Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ta-Dah, Full Stop

Cross-posted from my blog:

I’ve ended my novels the same way for years. I rush headlong toward a climax, and then when all the various threads are all tied up, I stop writing. Invariably, some critic (either professional or amateur) says that the book feels rushed or as if it’s missing something. Comments like this used to leave me confused and baffled. I mean, you have to quicken the pace the closer to get to the big, final showdown, don’t you? And, as long as all the bits are nicely tidied up at the end, you’re done, right?

I used to think so, and, in the end, I think that the answer comes down to a matter of style. Because, after all, for every person who complained, there were probably dozens who thought the book ended just fine. Certainly, my editors have never asked me to change the way I do endings, so they must be “correct” in at least one sense of the word.

But, I think I’ve figured out what so many people have that reaction to the way I tend to end books: readers don’t like to leave stories. As writers, sometimes, I think we’re so driven towards writing those precious words “The End” that we forget about the experience a reader has during the final chapters of a book. The headlong rush is great, but when all the bad guys are defeated a reader wants to take a moment and catch their breath and know that the characters that they’ve come to know and love (hopefully!) are going to be all right in the end.

I don’t usually give this moment to my readers. I tend to stop writing when the action is done. It’s very much, “Ta-Dah! Full stop.” I get why a reader might feel a little whip lashed by that, even though I still tend to resist the idea of the “wrap-up” chapter. It reminds me too much of the “let’s all stand beside the captain’s chair and make some lame joke at Spock’s expense” wrap-up of the Old Trek episodes. The “morning after when everything is okay again” chapter always felt to me (as a reader, but even more so as a writer) as contrived.

I’ve come around, however. I think about what Charlotte’s Web might have been, for instance, if the last chapter was “Final Triumph” where, after Wilber’s life is saved and the egg sac is safely on its way back to the farm, Charlotte dies alone. That’s definitely the end of the whole character arc and conflict that White set up for Wilber and Charlotte. Even some minor character’s issues, like Templeton, the Rat’s, are resolved. Everything is tidy. She dies. The end.

Except White knows better than to leave us there, with a sob in our throats. He gives us a condensed vision of the winter, and brings us around to the next spring when Charlotte’s babies are born, grow, and leave Wilber to say good-bye again. Though three of her daughters stay, White tells us that no one is ever a match for Charlotte, and, in effect gives the reader several small chances to slowly let go of a beloved character and to be filled with the sense that although her death seems unfair, she will be remembered fondly by the one who loved her best, and that’s all any of us can ever hope for, and that’s all right. Sadder than sin, but all right.

Readers need an opportunity to let the story go. I think I have been ending my novels too quickly, without a good sense of that need.

And so, without further ado, good-bye.

Good-bye. See you tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Nailed it. That's exactly what I've missed, what I'm looking for. I ran into the same problem with Kelly's most recent novel, and made some suggestions to that effect--though I know I've had the same issue when writing the endings, too.

The process of reading a story is an emotional one (hopefully), and when I go plunging down that rollercoaster ride and hit that climax of accelration, I need a bit of slow down space before the ride comes to a stop. I need the author to reassure me that the characters go on, or have had an impact--that they have mattered, in some tangible way, to the world of the story. That this story has been worth reading, and my time and imagination have been well used. If that can be established without the "afterward" chapter, great--to me, that is its sole purpose. But much of the time, that chapter/bit of text serves the function of bringing a character who has undergone extrordinary circumstances back to normal life--it allows us to vicariously come down off of the whirling dervish of plot without feeling like we just fell off a ten-story building; it brings us back to earth gently.

tate said...

I think you articulated something I should have, too. The idea that the character's lives, their struggle (ie the novel) was worth it and had meaning.

Kelly McCullough said...

A lot depends on the structure of the story. Charlotte's Web was a stand-alone novel. It was never intended to have a sequel. A story that's part of an ongoing series or even a finite but multi-book arc like a trilogy is very different, because you want the reader's energy to carry over into the next story, for them to want to know what happens next. Of course you can't just leave them hanging off the edge of cliff, but too much wind-down is also not good.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, Kelly, with only one extension of that definition: there still has to be a sense of resolution of some plot arc for the novel to feel completed (i.e., Orson Scott Card's Zenocide, which feels like it comes to a full stop somewhere about 35,000 feet over the Marianas Trench). The novel's arc must feel resolved, though the overarching character, plot, or quest arc should feel as though it goes on.

tate said...

I agree. Even with a series, I think, a reader might like a chance to breathe (especially since they have to wait a year for the next one to come out.)

Kelly Swails said...

Usually I like a little bit of a "they lived happily ever after" epilogue-type business at the end. For me, though, it's okay if that's missing if the climax isn't rushed. There's a difference between a hyperactive climax and a glossed-over one, and the glossed-over ones piss me off every time. I don't know if you folks have ever read Patricia Cornwell, but I eventually stopped reading her books because her climaxes are about three pages long. In a four-hundred page book!

Naomi said...

I want the books I read to have a denoument. It doesn't have to be "happily ever after," but it does have to give me a glimpse of what happens once the main action has been wrapped up.

My editor had me write a longer "three years later" sort of denoument when I finished my last book, though, so clearly these don't come entirely naturally to me, either.

Erik Buchanan said...

The epilogue works for me, too. The action is all done, the story is finished, but there's got to be a bit more (for me most times, anyway). Something that lets the reader know that the characters are going to go onward with their live; that there is something that happens next.

So far, all my novels have had epilogues. Some are shorter than others, but they are all there.

Kelly McCullough said...

On series and trilogies--breathe, yes. More than that? Depends on what the story arc is. An open ended series should have full pauses because it's just plain evil to ask readers to stay at a high pitch of excitement for the next 12 years or however long the books keep coming. On finite arc sets? It depends.

I'm currently trying to put a little bit more a lull in at the end of Black School, but I don't have room for too much, because what happens next is things start to get worse again almost immediately and then they stay there until the beginning of the next book, when they get much worse.

This is often the case with a trilogy or other finite arc book set. Especially dark ones like Black School. Sure, each of the first two books has a mini happy ending, but fundamentally things go downhill until the genuine happy ending at the end of book three when I wrap things up.

Muneraven said...

I've always sort of automatically understood the need for that last good moment with the characters, but it can indeed be tricky to write that little part of the book. Very easy to lapse into corniness or schmalz at that moment of goodbye. It happens in movies and books ALL the time.

In a couple of my own stories I've gotten it just right (a great, but RARE feeling, to get something just right and know it, lol). Most of the time, though, I struggle to find the perfect, last note. And sometimes I just never find it.

Anonymous said...

First, apologies to Mr. Card, as his book is Xenocide, not the badly spelled typo above.

You don't necessarily need a happy ending, as long as it is one that resolves the book's plot arc in such a way as to fulfill the reader's need for the story to come to some sense of closure, however temporarily. Most of the time, the reader is going to have to wait a significant period of time between the books in a series--a year, two perhaps, or until they get to the top of the waiting list at the library--and they need to be let off the hook a little. Kelly's expressiona bove was very accurate--you can't ask the readers to stay at a high pitch of excitement between those reads if there is any significant amount of time between them.