Today I was reflecting on a common "how to" question that students often asked in creative writing class: how do you finish a story without killing off the hero or doctoring the drama so that everyone lives happily ever after? For this question, I must lead writers back to the hero's journey, back to the moment where the hero brings home the elixir.
If you have studied Joseph Campbell's, The Hero's Journey, you know that all heroes (main characters) go flying back into a dramatic ordeal if they cannot embrace their learnings. It is as certain as the law of gravity. The ordeal awaits to anyone who cannot move forward by the act of selfless sharing.
Consider that in real life there are thieves who go to jail again and again, but at some point they learned their lesson, and they go on to live honest lives and share their wealth. Yet there is also the thief who can't break the nasty habit, and for a screenwriter, this may lead to an epic mini-series as each ordeal (or robbery) is drawn out. Westerns are infamous for this pattern.
We've seen so many movies go awry because the director simply cannot part with the knee-jerk impulse to offer a cliche and happy ending. If you want your writing to be more subtle, it is essential that you find a way for the character to slowly embrace his new intelligence with just a few bumps, innocent scratches, and a lot of humor.
He can't be perfect. He can't be beautiful. He can't be rich.
He must be humble. He must be accountable. He must be universal.
In other words, the story ends with him being an ordinary man. Perhaps the middle and the climax demonstrated heroic acts but the ending shows his simple moral coding. I remember Christopher Vogler's example of King Aurthur where he spoke of the knights sharing the grail, "as otherwise there would be no healing."
Above all, he must be able to serve those who can benefit from his knowledge without making himself so unbelievably special.
The heroes journey and how it applies to exceptional writing must stay away from the colossal expansion of the human ego. In fact, it is the writer's job to show that the character has truly won the race by humbling himself, abandoning all notion of suicide or prestige, and becoming open to the greatest gift of all: selfless love. He must demonstrate that he is grounded yet available to the human experience of every life he touches.
Do that, and you will sell millions.