This is it. THE signpost scene. The scene that James Scott Bell says is, “the whole point of a novel” in his writing craft book, Super Structure. Signpost Scene #13: The Final Battle.
In the Final Battle, readers (and writers) get to experience the reason they clung to a story in the first place. In this moment, we witness the event in the plot: the showdown that everything has lead up to. The Final Battle ensures there’s resolution; without it, no universal sense of satisfaction occurs. A story needs a Final Battle to close the circle. Without one, every reader is left incomplete.
What is the Final Battle?
First, the Final Battle isn’t always one huge, external fight to the death. In a lot of action stories, it definitely is–but this is mainly because the greatest stake for the protagonist throughout the story has been physical death. Knowing the type of death most at risk for your protagonist can help you identify the kind of event needed in your Final Battle. I’ll talk more about this in a second. Before that, let’s dig into what the Final Battle is.
In his book Super Structure, James Scott Bell asks one major question to describe what readers look for in a Final Battle: “will the Lead muster the courage to fight?” To elaborate, will he/she overcome what they have been fighting against all along in this epic and essential moment?
Throughout your plot–especially in the previous twelve signpost scenes–you’ve created set-ups that have challenged your protagonist and/or cast of characters in a variety of internal and external ways. Boundaries have been pushed to the brink of physical, professional, and psychological death. Antagonists have grown strong, been defeated, and fought back with a vengeance.
In the Final Battle, it’s time to see how the protagonist finally either takes out or falls to this very antagonist. Note, an antagonist can be just as viciously internal as they can be external. It’s all a matter of the type of story you’ve been writing–one that’s either internally or externally driven.
For instance, Lord of the Rings has a ton of internal battles going on within the cast of characters. It’s important not to misinterpret a story that’s dominantly externally driven as lacking an internal battle. Rather, the plot depends on which of these conflicts drive the main expectations of the story. For instance, take the second installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers.
The plot initiated, built up, and unraveled in The Two Towers movie is wild, but if you’re a huge Lord of the Rings fan like me, you’ll probably most recall three final moments at the peak of the story’s climax, or Final Battle scene (which is also fitting, since there are really three storylines happening in this epic). These are:
- The finale at Helm’s Deep (Aragorn’s storyline)
- Frodo’s encounter with the Nazgul (Frodo and Sam’s storyline)
- The Ents attacking Isengard (Merry and Pippin’s storyline).
Despite a whole mess of internal struggles in these moments–all of which require the protagonists to dig deep within themselves and find the inner strength they need to externally take out their antagonists–the major threats for all of these are physical deaths. With perhaps the exception of Frodo. This makes sense, since The Lord of the Rings is, on a global spectrum, an action/epic.
On the other hand, many stories are internally driven, which means that the Final Battle for the protagonist is internally quarreled. External stakes can absolutely impact the outcome of what happens to the protagonist during this Final Battle, but the major showdown in these moments is one that is internally fought. The external factors simply pack some heat to the core emotions and debates going on within the character.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is an example of this, and the story I’ve selected to further analyze the Final Battle today.
The Final Battle in Hamilton
In Hamilton, the Final Battle is inside Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda). He has spent the entire story grappling with his legacy, desperate to write his way into a reputation that raves with success and esteem. A history that will outlive his life, with the intent of future others looking admiringly and fondly back on Hamilton’s contributions to the nation’s beginning.
And yet, *spoiler alert* for anyone who hasn’t studied Alexander Hamilton or seen the Broadway show (or listened to the soundtrack), Hamilton throws away his “shot” in the Final Battle. The story ends tragically, leaving readers with a sense of catharsis at Hamilton’s tragic doom. Hamilton is flawed, and remains flawed as he strives to maintain a higher status, but his major mistake dooms him to a finale based failure despite other significant accomplishments. Here’s what happens:
In the final duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton readies his place in the duel. During this moment, time freezes, and we–as an audience–are given an internal explanation of Hamilton’s thoughts before he makes a decision about what he will do in the duel (shoot Burr or raise his gun to the sky, a dueling tactic called delope).
This makes perfect sense, since the basis of all Hamilton’s major conflicts and the global story itself is driven with a dominantly internal focus. Hamilton wants success but needs self-esteem. All of his conflicts thrive on his obsession with writing his way out of problems and into a legacy that history will value. Unfortunately for Hamilton, his story is doomed to a tragic ending. Yet, these final moments make us privy to his final debate, and show us what he’s learned, what he’s worried about, and why he makes the decision that he does. This is what he reflects. (Listen to the song here).
