December 7, 2018

Cinderella, Mount Doom, and the Plot Dragons

By T.K. Thorne

If, like me, you break out in hives at the word “outline,” plot dragons can lie in wait before you get to the end of your book.  But knowing the ending, even the first draft of an ending, is critical to driving your story.  Two things can help you shape an ending—location and character.

Terrain can be a constriction that limits your plot choices or it can suggest opportunities. Your story may require a specific place or type of location. JRRTolkien (Lord of the Rings) had a super-powerful ring that needed to be destroyed. That meant either a very hot forge or nature’s forge—lava. Lava was definitely the more dramatic choice, so he needed a volcano environment for his climax scene. The trip to Mount Doom pushed the entire plot of the trilogy.

Using a location that is already familiar territory requires less description at a point when you need to focus on what is happening. For her climax scene, Cinderella is home. No need to rehash the general layout or the characters. We can focus on what decisions characters make and what happens physically and emotionally. In Lord of the Rings, the reader has never seen Mount Doom, but by the time Frodo and Sam get there, it feels familiar from the previous references. We don’t need many clues to imagine the bubbling lava, the smell of burning sulfur, and the stark rocky terrain.

Another way to approach the ending is to look at your character arc.  How does she change and how can you show that? Cinderella is a retiring, quiet, obedient girl, but she casts caution to the wind to go to the ball. When the prince appears, she defies her sisters to put her foot in the glass slipper. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo faithfully bears the burden of the ring to the edge of the cliff, but at the last moment, he can’t overcome the ring’s power. At the same time, that power is the ring’s doom.  Tolkien made his ending work in a complex way that satisfies.

Make sure the central character plays an integral part in the solution, either by wits or bravery—or, like Frodo, by failing—but not by coincidence or employing a contrived solution. Cinderella’s decision to attend the ball and be her true self caused the prince to fall in love and search for her. Sure, the fairy godmother could have poofed them together, out of reach of the clutches of her conniving family, but the reader would have felt cheated. Your ending needs to be surprising or, at least, not completely foreseen by the reader and, at the same time, inevitable in the sense that it needs to arise out of what has come before. The reader should say, Oh yeah, I should have seen that coming when Cindy lost her shoe. When Gollum appears at the end of Tolkien’s trilogy and grabs the ring, we are surprised, but it is not contrived. Gollum’s actions are entirely in keeping with his character and previous behavior.

Use location and character to help shape your ending as soon as possible to outwit the plot dragons, keep out of a writing lava pit, and have a happily-ever-after writing your book.
T.K.Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” When she retired as a captain, she took on Birmingham’s business improvement district as the executive director before retiring again to write full time. T.K. speaks on life lessons--how she accidentally became a police officer, didn't end up in a space capsule, and tackled historical novels about unnamed women in two of the oldest and most famous stories on earth, as well as writing a book from the case investigators' perspectives about solving the most infamous church bombing in Civil Rights history. Her writing has garnered several awards, including ForeWord Review Magazine's 2009 "Book of the Year" for Historical Fiction for her debut novel, NOAH'S WIFE. The New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list featured her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE which details the investigation of the 1963 Sixteenth Street church bombing case. Rave reviews have followed her newest novel about the unnamed wife of Lot, ANGELS AT THE GATE, which won the IBPA's Benjamin Franklin Award for historical fiction and an IPPY award. Her screenplay in the film "Six Blocks Wide" was a semi-finalist at the international "A Film for Peace Festival" in Italy. Her website is, where you can read more about her books and sign up for a Newsletter with inside info on her research and adventures. She blogs there, as well, and loves to hear from readers. T.K. writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap.

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