be quick or simple – here when tension is highest, we finally get the full backstory reveal that shows why this challenge is so hard for this character.
He’s trapped in a smoky room. We’ve had flashbacks throughout the movie of Alex trapped in a room with fire, but we’re never told the full backstory… until this real final moment, the root of his trauma, stuck in a fire, responsible for father’s death because of his weakness, his fear.
Now, he’s stuck with that same conflict, I can’t… this time finally we experience the whole thing, as he watches his dad die. We had to open the wound and clear the infection before it could heal. His father talks to him, “don’t be afraid, you can do this.” He jumps through the flames… there’s hushed silence as the hero is presumed dead… sad music…hanging heads, slow crescendo, then he emerges through the dust and smoke, resolute, victorious.
The Irregulars: Sherlock Holmes steampunky YA
One more just for fun: a bunch of orphans get recruited to help Watson solve some supernatural murders, in this steampunk-fantasy. In the final conclusion, one of the main characters is reunited with a lost parent, only to have to lose them again: they must choose, to save the world or save the parent.
They got the one thing they always wanted, but it’s also the one thing it’s going to cost, the price for success is what they can’t bear to lose. There’s a memory slideshow of moments worth living, to prove that the cost is worth it (I call this the “consideration phase” when the character is wrestling with a traumatizing moral dilemma, tempted on the cusp of near-victory).
There are monsters on outside, which their allies are bravely fighting off, protecting the innocents until the threat can be eliminated by the inner circle; obstacles to the root cause. There’s long, lingering uncertainty when stakes are at their highest. Literal tension and resistance, as they pull and struggle. Each character battles their personal fatal flaw or worst fears.
At the final moment, Sherlock jumps through the rift, following his love and the protagonist’s mother so she won’t be alone; reversing the pain of losing him that destroyed him earlier. Watson grabs him (acting for selfish reasons), exactly as he did last time. But this time, facing the choice between saving Sherlock or saving his daughters, he lets him go – giving up the thing he wants most, but doing his duty – showing the internal change as he makes a new/different decision that symbolizes his growth (this works great for a redemption character, who is kind of a jerk but critical at the last moment).
There’s a long slow reveal to count the dead, and see how is fallen. “Is he breathing?” Schrödinger’s cat/characters, who are revealed to still be alive after a breathless uncertainty.
The first scene establishes his lack – when violent robbers break into his home, even when he has the upper hand and his son is wrestling with one of them, he doesn’t press the advantage, whether from fear or worry, because he has too much to lose. His wife looks at him with contempt. His son is disappointed. Even the cop laughs at him “you don’t even take a swing? If it were MY family…”
It’s not just his lack, it’s the public confirmation and derision, the finger in the wound, the current, exacerbated pain that hurts right now, in the present, and is preventing the protagonist from his own happiness or satisfaction. He is un-whole. This sets the tone. If you don’t have a scene like this… make something up.His neighbor gets a cool new car (mirror or foil brews dissatisfaction with current reality… the alternative life that’s possible). Manly brother-in-law gives him a gun to “keep his sister safe”… you did the best you could, you being you (this is just who you are).
- FIRST make him sympathetic.
- THEN make him likable:
He shows off a hidden and potentially useful talent (extremely detail-oriented, eidetic memory) + (takes care of elderly father).
Resistance: friend says “don’t do what you’re thinking about doing.”
Final straw: he was going to forget it, until he realizes they stole his daughter’s kittycat bracelet.
It is ON. Plot ensues. Reveal about past (former FBI).
It’s basically about a badass guy who beats everyone up, but that would be flat and boring, without a hard-hitting interior character arc as well, which is formed and sustained through resistance.
Likewise, in most TV serials (I’m watching Amazon’s “Panic” right now) the beginning is all, active conflict and tension – what’s happening now. It’s all exciting, with growing stakes and suspense. But then in episode six or so, suddenly it’s both potential couples finally revealing their full backstory, childhood, secrets and fears, vulnerable shares.
Most authors give this stuff up way too earlier, to “explain” why the story matters. But the story needs to matter on its own, through current events. Once you’ve hooked with the unfolding series of dangerous or challenging events, you can finally get to know your characters better just before the final build up to the most traumatic and exciting events.
- Hook interest
- Deepen conflict
- Reveal vulnerabilities
- Allow all the conflicts to boil over
Often the final flash back scene is tied to that final moment of pause, when the character has a precious moment of hesitation, when everything rests on their ability to be faced with their greatest fear or question, a hard limit they’ve never been able to transcend, and this time, because of these circumstances, they are able to choose differently and do better.
Mare of Easttown
One last one as a bonus: Mare of Easttown begins after a tragedy – the main character is a detective, whose son took his own life recently. She’s unable to forgive herself for this event, and throws herself into her work as a way of penance. The crime thriller bounces around with several subplots and mysteries, with dramatic consequence:
- the town can’t forgive her for not finding a missing girl
- another girl is murdered
- a love interest is killed on the case
- her best friend’s son turns out to be the murderer
But the symbolic note, giving the profound and satisfying resolution is simple: her therapist earlier asks if she’s been able to go back into the attic, where her son killed himself – she has not. So at the very end of the series, when all the dramatic events have been resolved, we are shown a scene where she opens the attic door, and slowly climbs the steps.
This symbolizes her healing of the initial wound and fatal flaw; making a literal progression and self-healing by climbing upwards into the dark. The outer story is the what happens. The why it matters is because this broken character needed this profound sequence of challenges to finally be able to begin to let go of her own trauma.
You might say that these similarities are cliché, trope, or a caricature. You’re not wrong, and I’m not suggesting you make your story this obvious. But they are repeated in movies because they represent the most emotionally satisfying form of story-telling. Make sure your author persona or protagonist has gone through a transformative struggle to arrive at deep insights, knowledge or awareness. Find a way to deepen the incidental scenes so that they become instrumental to a deeper purpose, leading towards an identity-shifting event.