Posts Tagged endings
I just finished a novel I should have loved. As I read the climactic scenes I could see how they were supposed to work. A scene brought certain ends dramatically together. A character’s action had poetic parallels. Certain lines of dialogue resonated with the themes and echoed a casual utterance early on. The twist should have been an exquisite emotional ambush. A character was symbolically repeating acts from earlier in the story.
Neat as it was, dramatic as it was – it left me cold.
Because I didn’t care about the characters.
Drama isn’t about intellectual parallels or puzzle solving. Drama works on the heart, not the head.
It’s the same with beginnings. The usual advice to start a story with something attention grabbing can mistakenly be translated into a big bang for its own sake. A car crash, a bomb going off, a chase or a fight. They work much better if we know the people these events are happening to – if they matter to us.
Drama isn’t a bang, it’s a fright, a clench of anxiety. It’s not the event, it’s the feeling. And at the end of a book, the events, parallels, thematic repetitions are simply box-ticking if we’re not bonded to the characters at a closer emotional level.
So I looked back at where I became so detached reading that book. It all hinged around the central romantic relationship.
I didn’t see the relationship matter very much to the narrator. I didn’t see him pin hopes on it, worry about it or indeed react to it in any strong way. I didn’t see what life might be like if it went wrong.
It’s easy for writers to take the reader’s reaction to a relationship for granted. And of course, you don’t want too much hand-wringing or moping, but you do need to remind us, with story sleight of hand, that it’s important.
Also, it’s easy to forget to intrigue us. If the narrator is intrigued by the other character, make us captivated by them too.
Anyway, I came away with a reminder to always ask myself this question. To make my ending work, what do I need the reader to care about?
Thanks for the pic epSOS.de on flickr
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In the Norwegian version of the film Insomnia, one of the characters tells an anecdote that is never finished. It appears inconsequential, perhaps a throwaway line to illuminate character. But good scripts never contain spare remarks, and this interrupted fragment quivers through the rest of the story like a deep note from a cathedral organ.
It is like the job the characters are doing – investigating a murder and having to create the ending for themselves. It returns later when parts of the story become dreamlike and the main character is tormented by guilt. It is like the everlasting arctic sunlight that won’t allow the day to end.
So leaving this anecdote hanging is a rather clever move by the writers.
Stories need closure – of course they do. We need to feel they ended in the right place. In most genres this does mean tying up all the ends and solving the mysteries. (We’ve all been infuriated by novels that are deliberately teasing us towards their sequels – The Hunger Games and Twilight. They don’t seem to be playing fair.)
In most genres, the fun for the punters is wondering how the murderer will get caught, how the romantic twosome will get together, how the battle was won, how the world was saved (or lost). That’s what they’re there for.
But if you are writing a story that aims to go deeper than the events, perhaps you don’t want to tie everything up or explain everything.
Insomnia ties up most of its physical threads – it ends when the case ends. But morally it is anything but neat. The characters leave the story with unfinished business and nagging burdens – and this is its true power. It is the toll paid by those who have to deal with murder. The viewer carries it too, as sharer of this experience in all its ambiguity. (Did ever a post try so hard not to give spoilers?) It plays fair, but it deepens the mystery.
Stories don’t always have to give us answers. Sometimes the questions they give us are as important.
Have you got a favourite story that doesn’t answer all its questions? Or do you hate it when writers do that? Share examples, good and bad, in the comments!
Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon. Not too late to nab a Kindle copy if you’re aiming to be a Wrimo!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
‘Research has found that giving away the best part of a story at the beginning actually makes it more enjoyable.’ So says a report in Scientific American, August 14 2011.
This study, which you may or may not have seen discussed around the blogoverse, found that revealing the end of a story made people enjoy the whole thing more. Vader turns out to be Luke’s father. Rhett walks out. Reader, she married him.
What’s going on? (Apart from a certain amount of literary vandalism.) And what does this tell us as writers?
The best part
The clue is in the statement from the Scientific American report – that the end was the ‘best part’. Here’s where they profoundly misunderstand what we get from a story. There’s a lot more to it than the ending.
Sometimes the ending is obvious anyway. If you think about it, we know Buffy will triumph at the end of each season. The question is how? What, in the course of getting there, will happen to the people she cares about? How will getting to the end change her, her life and her relationships? What reserves will she have to find in order to get to that end-point? What did she fail at, in the beginning, that makes this ending satisfying on a profounder scale than simply beating a bad guy?
A story is more than a mere outcome. The story is what happens along the way.
A real spoiler would give that away. It would home in on the aha moments where the narrative flips direction, or the main character has a realisation that turns everything on its head. When a story does this well, we enjoy them because we earn them, in step with the characters. The pleasure is making the discovery at the right time and in the right place. You could really louse up a reader’s day if you revealed those out of turn.
In fact, some endings sound positively lame, taken out of context. The ending-spoiler of Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan might be ‘Susan reached the end of the book and was suitably rattled’. Big shrug. So what? But read the book as you’re supposed to, page by page, and you close it as disquieted as Susan. (If you want to know more about the book, here’s my review of it, on Guys Can Read.
The study participants enjoyed a story more after hearing the spoiler?
So we’ve argued with the definition of ‘best bit’. But why did the readers enjoy the story more if they were told the end?
Who knows? The researchers speculated that spoilers made the story easier to follow. But there are stories we enjoy again and again. Second time around we might see things we missed first time, and can also appreciate the moments where the writer foxed you into looking at one hand while they yanked the rug away with the other. Perhaps it shows how much readers enjoy dramatic irony, where they are more knowledgeable than the characters embroiled in the tale. And perhaps it shows that a great story sucks you in and hypnotises you into the journey, regardless of what you remember about it.
