Spoilers for Star Wars 4, 5, & 6 and the latest Superman movie if you haven’t seen them.
The big key for creating a satisfying ending is determining your plot’s victory conditions. The victory condition is usually stated, sometimes right out and sometimes obliquely, when you’re introducing goals. The victory condition is the yardstick by which you measure the goals of the protagonistic force and the antagonistic force. When the goal is accomplished or is barred from being accomplished within the confines of the story then your victory condition has been met.
I love using movies because everyone can reference them in a couple of hours instead of days with a book but the principles remain the same. In particular I like using the original Star Wars trilogy because I know everyone has seen it, and it’s one of those movies that lends itself well to talking about plotting. In all three movies the protagonistic force’s goal is the same. Luke states it flat out pretty much right up front. “I want to learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father.” The victory condition with that goal is obviously: has he achieved that?
The antagonistic force’s goal is more complex. Luke is a non-entity in the first film. It doesn’t care about him. He’s simply fighting on the side of the protagonists from the antagonist’s point of view. The Antagonist’s goal is also pretty firmly stated: the destruction of the rebellion against the Empire. The victory condition for them is when the rebel base is destroyed. By destroying the Death Star, even though the rest of the imperial star fleet is intact and knows the location of the rebels, the rebels have time to evacuate and fear of the battle station that will keep everyone in line has been eliminated. The victory condition becomes impossible to achieve. Luke destroys the Death Star with his Force skills, and is told the Force, the essence of being a Jedi, will be with him always. His victory condition is met. Which gives it the happy comedic ending that feels so triumphant.
In the second movie, Luke is important, so the Empire’s goal is to turn Luke into a Sith or kill him. When Luke escapes Bespin and the hyperdrive works, so they’re lost in relativistic travel, that victory condition becomes impossible. But the twist of Empire Strikes Back is that Luke can’t have his victory condition either. With his father shown to be a Sith, it is impossible to be both a Jedi and like his father before him. Neither victory condition can be met. Even more so than going off to save Han, this is what gives the second movie the feeling of there is more to come, it’s ended as a stalemate. Neither side has won. Which makes it feel unhappy but doesn’t make it a tragedy. There’s more to come.
In the third movie everyone’s cards are on the table and the victory conditions carry over. With the conversion of Darth Vader to Luke’s side, the Empire has lost both Sith instead of gained a third. So their victory condition is not only impossible to achieve within this story, it’s impossible to achieve ever. The tragic ending is completely voided. But beyond that, Luke reconciles the two parts of his victory condition. He becomes a Jedi in the likeness of the best parts of his father before him, taking the good and rejecting the bad. He does it well enough to convert his father back to the side of light. Making him the image to be worth imitating. “I am a Jedi like my father before me.” The comedic ending is now unavoidable, no matter what happens, even if Luke had exploded in the Death Star, he would have succeeded. It would have been unhappy but it would have still felt right, like a noble sacrifice.
But here is where I want to diverge from Star Wars as is. Luke would have still won even had he died. Many stories can work this way. It again, depends on your victory condition. You can’t have a satisfying noble sacrifice if the protagonistic force’s victory condition is to live happily ever after. But suppose the victory condition is the propagation of an idea. If the victory condition is the spread of rebel ideas, then even if every rebel dies but it inspires new rebels to spring up on every world, the victory condition has been met. It works because that victory condition is extrinsic to the main character. It isn’t carried by Luke. It’s carried by the world at large.
You can divide plots into intrinsic (victory condition is carried by the protagonist) and extrinsic. Unfortunately the two are always meeting and that’s where a lot of problems with plots occur. If you set up your story with an extrinsic victory condition and then show the main character achieve their goals at the expense of the world at large your story will always feel just a touch hollow.
How often have you seen a less than satisfying action movie where the goal is to go save a space and the heroes rush in and kill the antagonist but the space they saved is left in ruins… and the story just kind of brushes over that. Just ignore the man behind the curtain please. The problem is, saving a space is an extrinsic goal, and killing the antagonist is an intrinsic triumph.
The opposite can also happen. An intrinsic goal can get conflated with an extrinsic one and you show the hero saving the world but failing to obtain what they set out to do.
In some ways, the last Superman movie did both. In the course of trying to save the world, Superman did truly massive damage to it. He beat Zod but with there clearly being millions dead, saving the world felt a bit hollow. But the real victory condition of the movie was set out as the world being ready for Kal-El, ready for his power as a force for good. Which it showed by having him have a massive fight to the death with another of his kind. At the end of the movie, people are still suspicious of him. It’s unclear whether he really does fit or not. So the victory condition hasn’t been answered. What’s been answered instead is that the world can’t be rid of him. To some degree this relies on audience interpretation, as all stories do. If you see Superman’s defeat of Zod as him saving the world and you’re cheering for his triumph then the victory condition has been met. And if you just see it as a vicious murderous fight… then it’s hard to see it as a victory.
And that’s the last key of using victory conditions to get to a satisfying ending. In the end the audience judges it. If you’ve convinced the audience that the victory condition has been met or cannot be met, they’ll be satisfied. If you haven’t convinced them, then it will never satisfy them no matter what you do. You’ll never be able to convince everybody but knowing your audience and what will be a convincing victory (or its convinceing impossibility) to them will help. You’re the first gatekeeper of that decision but you can only judge it by knowing your victory conditions and deciding if you’ve met them.