This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.
The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.
I don’t know if there are hard and fast “rules” for writing the conclusion to an epic story. And I have no personal experience in doing so myself, since at the time of this writing, I’m still in the first draft stage of book two of a trilogy.
I have ended individual stories before, and I know that can be challenging. Beginning an epic is sometimes easy by comparison to ending a long tale, but it can be done well. Here are a couple of elements that I’ve observed in well-concluded epics.
Tying up loose ends
This is the most important element to ending most any kind of story, in my opinion – unless the point of your tale is to leave readers with more questions than answers.
Because of its length, and its multiple sub-plots and side threads, an epic’s conclusion can often be relatively long. In Lord of the Rings, several “endings” were gone through before the actual conclusion of Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens and Sam returning to his family.
Similarly, Babylon 5 had several moments when the series could have ended: the ending of the Shadow War in “Into the Fire,” the liberation of Earth in “Endgame,” or the thoughtful, time-spanning fourth season finale “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars.” But there was still more story to tell, and many questions still open.
Yes, even after the series’ conclusion, some details went unanswered. What was Lennier’s ultimate fate? What happened to David Sheridan and the Keeper that Londo left for him? Whatever happened to Lyta? But despite these small hanging details, all of the plot lines were brought to a close – all of the sub-plots, and the main plot of war encroaching on peace.
A sense of conclusion is important for an epic, I believe. Even if there’s room for more story, the main plot has reached an end and the goal has been accomplished. In Babylon 5, the wars are won, and a new era of peace has been ushered in. The tale of war, for now, is over.
This is another important element in concluding an epic fantasy tale. Epics frequently feature a large cast of characters, many of whom are thrust together for the duration of the plot. By the end, some characters may be dead, and all of them have been changed.
It may be appropriate for the story for the characters to return to their lives that were interrupted by the main plot (such as happens in the Lord of the Rings). Or it may be that the characters need to move on to new lives, now that the adventures of the main plot have changed them (this is the case in Babylon 5).
Some characters part on friendly, tearful terms, excited about their new lives – like Sheridan and Delenn’s goodbyes to Garibaldi and Lochley. Other characters part with less joy and hope, because of who they have become during the course of the story: Lennier’s parting with Sheridan and Delenn, or Lyta’s parting with the entire cast.
Spending some time with partings and goodbyes is important for the reader, too, not just for the characters or for the sake of plot. In an epic tale, the reader (or viewer) has spent countless hours and hundreds of pages falling in love with the characters and their world. Goodbyes within the story give the audience a chance to say goodbye, to find closure and contentment in knowing the final path of the favorite characters.
The final fifth season episode of Babylon 5 – “Objects at Rest” – is all about partings and goodbyes, as the characters leave the Babylon 5 space station that had been their home and the crux of the plot. The series finale “Sleeping in Light” – which takes place twenty years after the plot of the series – is the ultimate of goodbyes.
At the end of Lord of the Rings, both the characters and the reader experience the conclusion of a final farewell as the main protagonist Frodo says goodbye to the other characters and to the main world of the story. Likewise, Babylon 5 ends with the main protagonist Sheridan saying goodbye to the other characters, the world of the story, and the audience. Both are bittersweet, but quite conclusive endings.
Never underestimate the power of a well-presented farewell to wrap up an epic story. What is one of your favorite epics and how did it end?
“Every part of this station has somebody’s fingerprints on it, layers and layers of people’s lives. There were times I thought none of us would get out alive. Some of us didn’t. But we did everything we said we were going to do, and nobody can take that away from us.” – Zack Allen, “Sleeping in Light”