It’s not the end that matters most. It’s every moment of getting there.
Thank you, Phineas H on Flickr, for the photo
In similar spirit, I have an ending of my own to reveal – and not a moment too soon, judging by the emails that have been flying into my inbox. The finale of My Memories of a Future Life goes live at midnight, UK time – which means some of you American folks can get it before you snooze tonight. It’s called The Storm. You can find episode 1 here, episode 2 here and episode 3 here. For those of you who prefer print, there’s a print copy tunnelling through the works at CreateSpace to emerge at some point next week. And as always, you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here
Sorry I’ve been quieter here than usual. Those of you who also follow me on Twitter or have seen my stream in the sidebar will probably know that I’m bolted into my study in the final throes of My Memories of a Future Life. (Can’t tell you much about it yet, but it has its own Twitter ID.) So my blog has forgotten it has an owner, Dave has forgotten he’s got a wife… or he thinks I’ve forgotten him. The upshot is that I can’t talk sensibly about anything that isn’t happening to my characters in their time of crisis.
Anyway, while I do these most final of final edits, I invented a little tool that I thought you might find useful if you’re also at the last pass. I’m calling it the critical list.
What I’m doing at this stage is test-driving the whole book to see it works as it’s supposed to. Speed is of the essence. When we edit we read slowly which is great for detail but gives us a distorted idea of the pace. When we read at the speed a reader does, we understand the flow.
I’m finding points that need a tweak, but that can bog me down to that detail-obsessive snail pace again, which I don’t want. So I make a change, whip out a sentence here or reword something there, and keep a note of the page number so that I can come back and check it at editing speed later. Then I go on through the manuscript, running it at the speed a normal reader would.
Big deal, huh? Sorry. This is probably the least profound post I have ever written on the storytelling art. You are probably wondering if I’ve lost my senses, but such has my world shrunk while in the grip of this book. You’re very welcome to share your most trivial writing tip ever in the comments, and I’ll be delighted you said hi.
Thank you, Christina Welsh, for the picture – and back soon.
Stories within stories can go badly wrong. The reader knows it is not ‘true’. Yes, fiction isn’t true anyway, but the reader allows that because they bought into it when they opened the book. But they didn’t necessarily agree to read the characters’ fiction, or spend long periods in their dream worlds. The reader needs to be connected securely with the other world and want to go there.
Susan, who is comfortably married with 2 children and a nice home, is sent a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward, who she hasn’t seen in 20 years. When they split up decades ago, he was a discontented drifter making incompetent attempts to be creative. Now he comes out of the blue and asks Susan to read his novel because she was ‘always his best critic’. Susan feels awkward about it – and not just because she’s worried the book will be awful. There’s difficult history between them – she feels complicated and guilty – and she’s dreading what she’ll find in the novel.
So, by the time we get to this novel within a novel, we’re curious. We want to see if it will be bad – but we’re not too worried about that because the (real-life) author has been assured and entertaining so far. And also we’ve become connected to Susan’s reactions. We have inklings that there is an older, raw Susan in dread of being woken. So we are eager to see what is in Edward’s book and how she reacts.
So the first rule of stories within stories is this: give us something we want to find.
When do you introduce it? As soon as you like, so long as you tick those boxes.
You may not need to wait very long. Tony and Susan has a prologue and a short first chapter and we’re into the book within the book. (Yes, a prologue. This writer is happy-slapping several writing taboos – and getting away with it.)
Another of my favourite books with several tiers of fictionality is The Bridge by Iain Banks. The Bridge starts with a man trapped behind the wheel of his crashed car, in pain and terrified. A mere two pages and we are into a parallel fantasy world which is his consciousness while he is in a coma. In the coma world are clues that anchor us to the real-world scene we’ve just read. Some random delirium words – ‘the dark station’ – become the first line of the coma world. There are other details too – a strange, O-shaped bruise on the man’s chest, which has given him his coma-world name, and which we know was from impact with the steering wheel. (Although the book does get flabby after a while, with dream sequences run to briar…)
Second rule of stories within stories
Give us details that anchor us and help us understand what we’re seeing. Another master-stroke about Banks’s coma-world is its setting on a giant, neverending bridge – the Forth Bridge, where the accident happened.
Here’s the third rule of stories within stories
Make both stories satisfying. Tony and Susan’s story within the story is a harrowing thriller, with every bit as much tension as the story around it. Often I see manuscripts where the writer is more interested in one strand than the other. It’s often tricky to make sure the crescendos complement each other, but, hey, you knew it would be a challenge,
Make both stories affect each other. So the characters have to be changed not only by what they are doing in the real world, but what is happening to them in the other one. It all needs to knit together to make something bigger than both stories separately – otherwise why have them in one book at all?
Again, Tony and Susan has it nailed, and in rather an interesting way. The Tony part (Tony is the fictional MC) is a story of literal, bloody revenge. The Susan part is about psychological revenge. Edward (the writer) knows exactly how to push Susan’s buttons and prod her insecurities. Because of what Edward is making Tony go through, he’s forcing her to have a relationship with her again, through the book, because he knows he’s making her react. That’s all very uncomfortable.
Do you have any rules for writing stories within stories? Do you have any favourite novels – or films – that do this particularly well? (Thank you THQ Insider for the picture)