When discussing how long a scene should be, I mentioned a concept called a scene goal. The scene goal is a step toward achieving the overall story goal.
The story goal is the main character’s goal. It’s a situation or outcome they want and are convinced they need in order to be happy. There can be all sorts of subplots if you want, but the story begins when the main character sets out to achieve something.
In the exposition, the general situation is set up, then the inciting incident introduces a problem.
How the main character proceeds to plan to achieve a goal and then acts to achieve that goal IS the story’s plot (rising action). The moment where this is accomplished, or utterly failed, is the climax, and the rest of the scenes after the climax are showing the character coming to terms with what the achievement (or lack of achievement) means for their future (falling action), and deciding how to go forward (resolution).
Other plot systems (Save the Cat!) or Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey all come down to this basic flow. A character wants something, sets out to get it, meets obstacles, wins some, loses some, wins/loses the big moment, and then has to figure out what life should look like and how to go on from there.
So if you’re wondering where to end the story you’re writing, that’s the answer. End where the main character has figured out what they want life to look like and how they want to go forward from where they are.
Example: genre: second-chance romance
MC1 – wants to save the family business from bankruptcy. MC2 – is the heir of the rival company. MC1 sets out a plan to secure a bidded contract from the local government. MC2’s superior, currently running the rival company, has a bribery scheme in place and so MC2’s company should be a shoe-in for the contract. MC2 is earnest and unaware of the superior’s scheme, and has been given the task of representing the company at the bid meetings. MC1 and MC2 are at odds during the bid process, but it’s a second chance romance. The MC1 and MC2 were lovers when both were in business school. Boardroom enemies but bedroom buddies ensues. Surely they can keep business and pleasure separate, right? MC1 has an assistant who learns about the bribery scheme and tells this to the MC1 who immediately assumes that MC2 is aware of it. There’s back and forth (and a break in the bedroom relationship) as the MC2 tries to defend themself and pursues their own goal to figure out what’s going on. When MC2 learns about the superior’s bribery, they try to find out who on the board knew about it, and if they have a chance of taking over the company now, to save it from going down in the kickback prosecution. MC1 sees that MC2 is basically bringing down their own company, and as the strongest of the remaining bids, MC1’s company will win the local government contract. MC1 will succeed, but MC2 has a company in tatters around them. MC1 goes to the MC2 and tells them MC1 will subcontract a small task to the MC2’s company – as long as the board is cleaned out and MC2 is in charge. This conversation also repairs the relationship and the romance has an HEA.
While this is an extremely limited plot summary, you can see that the story does not go much beyond the MC1 winning the contract and resolving what to do from the fallout. The relationship repair is a side effect of the MC1’s decision to take the fruits of their win and help out someone they’ve come to care about – MC2. The plot arc lives and breathes, begins and ends, on the movement of the MC1’s goal: to save their company from bankruptcy.