Being a Better Writer: Creating a Good Stinger

Wow, today’s post is off to a late start. But I’m okay with that. You know why? Because last night I got the first full night’s sleep I’ve had since I cracked my ribs over a week ago and tore my ab muscles all apart. They’ve finally done enough healing that rolling over doesn’t wake me up, and as a result, I finally slept without waking up every half-hour to roll over.

It feels odd, but man does it feel good.

Now, today’s post will probably be a little shorter (perhaps more in line with some of the older posts), but in the end I guess we’ll see. Today I want to talk about a relatively recently popularized element of story-telling: The Stinger. What is it? What makes up a good one? How do you use it? And do you even need one?

Let’s find out.

First, we need to have some clarity. Let’s talk about a few things that are not stingers, so we can make sure we’re all on the same page.

Have you ever read a book or seen a movie where everything ends or stops abruptly, perhaps while the action is still going on? For example, if you were one of the many who played through Halo 2 upon its release, flying through the game’s story, you may have been stunned to find that the game just stops after what seems like a set-up to load the next part of the story (you weren’t alone in this; many still regard that ending as one of the worst).

Maybe you haven’t had the unfortunate experience of coming across one of these. If so, count yourself lucky. But this kind of abrupt ending? Not a stinger. It’s just an abrupt ending, one that often fails to resolve a majority of the questions presented in the core plot, often as attempted hook for a sequel of some kind.

Speaking of which, a proper sequel hook isn’t a stinger either. A sequel hook is when a story resolves most of its plot, but then leaves an avenue open for the next story to springboard off from. For example, take The Empire Strikes Back and compare it to the opening plot of The Return of the Jedi. Empire ends with a number of failures on the part of the main cast, but it then resolves those failures as well as showing that in the end, the entire rebellion, the side the audience is rooting for, has gotten back together and is finally safe for the moment, so we can relax. In addition, during that final sequence, after wrapping up most of the plot threads, the main characters resolve to go after Han and rescue him, with the finale shot being a portion of the main cast standing safe at last as they watch several other characters head out to track down their missing companion.

Great sequel hook. Everyone walks out of that story feeling like everything was resolved, but also having a good idea of where the next installment in the series is going to head: Rescuing Han Solo. This will be their final impression of the story, these good feelings mixed with a direction for the next installment of the series.

Now, sequel hooks can be more or less urgent than this (and often, this is a mark of the writer’s talents). For example, one book I read ended with what had to be the worst sequel hook in my recent memory: The plot had been all tidied up (a little too neatly, IMO), the characters had all been saved, the villain had lost, yadda yadda yadda, they’re riding out of the city and—BAM! Arrows rain down on the characters from the woods, several of them are hit, the main character is thrown from his saddle, a new villain (possibly) presents themselves as the characters lay there bleeding … and the story ends with a prompt to buy book 2.

I never did. This is a sequel hook handled in a very ham-fisted way (no lead-in, no support from the rest of the book’s story, etc). It’s a bit like the old action serials, where the main characters would suddenly be in peril right as the episode ended, only to get out of it at the start of the next episode and back into it at the end, just to keep you listening (or watching, as I hear this is basically the formula for The Walking Dead).

Right, still a sequel hook though, even if those aren’t as well done as the example given in The Empire Strikes Back.

Now, can you make a missed opportunity for a sequel hook? Sure. You can see one in the first of the two final Harry Potter films. When the main characters reached the cottage, I could see in my head exactly how it was going to end: The story had reached a good ending point. The characters were safe for the moment, even if one had died, and they had been given the keys they needed to start the next “step” of their journey. Like in the book, I expected the characters to sit down and discuss what was going to come next as an end for the first “part” of the movie. That’d be a good sequel hook. The characters are safe, plot lines have been tied up, and now all you need to do is give the audience an idea of where to go next so they know what to expect when the sequel rolls around.

Amazingly enough, they didn’t do that. It just ended. Not poorly, as it had resolved the immediate action and tension, so it wasn’t an abrupt ending. But it somehow missed its chances at really giving the audience an idea of what to expect next. Even stranger, they started out the next film with the characters sitting around a table discussing what to do.

So, sequel hook: Wraps up most of the plot lines, dissolves the tension, and then offers the audience expectations of where the next installment in the story will go. A useful and commonly used tool in the writer’s toolbox. But … not a stinger.

So then, you may be asking. What about an epilogue? Is an epilogue a stinger?