Legacy, what is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants
Can leave their fingerprints and rise up
I’m running out of time, I’m running, and my time’s up
Wise up, eyes up
I catch a glimpse of the other side
Laurens leads a soldiers’ chorus on the other side
My son is on the other side
He’s with my mother on the other side
Washington is watching from the other side
Teach me how to say goodbye
Rise up, rise up, rise up, Eliza!
These are Hamilton’s poetic ponderings before his death. His obsession with legacy. His gratitude for America. His desperate desire to mark his fingerprints on a valuable contribution that will outlive him. His worry that he is running out of time. His visions of those who came before him and who he has now lost waiting on the other side. A habitual return to his dreams of martyrdom and rising up. And right before he makes his decision–the only person who could perhaps change his plan on what he does next–Eliza, his loyal, compassionate wife.
Instead of staying with Eliza, however, Hamilton raises his gun to the sky–giving Burr the chance to, like him, delope.
Instead, Burr shoots Hamilton right between the ribs.
Hamilton dies poor, and with the reputation as, yes, a founding father and financial genius, but also as a participant in the first sex scandal in America and victim of a tragic duel. Is it his arrogance that kills Hamilton? His refusal to surrender to his pride?
This debate is one that lingers in the audience’s mind long after the show ends. However, it’s the internal focus I’d like to draw your attention to right now, since it parallels the only fitting type of Final Battle for Hamilton.
Because Hamilton is an internally driven story brought to even more life by external stakes. Unlike Lord of the Rings, which is the reverse.
In the next section, I’ll use Bell’s advice to help you identify your own story’s Final Battle.
How can I figure out what my Final Battle is?
Essentially, externally driven or internally driven, the Final Battle is all about sacrifice. Where all stories should contain stakes that risk one or a combination of three types of death–physical, professional, psychological–the Final Battle must show how a protagonist sacrifices or fails to sacrifice something in order to get what they need.
In The Lord of the Rings case, the heroes are at risk of physical death. They want to survive, and they risk their lives in order to get this. The excitement the reader experiences from the story reaches its climax with these final moments of sacrifice (Aagorn riding out to meet the Uruk-hai, anyone?).
In Hamilton’s case, his risk is both psychological, physical, and professional. In his final battle, he remains obsessed with his legacy and how history will remember him. In a way, Hamilton fails to ever really understand George Washington’s lesson in earlier scenes about how history has its eyes on him–i.e. Hamilton won’t get to tell history how to remember him. Hamilton’s death, however, ends tragically instead of pathetically because of his internal reflection in these final moments. The audience experiences catharsis in his loss of life but his final moment, where he chooses to–for the first time–drop his pride (he delopes), a drastic difference compared to most, if not all, of his choices prior to this duel.
The key here in identifying what your Final Battle moment needs to be–dominantly external or internal–depends on the core emotions and events driving the plot up to this moment.
Is the main threat for the protagonist internal or external? If you don’t know, James Scott Bell gives a special hint: look at your Mirror Moment. The same whiff of death there is what you need in the Final Battle.
Now You Try
There’s a lot of writers who don’t even begin writing their story until they know what the Final Battle event is. Others, those pantsers out there, like to find out how the protagonist takes on the Final Battle and antagonist(s) when they come to it.
Regardless of where you fall on what I like to call the Outline Spectrum, showing how your protagonist illustrates courage in your Final Battle is a must. If it’s an externally driven story, have your protagonist find the courage to physically take on their antagonist. If it’s an internally driven story, show how your protagonist digs deep in order to find, what Bell perfectly says, “the moral courage to do the right thing.”
Prescriptive or Cautionary tale, the Final Battle signpost scene works because this is what makes a story. This event is when we see if a protagonist can change or not, and the consequences that either lead to internal and/or external failure or victory.
So, what’s your story’s Final Battle? I’d love to learn all about it.
Hey Writer! If you want to learn more about writing worthwhile outlines, or how to write a story that works in general, I’d love to share my insights with you. Head over to my Outline Worth the While email list and you’ll get free downloads for the 5 Steps to a Worthwhile Outline Character Templates and Worldbuilding Template. Visit my website to learn more, and don’t hesitate to email me with questions. I’d love to hear from you!
Wishing you the best, and happy writing! — Abigail
Abigail K. Perry is a Certified Story Grid Developmental Editor and writer with literary agency, professional outlining, production, and teaching experience. With a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University (Newhouse) and a Master’s in Secondary Education from Endicott College, Abigail created and taught three creative writing and film courses at the high school level for several years, and she continues to teach writers at her local bookstore and with her email list. Although trained in multiple genres, Abigail specializes in Outlines, Graphic Novels, Scripts, YA Fantasy, Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Women’s Fiction, many of which she reviewed (and loved!) as the editorial intern for P.S. Literary Agency’s VP and Senior Literary Agent, Carly Watters.