Meaningful stories leave you with memorable solutions to complex issues.
A story shouldn’t stand behind a podium and spell out the lessons you’re supposed to learn from it. But it should tackle complicated questions and conclude after the characters have embraced (or, in some cases, rejected) the answers. That’s why resolution, the literary term for a story’s ending, contains the word solution.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the gripping narrative examines how good defeats evil, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find weapons to counteract evil in the real world: hope, courage, and loyalty to goodness itself. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina asks whether romance is the supreme dogma to live by—more important than family, marriage, and society itself—and paints a portrait of a woman whose infidelity results in tragedy, proving that her answer was faulty.
You may not have noticed while you were immersed in the characters’ misadventures, but the themes in Tolkien’s and Tolstoy’s novels form a circular pattern that’s universal to storytelling. Problems are deconstructed, and solutions built. You can strengthen these parallels in your own stories, and I’m going to demonstrate how, but first I’ll explain how the technique works in detail.
Ring structure is a storytelling theory that gives shape to the process of asking and answering a thematic question through the characters’ diverse experiments in living. In sum, the theory states that solid plots have a circumference that spans scenes, novels, trilogies, and even sagas. Why? Because the path of problem solving is fundamentally a mirrored arc: original situation(1), problem(2), exploration of the problem(3), midpoint insight(4), exploration of the insight(3), solution(2), aftermath(1).
According to Tomas Pueyo, who hosted a TEDx talk on this topic in 2018, ring structure isn’t just a useful trick. It’s foundational to an effective, evocative, and edifying story. As the climax approaches, the tension rises because the protagonist is facing his original problem, except now he possesses the knowledge or skills to overcome it. Many stories contain multiple problems of varied importance and therefore multiple solutions, but overall the outline is still roundish.
Why Mirroring Is Powerful
Ring structure ensures that you depict a clear contrast between a story’s beginning and ending. Without picking up the pen of a preacher, you’re able to reveal solutions through a combination of character growth and thematic struggles that lead to specific conclusions.
A generic story begins with an inciting incident that establishes the protagonist’s goals and often the obstacles preventing her from reaching them. By the end, she’s acquired the virtues, items, or skills she once lacked—whether a magical ability, better worldview, positive trait, or even all three. In other words, she entered the story with a question she couldn’t answer, and she exits with the same question but also an answer.
The Silver Chair promptly introduces Eustace and Jill, their predicament at school, and the Narnian quest that they’re suddenly ushered into. Gradually, their reactions to the danger they encounter as they search for the missing prince spotlights the central question: Should they cling to fear or faith? During the climax, they decide to believe that Aslan is guiding them, and the story starts to resolve itself both thematically and practically. If you trace their steps backward from that moment, you’ll remember that they leapt into Narnia while fleeing from bullies. And if you follow them forward, you’ll see the joyous fruit of faith: they return to their own world and fight back against the bullies.
Mirroring encompasses a whole story, but it’s especially conspicuous when you compare the first and last scenes. In the space between those two points, members of the cast will break down the thematic questions that were posed earlier on. A mirrored resolution carries the protagonist and company back to the beginning, drawing attention to all of their accumulated growth and losses. Readers will detect the intended message much more easily—if they’re willing to invest the effort. You won’t need to add even a hint of moralizing or sermonizing. What they were after all along was not just the mental stimulation of a riveting plot but the catharsis of both witnessing and experiencing change.
If a character begins your story friendless and alone, end it with him surrounded by loved ones. If he begins fraught with worry, end with him resting in hope. If he begins proud and calloused, end with him grieving because of his own compassion and self-sacrifice. A thematic resolution is probably the biggest emotional punch you can pull because the sensation will linger with readers after they shut the book. Make callbacks to the themes you touched on at the beginning to underscore your protagonist’s transformation.
3 Mirroring Methods
You have a wide array of options for bringing your story full circle. Some are obvious while others are less perceptible and deserve teasing out at greater length. I’ll describe a few of my favorites that you can use as inspiration.
1. Physical Return
One of the best examples of this is in the resolution to Lord of the Rings. When the four hobbits walk into the Shire, it’s radically changed from the happy place they left. But they’ve radically changed too. The cosmic battle against spiritual evil has equipped them to drive out the shadows in their own backyards, offering readers a beautiful glimpse into who they’ve become.
A homecoming may seem like an undramatic and perhaps even expected occurrence, but that doesn’t diminish its impact. Sometimes simplicity is more poignant than intricacy. Stories that employ this technique are most of the books in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Fabry’s The Promise of Jesse Woods, and even a work as ancient as Homer’s Odyssey (when paired with the relevant part of the Iliad).
2. Scene Recreation
This method is usually recognizable and coupled with a physical return, as in The Lion King. The movie begins with Rafiki presenting Simba to the kingdom on Pride Rock and ends with a reprise of that scene featuring Simba’s daughter, Kiara.
Also consider The Promise of Jesse Woods, which begins and ends with Matt in everyday conversation with Dantrelle, the neighbor kid. Matt’s internal thoughts and attitudes show that he has undergone a whirlwind of self-discovery.
Not every story can afford to haul the protagonist back to old ground, however. A reunion, even if the setting and circumstances are different, can have a similar effect. Perhaps your protagonist and his best friend battled enemies side by side during the inciting incident. If this friend dies, your protagonist could later visit his grave to reflect on the past. They may be separated by eternity, but at heart they’re still connected, and readers will feel as if they’re reliving the moment they met the two characters.
When crafting your resolution, draw ideas from your beginning scenes. If possible, clone the core elements (oftentimes in complete emotional reverse) to accentuate character development. This will lend a sense of foreshadowing and intentionality to the whole story.
3. Inverted Events
Of the methods that I’ve listed, this one is the most subtle since the beginning and ending images are not identical. The classic movie The Godfather opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral, and the two extremes emphasize how much violence has erupted in the intervening time.
If your story begins with the protagonist mourning the loss of a family member, in the ending he could celebrate the birth of a child. My short story “Endbringer” begins with the protagonist killing someone and ends with him caught in the throes of death. Fawkes by Nadine Brandes begins with the protagonist traveling toward London and ends with him departing the city as a wiser, braver person.
Hundreds of opposite yet thematically related scenarios can be positioned at either end of a novel. Take full advantage of this at every opportunity you have. Even if readers aren’t conscious of the allusion, you’ll increase your resolution’s emotional intensity.
An Arc in the Mirror Makes a Ring
Ring structure fascinates me because it supports a belief I’ve held for a long time and expressed in my very first article for Story Embers: fiction is supremely useful.
In essence, storytellers are artistic problem solvers, asking real questions to real human issues and proposing myriad answers through a collection of characters. When we slip into preachiness, it’s because all of us understand that our goal isn’t merely to entertain but also to teach. What we fail to realize, however, is that stories are deeply influential. We’re wired to remember and process stories as learning experiences that involve the whole person—mind and heart.
A story’s resolution ties all the threads together. It culminates character growth, laying out the aftermath of the protagonist’s choices. We don’t tack it on because readers need some kind of closure. Rather, it’s the pinnacle of truth that the story has been climbing toward all along.
If we’re doing our job right, our stories will end with memorable solutions to complex issues. Sound familiar? It should, because we’re right back where we started.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.