The answer? It can be. At the same time, and epilogue can also be a sequel hook, or even just a way of tying up the last few threads of a story that the primary characters couldn’t see the end of in their own respective scenes. Epilogues are an interesting beast, usually a chapter that takes place in another time or place after the “final” chapter in order to offer some explanation or reassurance that that the primary plot couldn’t. For example, an action-adventure in which a hero faces down a dark evil may end with the evil defeated and the peril over, but a few unanswered questions like “What if the evil comes back?” And then the epilogue may be set years later, with an older, wiser, now at peace hero looking back at the long years of peace and essentially saying “Nope, it never did.” Oh, hey, look.Harry Potter again, though that wasn’t what I was thinking of when I was writing it.

Now, could an epilogue be a stinger? Yes, it can. I’ve done it myself. But that does not mean that an epilogue will be a stinger, nor that they are two distinctly tied-together components. An epilogue is a way to give your story a “closing out,” so to speak, if you wish it. Or it can be a way to drop a stinger in your audience’s lap. But that alone doesn’t make it a stinger.

Epilogues are not a stinger.

Alright, alright, so we’ve covered some ground. We’ve established that an abrupt ending is not a stinger. Nor is a sequel hook. Or an epilogue. All of these things are tools, but not one of them is the specific tool that a stinger is. So … with all that groundwork in mind, at long last let’s finally get to the core of what was promised today:

The Stinger.

So, first of all, there’s one burning question that needs to be answered. After going over all these things that a stinger is not, now we need to know what a stinger actually is (and many of you are probably reaching for torches and pitchforks on the odd case that I delay once more).

So, here we go. A stinger is a last-moment twist, a sudden revelation, answer, or even appearance that turns the ending of the story on its head, reveals that things maybe aren’t quite as happy as the audience was led to believe, that there in fact may be much more to happen, or much worse coming. It’s a small, tightly contained final reveal of some kind, a reveal designed to not just make the audience think, but to shock and surprise them. It can often leave the audience on a tense note, rather than a relaxed one.

Right, what makes this different from say, the sequel hook or the abrupt ending? A few things.

First of all, a sequel hook will happen during the wrap-up phase of a story. A stinger doesn’t happen then. A stinger wants to catch the audience by surprise, and so it waits until all of that is over. Which is why you see a stinger happening during or after a film’s credits or during an epilogue, for example. Traditionally, the audience (and the narrative) should be safe during that moment. And then comes one line that throws everything into doubt, adds a dark subtext to the victory, or even just pumps the audience up by rewarding them with some hidden moment of awesome.

Point is, a stinger happens after the story has already concluded. It’s something that could be removed completely while leaving the core story the same, but once added in at the end, gives it extra meaning.

Now, you’ll note something about that last sentence. The stinger gives the story extra meaning. This is the mark of a good stinger. After all, there are plenty of stingers out there that are just dropped hints at “Oh no, here’s a big bad!” And to be frank, most of those can work. But the best stingers, the good ones? They’re ones that build off of what the story offered as a whole and add meaning to it. They reference elements of the story that readers thought or assumed the understood, or maybe even had dismissed as irrelevant, and reveal a  whole subtext beneath them.

For instance, let’s look at Rise‘s stinger. Rise is all about a team of highly skilled individuals tracking down what basically amounts to a case of industrial espionage and a hostile corporate takeover. And all through the story, elements are presented, given, and explored to follow the story to its end. However, it’s during the stinger that a few lingering questions are answered, and the real mastermind behind the entire operation is revealed: The individual that reader’s and the primary characters had been led to believe (on this individuals word, no less) was the actual originator of the ploy, and they’ve got plans. Lots of them.

Now, while the core story of Rise still resolved itself, suddenly some of the background elements took on all new meaning, and the bits of the plot come together in all new ways. A good stinger can be a bit like a pair of colored glasses with one those old children’s activity books: the reader puts them on and suddenly sees a pattern they’d not seen there before … but had been there all along, just visible beneath the surface.

A good stinger is made up of these elements. And this is where so many modern attempts to use a stinger go wrong: They want to use the stinger as a last-second sequel hook. But that’s not what it is. If you want to write a good stinger, you’re going to plan it from the beginning, lay the foundations of that final, sudden sting from as early as possible. Not only does this add real weight to the eventual sting, but it also turns it into a reward of sorts for the truly dedicated fans among your audience. An average reader will enjoy a stinger, think to themselves “Hey, that makes sense,” and continue on, while a dedicated fan will find the stinger and then look at all the points the stinger is relevant to the story, eventually unfolding to themselves a larger narrative (and in turn becoming a little more buried in your work).

