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How do you work with a story with an ending that's obvious from the very start?

Let's say you have a story of a kid who wants to become a F1 champion. You know the ending from the very start.

Is that a bad thing? If it's a bad thing, how do you make up for the fact you know very well how it's going to end without subverting expectation and writing a bad ending or an alienating ending where his dream ends because of a car crash?

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  • Maybe it could be worth it watching a few "Columbo" episodes and trying to study why they're good. "Columbo" is a detective TV series: at the beginning of each episode, a murder is committed, and detective Lieutenant Columbo spends the episode solving the murder, culminating in the murderer's arrest at the end of the episode. But as opposed to most detective fiction, the watcher witnesses the murder at the beginning of the episode and already knows who's the murderer! Each episode is like a verbal match between the principal suspect and Columbo, and predictably ends with Columbo winning.
    – Stef
    Jan 3 at 18:36

5 Answers 5

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When writing to a foregone conclusion, the story is in the path, not the destination.

If I choose to hike the Appalachian Trail, it's foregone that (barring hike-ending injury or other emergency or my own death) I'll get to the other end -- but the adventure is all in what happens along the way. That time I went three days on the trail without food because of a miscalculation, the other time I lost my camp stove and had to eat dehydrated food by soaking it in the bag in cold water for hours, the bear that wouldn't let me pass on the trail, the kinky couple who invited me into their tent but didn't want me to bathe first. There's so much more story in the getting there than in the arrival that you don't really need to worry about the destination being obvious -- as long as the path isn't boring.

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Becoming a F1 champion is the most obvious accomplishment

but not the only accomplishment

What will it cost your character to become a Formula 1 champion? What will they learn along the way? What will they sacrifice along the way? Will the final victory be as enjoyable as they thought it would be? Will their victory be due to their own hard work, or to the help of their friends?

All of these questions are less obvious than "Will your character become a Formula 1 champion?". But for your story, they are equally as important. And they're less predictable.

There are many ways to become a Formula 1 champion. You can be stubborn and selfish and believe that the ends justify the means. Or you can be the exact opposite: be sociable, believe in teamwork, learn from your peers, refuse to sacrifice your principles for a cheap victory, help your friends selflessly and still come out on top. Both of those mindsets can lead you to become the Formula 1 champion.

This is what is going to interest your reader. What kind of champion is your character? Their dream is to become the Formula 1 champion. Will they sacrifice everything for their dream? Or will their dream elevate them?

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You write:

Let's say you have a story of a kid who wants to become a F1 champion. You know the ending from the very start.

Why should every story end with the protagonist achieving their goal?

I don't know what a F1 champion is, but presumably only a minority of F1 contestants become champions. Therefore, in real life most F1 contestants want to become F1 champions but fail.

So a realistic story can depict a kid who wants to become an F1 champion but fails to achieve it.

And if such a story needs to be uplifting or inspirational, it can have the protagonist achieve something else worthwhile.

And sometimes the story doesn't exactly have to be inspirational.

Nancy Kerrigan (b. 1969) and Tonya Harding (b. 1970) were both girls who dreamed of being figure skating champions and wining gold medals in the winter Olympics. In their final Olympics in 1994 Harding finished 8th and Kerrigan 2nd, so they never got the gold medals they wanted.

But there was a 1994 TV movie Tonya and Nancy: The inside story about them, and documentaries in 2014 The Price of Gold and Nancy and Tonya, and the 2017 film I, Tonya.

So people have managed to tell interesting stories about those two athletes who never achieved their highest ambition, winning the gold.

George Armstrong Custer has appeared in many movies and TV shows. In most he is an secondary character, and sometimes a villain as in Sitting Bull (1954) and Little Big Man (1970).

Custer is the protagonist in They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Custer of the West (1967), and Son of the Morning Star (1991) so I guess they count as tragedies. The creators of They Died with Their Boots On really twisted historical facts to come up with a way to make Custer's defeat and death a kind of victory for him.

And in the movie Chief Crazy Horse (1955) the protagonist fails to achieve many of his goals.

So those are just a few examples of stories where the main characters fail to achieve their goals, and yet their stories are told anyway.

Added Nov. 12 2023. A popular writer in the early 20th century, Lord Dunsany, often ended his short stories with the protagonists getting killed.

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  • "sometimes a villain" nice understatement
    – Stef
    Mar 20, 2023 at 11:20
  • F1 in this context means Formula One, and your assumption is correct - as of 2023, 774 people have competed in Formula One, and only 34 of them have ever been champion.
    – F1Krazy
    Mar 22, 2023 at 22:27
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Is the ending really that obvious? I can name no less than three different motorsport films in which the protagonist doesn't achieve their ambition of becoming champion but does gain some other victory:

  • Cars (2006): Lightning McQueen deliberately forsakes his chance at winning the Piston Cup in order to help a wrecked driver cross the finish line in their final race. This is the culmination of McQueen's character development - as he's learned there's more to life than winning - and gives him the moral victory, as his sportsmanship wins everyone over.
  • Rush (2013): Niki Lauda, having made a miraculous recovery from his near-fatal accident at the Nurburgring, decides to pull out of the final race at Fuji Speedway due to the dangerous, torrential conditions. Rival James Hunt is therefore able to take the title instead. This is again presented as the right decision by Lauda, prioritising his own safety over glory (I'll note that in real life, three other drivers also pulled out of that race).
  • Ford vs Ferrari (2019): Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles do achieve their goal of beating Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, but Miles himself is robbed of victory. Having been way out in the lead, he slows down to allow the three Fords to cross the finish line together, and the officials declare Bruce McLaren the winner as he started from further back than Miles and therefore covered more distance. Miles is remarkably magnanimous about the whole thing.

So your story doesn't have to end with the protagonist becoming F1 champion, nor does it have to end with something as bleak as him being injured or killed in a crash. Even if it does end with him becoming champion, there are enough counter-examples that it's not going to be as predictable an outcome as you fear it will be.

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If you feel that the ending is obvious, take that conclusion and run with it. Open the story with the ending—or maybe with something happening immediately before the ending that turns it into a cliffhanger.

Make your reader wonder, how the hell did a member of the pit crew end up driving in the first place? Entice them to find out exactly how a deaf woman that can't communicate with the pit crew by radio ended driving F1. Make them invested in why a car redesigned to suit someone too tall to fit in a standard Formula 1 cockpit would end up having an advantage.

You can give away the what in the ending without giving away the why, and still leave readers wanting to read the whole story.

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