Every story has that moment when everything seems okay. The dust has settled. The hero has his or her object of desire in hand. And for a moment, there’s peace.
But then all hell breaks loose.
It’s the fake-out ending: that classic neck-breaking part of the story that thrills readers and audience members practically every time.
Here’s how to do it, Hero’s Journey-style.
What is the “Fake-out” Ending?
It’s definitely not the term Joseph Campbell would have used when he studied mythology and identified the storytelling elements that make up the Hero’s Journey.
But it’s what we’ve come to know and enjoy in many of our favorite stories.
Before you can get to your big surprise, you need to set up your story right. That means nailing the Steps of the Hero’s Journey for the first two-thirds of your story:
- Your hero will always begin in some sort of Ordinary World, a place where no one expects much of anyone.
- Then he or she experiences a Call to Adventure that he or she is definitely not ready for, at least yet.
- The hero will refuse that call somehow . . .
- . . . and find him or herself assisted by the wisdom and skill of a Mentor.
- After receiving ample training, the hero will cross the boundary between the familiar and the foreign, the Threshold, voyaging into the new world in order to begin his or her quest.
- The story then enters the sixth phase, the world of Trials, Allies, and Enemies. where the hero will make friends, confront enemies, overcome tests and traps, defeat monsters, and prepare for the big challenge to come, known as the Ordeal. That’s where your climax will take place.
- And, of course, before the big climax, there is a moment of Approach, where the hero makes final preparations and often experiences a humble fall, where his pride takes over or her friends abandon her (for a while).
- Then he or she confronts the big task, known as the Ordeal, and makes a decision that wins him or her the prize.
At this point, your story can go in a number of directions.
But no matter what, it cannot be over. It must evolve into something much deeper and more meaningful, setting up a huge payoff.
And to do that, you need to trick your audience.
Step 9: The Reward . . . Isn’t Very Rewarding
This brings you to Step 9: The Reward. It is here that the hero receives the object of desire he or she has been pursuing in the story thus far.
But it cannot be enough to fulfill the conflict in the story. That’s because your hero must have an internal need that the object doesn’t satisfy.
To illustrate this, let’s look at four of the most common Rewards that heroes pursue and acquire during the Ordeal.
I call them the four W’s.
Sometimes the prize is a pile of money, or a “reward” (think Han Solo in Star Wars). The hero will succeed in the Ordeal and be rewarded for it in cash.
Yet the story isn’t over because deep down we all know that there is much more to life than money. Money, and the pleasures it can purchase, rarely satsify the internal needs of our hearts. So the story cannot end here.
Often the hero will be pursuing a mighty weapon that will help him or her vanquish the villain. Excalibur. The Master Sword. A gun with a really big name.
While weapons tend to deliver an artificial sense of power, humanity again knows that true power lies within. Real power is found through self-discipline and mercy.
So the story cannot merely end with the acquisition of a weapon.
Another common reward is Wisdom, or information that the hero needs. This can be an answer to a question or a meaningful secret:
“What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”
“Obi-wan never told you what happened to your father . . .”
“No, I am your father.”
And with this information rarely comes the peace the hero is seeking. There is always new conflict to be settled. As Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
So the story cannot end even with an answer to a deep, troubling question.
Sorry, ladies. Most mythology was written by men for an audience of men. This is the root of the “Damsel in Distress” archetype. That’s why we have Faye Dunaway in King Kong and Princess Peach in Super Mario Brothers.
Thankfully this archetype is being flipped on its head, both by storytellers giving these damsels more independence and utility (think Princess Fiona in Shrek) or by putting male love interests in peril so the female hero can save the day (Wonder Woman).
Yet saving the damsel doesn’t fulfill the ultimate need for justice and peace. It merely satisfies a brief and temporary want.
And that’s why the story can’t end yet.
Step 10: The Road Back (IE, The Ending That Isn’t)
But you can’t let your audience know your true intentions yet.
That would rob them of the shock and surprise.
That’s why there’s Step 10: The Road Back.
The Road Back is a somewhat open-ended step that takes a variety of shapes and forms depending on the storyteller and the culture of the myth.
But in general, it is a short period of false satisfaction while the hero returns home (either at a walk or a sprint). The hero thinks that because he or she has acquired the Reward (the object of desire) that the adventure is over and the evil is defeated.
Yet he or she knows, and reveals in subtle ways, that the Reward isn’t nearly as satisfying as he or she thought it would be. Sometimes this dissatisfaction manifests itself as a slow boil. Other times its appears as sheer terror as the villainous Shadow, furious at the prospect of defeat, chases the hero and swears revenge.
Another variable is time duration. Depending on the nature of your story and the conflict the hero undertakes, the Road Back may be a very long or short part of the story.
In general, though, you shouldn’t drag it out too long. Your audience won’t stand for it. Do so, and you’ll be accused of preaching or getting too heavy with your “message.” But it also can’t be too short, or your story will be light on meaning and impact.
Put Them Together: Fake-Out!
When you pair a pleasant-but-ultimately-unsatisfying Reward with a period of unease (the Road Back), you’ll set your reader up for a fantastic conclusion.
(We’ll get to that next time!)
But before you pull out all the fireworks in your finale, you need to set things up properly. And that means making sure your Reward isn’t too satisfying, and your villain isn’t too easily defeated.
What Rewards can you think of from stories you love? What makes them not-quite-satisfying? Let us know in the comments.
Through the course of this series, you’ve written your way to your hero’s Ordeal. Now, take fifteen minutes to plan their Reward.
What is the hero’s object of desire? How might it be pleasant to win, but ultimately unsatisfying? What would they say once the object has been acquired?
Journal these reflections and post them in the comments below. Be sure to leave a constructive reply to someone else’s comment!