Now, a note on this. A good stinger does not betray the audience’s experiences with the story. If your stinger makes everything, or even a large portion of the story as it happened, irrelavent, then you don’t have a good stinger. What you have is an element that will make your audience angry. A stinger needs to support the narrative you’re already establishing, raise the stakes, reveal things that were only hinted at, but under no circumstances should it invalidate the story you just told.

For example, lets look at the stinger that, for many, was one of their firsts. Marvel’s The Avengers. That is a stinger that works perfectly. Why? Because it supports the entire story thus far. Throughout Avengers, it’s made very clear to the audience that Loki is the big bad and that he’s working with the Chitauri to pull of his master plan … or is he? There are several moments in the film where it is made clear that the Chitauri do not serve him, and that Loki made a deal with someone high up in their organizational chain. But who and what it is as well as their goals are only ever hinted at, mostly through the interactions of other characters.

And then the audience reaches the stinger scene (no, not the swarma scene, which was more of a joke at those who were waiting for an end-of-the-credits stinger). Suddenly, all those little elements before add up, and we see the face of the one who both Loki and the Chitauri leaders were speaking with. He doesn’t even talk, actually. All that’s needed to get the audience’s blood pumping is this confirmation that yes, someone was behind the whole events of the movie … and he seems happy that things didn’t go the way anyone planned. Now the audience knows who Loki seemed so disdainful of, who was helping him, and who was leading the Chitauri. Questions are answered … but in ways that throw a new light on the rest of the story as a whole.

It’s good. It reveals new things. The story as a whole still stands (The Avengers have saved the world, after all, and that doesn’t change), but quite a bit of the motive behind the world has gained some new meaning. Shocking meaning that the audience will be questioning for some time.

Did it work? Well, judging from the number of YouTube videos out there that seem to come with the sole purpose of diving into the lore of who Thanos is solely for those who saw the film and asked “WHAAA?” I would say yes.

Right. So a stinger is a last-moment revelation or twist that throws new light on elements of the story, and it’s a good one if it’s woven into the story itself (rather than coming out of nowhere at the ninth hour). Now, how do you use it?

First of all, use it only if it’s going to add meaning to the story, which is sort of covered by the elements of a good stinger, but still. Realize that your stinger is going to come after the end of your story. This is where stingers are placed. Now … how “far” after? That’s up to you, and in a digital medium, we have all sorts of ways of hiding this sort of information. For instance, I’ve planned on hiding a stinger after the usual end-text for a book (about the author, etc) at some point in the future, a hidden surprise for those who get curious at the current page marker and look a little further.

Honestly, just make sure that your stinger actually does what it’s supposed to do. It needs to deliver a thirteenth hour revelation, one that ties back into everything that the story has built so far and adds that new meaning. Outside of those key elements, there really isn’t much to the “how” that can’t be determined with practice.

Now, the real kicker: Do you really need a stinger? Or can you get by without one?

Ultimately, that question is up to you. What is your stinger going to accomplish, after all? Is it a bonus, something to make the audience celebrate a little? Or is a narrative twist that gives the audience hints of what’s to come? Or does it just finally tie up one loose end that wasn’t really vitally important, but helps give the audience a sense of closure (along maybe with one last “gotcha”)? Or would it just raise the tension back up in a story that didn’t need a tense ending?

Here’s the thing. Not every story needs a stinger. Rise had one. But One Drink did not. Nor did Dead Silver. And neither does Colony. Not every story needs a stinger. Sure, they might be the “cool thing” right now, but don’t be fooled into thinking that just because it seems like every big author and story these days has pulled the stinger out of their toolbox you need to as well. A stinger is a tool, and as I’ve said dozens of times before on this blog, each tool has its place. Now, is the stinger’s place in your story? You’ll have to decide that on your own after weighing the merits of what a stinger is compared to the type of ending you want to achieve.

So, where does this leave us in the end? Well, now that you know what a stinger is, and what makes up a good stinger, all that’s really left is to put it in your toolbox alongside everything else and wait for the proper time. You know what it is, and you’ve been given the elements that make a good stinger, as well as some tips on where and when to use it. Now all that’s left is for you to decide if you should use it.

Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Maybe a sequel hook is the better choice for your story. Or maybe you don’t need a sequel hook or a stinger at all, just an ending that ties everything up.

In the end, it’s your story, so you get to make the call. Choose well.

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