Welcome back to my series on endings! Today, I want to talk about the importance of what I’m calling the final battle, which is really where your protagonist and antagonist finally deal with the major conflict head-on. Your hero fights the dragon, summits the mountain, looks the villain straight in the eye and wins — or, for a certain kind of story, loses.
This can go terribly, horribly wrong. My favorite, or, I guess, least favorite, way that this happens is when it basically doesn’t happen at all. It’s not enough for your character to catalyze the final battle: they have to be there, they have to fight, and we as readers need to experience it with them.
Enter The Hunger Games. While Mockingjay had some great stuff in it, it committed an unforgivable sin to me in this category. The rebellion has Katniss all ready to assassinate President Snow, the creepy, powerful villain who’s been so well set up for us throughout the series. But at the last moment, she realizes that killing him is just her being manipulated, and so she turns and shoots Coin instead.
That part’s all well and good. A nice twist, actually. It’s what happens next that’s the problem. After her stunt, guards converge on her and she blacks out. But Snow, a villain not only to the rebellion but specifically, personally to Katniss, still dies. The government still falls. But Katniss isn’t there to see any of it, and so neither are we, the readers. We get told about it secondhand as Katniss sits in custody.
It’s possible that Suzanne Collins was attempting to make a thematic point, but it felt like lazy writing. Final battles are hard. A showdown between two characters with so much built between them is difficult to get right. But deciding not to have a showdown at all is not the answer to that problem. It leaves readers feeling like the cathartic moment they’ve been waiting for all book (or series) never happens, and that your protagonist does not, in fact, have the agency to carry a story, and maybe never did. That’s not the impression you want to leave your readers with.
In contrast, here are some examples of great final battle showdowns:
- Star Wars (film series): Obviously, the lightsaber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader is one for the ages, and for good reason. Our protagonist finally goes up against not only one of the best villains in all moviedom, but his own father, and ultimately wins. It’s everything you could want.
- The Drowning Game, by LS Hawker (novel): There’s a deeply cathartic fight scene here between the main character Petty, who’s been shut in and underestimated her whole life, and the creepy, horrifying dude who’s the villain. It involves Krav Maga, so you know it’s good.
- Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (novel): The final battle doesn’t have to be a physical battle. In this book, the final battle is more about the protagonist finally overcoming his inner demons that have haunted him throughout the story. One the one hand, he “loses” what could seem to be the main conflict (he gets arrested) about two-thirds of the way into the book, but at the end, he battles and overcomes his own self-loathing/self-worship.
- The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis (novel series): I can’t talk about final battles without mentioning The Last Battle. I love fantasy, and so I’m a fan of a good, old-fashioned battle between the armies of good and evil, with good coming out victorious. There’s also the allegorical resonance of Lewis’s not-so-subtle Christian influences that come out in full force in the big finale.
- Star Trek: Voyager (TV series): While I didn’t think the finale to Voyager was everything it could have been (because I was spoiled by TNG), it did culminate in both finally overcoming the main conflict (getting back to Earth) and winning a strategically vital victory over the Borg, a major series villain, through the skills and ingenuity the main characters had built over the course of the show.
My list is weighted on the side of pretty literal final battles, since fantasy and sci-fi are my main fictional loves, but they can also be internal (Crime and Punishment above). The point is that your main character must face the villain or conflict straight-on, in scene, and actively. Your readers will thank you for it.
For more, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, and take a listen to our podcast episode on endings.