The Weekly Re-Motivator: Video Game Endings and the Writer

Writing the end of a novel is something like the last stage of a video game.

A really long video game, that you’re playing through for the first time. And you find yourself in the last level — the final dungeon, the Temple that Houses the Big Bad — and all of a sudden, there’s that rush. It’s all been building up to this. There’s that moment of doubt: did I collect enough ammunition? Are all my magic spells charged? Did I re-forge my +9 sword of nerditude in preparation for this? But before you know it, the monster is upon you, and you’re in a fight for your life.

He looks familiar — he’s been hinted at throughout the whole game to this point, after all — but he’s got some entirely unexpected tricks up his sleeve, too, and within a few moments, you’re in the fight of your life. With reckless abandon, you reach again and again into the bag of goodies you’ve been collecting all along: plasma grenades, portable portals, chicken legs that somehow restore your health, hypodermic needles full of spirit energy. One after another, you deploy your best gambits, and one after another, they seem to have a tiny effect but they keep coming up short.

And, ultimately, you probably screw it up. Screw it up badly. You probably don’t do much more than leave a bloody stain on the boss’s knuckles after he beats you down; leave a greasy smear of your DNA on the walls of the temple.

So it is with writing.

You’ve laid the groundwork, you’ve brought your hero(es) to some grand, lofty conclusion, ready to face off with the demons (literal or figurative) that have hounded their every step. They’ve learned some things along the way. The story has built in a certain direction. And the ending you envision is right there, just at the end of the next few days’ worth of writing.

And holy crap, do you screw it up. The resolution to the conflict comes flying out of left field like a meteor, solving the problems but opening up all new ones. Or you realize that the conflict you’ve been building to all along is the wrong one. Or that the conflict is right, but your hero has changed along the way and no longer wants the ending you thought she wanted all the way through.

Luckily, the video game, just like writing, has a reset button. When you get to the end and find that you didn’t pack nearly enough rockets, well, you can just reset to an earlier level, stock up on rockets, and come around to the boss temple again, better equipped to deal with the monster awaiting you. With writing, you can re-write the story as many times as you need to to get it right. No judgment, no shame; you just go back and recreate your story, from the ground up, if necessary.

Point is, I know I’ve felt, at the end of my first novel and again at the end of this one, that I somehow had to stick the landing on the first try. That the ending I wrote would be somehow etched in stone, unchangeable. But nothing is unchangeable. That’s why writing is even better than video games. In the game, there’s only one path to the boss, one ending to shoot for. In writing, the end is whatever you want it to be.

The first time I made it to the last level in Bioshock, I spent nearly five minutes just running from the boss, trying to figure out how I could even find a window in his attacks to do something as simple as aim a gun in his direction. I didn’t want to screw it up, so I simply dropped into survival mode and ran for it. Then I remembered it doesn’t matter if you die in a game, and I turned and threw myself at him with everything I had. And yeah, I died a few times, but I learned the patterns and soon I was able to handle him without even taking a spot of damage.

So here, I find myself in the closing chapters of novel #2, and I’m feeling that same pressure: the ending has to be perfect, I can’t screw it up, I’ll ruin everything if it isn’t all rainbows and dancing unicorns. But to quote Marty McFly, “I’ve got a time machine, I’ve got all the time I want!” Which is doubly relevant, since my story features a time machine rather prominently. So, enough doubting, enough stressing, enough worrying. Time to go screw up this ending so that I can reset and fix it.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.