When I took a creative writing course in college, the instructor, Ron Hansen, told us that the ending of a story should be surprising yet inevitable. We all stared at him like, Huh? How is that possible? But this advice is perfect. In any story — short story, novel, play, or movie — the seeds of the ending should be set up as the story builds. Through character traits, decisions characters make, hints the author gives… and when the ending hits, readers will think, Wow, I didn’t see that coming. And, after reflection, But now it all makes sense.
Now when I teach creative writing, I always tell my students that endings should be surprising yet inevitable. My favorite example is the ending of The Empire Strikes Back. Remember the first time you saw it? Thinking: What the hell? Not possible! No! Nooooo! And then: Ohhhhh, I see it now. Of course.
That’s why I love the text message above. I wrote, “How was it?” to my youngest son just after he saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His reaction made me incredibly happy. First, because “AMAZING” is what I’ve been hoping to hear about the movie. Second, because “Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected,” is another way of saying surprising yet inevitable.
SPECIAL NOTE: NO STAR WARS SPOILERS. VIOLATORS GO ON THE NAUGHTY LIST.