Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Thinking of ending it all...

I bet that title got your attention!

If you are here looking for some ghoulish thrills, or to be saddened by the last rant of someone about to leave this world, then…

I’ve led you on!

This post is about novel endings.

I mean… the way we writers conclude our tales.

Sorry, better luck next time.

This post will be inconclusive!

Okay, now I’ve got that out of the way…

Why am I writing this article? Well, in part, it’s a result of certain dialogues I have maintained, via e-mail and through reader reviews, about the ending of my novel ‘2012’, that prompted me to write a specific response on my web (in case you want to read it, the following link will get you directly to the response, but it’s much easier to understand if you’ve read the book first… What? Not read it yet? What are you waiting for? The response is here: - enjoy).

When I wrote this response, I started thinking not just about ‘2012’, but about the endings in ‘Full Disclosure’ and ‘the CULL’ as well. Then I had an attack of generic analysis (painful at this time of the year) and started to look at the endings for books I had read in the past twenty years or so (regular readers will know I have a quirky memory, so don’t be surprised).

I notice something interesting and decided to throw it out there for your comments.

First though, a little analytical background.

Novel endings seem to fall into one of three major categories: I call these
1)      Tie up in a neat bow
2)      Leave things hanging
3)      Hybrids

The first group is traditional. I noticed that almost all the books I’ve read, from way back when I first started reading novels up to about ten years ago, fall into this category. They cater to an innate human desire to have answers for everything and our fear of the unknown (Cheap psychology class adjourned). At least that’s my opinion. In these, we are presented with a fictional world where stuff happens to the people who live there. We (usually) empathise with the Protagonists, who go through all kinds of trials and tribulations, before riding off into the sunset, having won the day. At the end of the novel, our emotions are driven by the good things that happen to the Protagonists, and the bad things that befall the Antagonists. All is well! Rarely will the bad guys escape, unless it’s to bring them back in another novel where they do receive their just desserts (a classic example of this Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and the fate of Moriarty). These are the tales that leave us with the trace of a smile on our lips, and no unanswered questions. Hermetic, self-contained. Just like Life, right?

Then there’s group two.

Here I have to differentiate even further, because there are two sub-groups: I call these Addressed and, you’ve guessed it, Unaddressed.

Addressed/Hanging-Theres present a nice, last-page challenge to the reader. They are puzzles the reader can chose to work out by themselves, or in the context of a Social gathering (real or virtual as the whim, and technology, takes you). However, you as a writer, cannot just stop your novel at a seemingly random point to, as one of my critics put it, “go to dinner and forget to come back and finish the last scene.” No. Here you have to seed the book with sufficient information so that your readers can work out the unwritten conclusion, should they choose to do so. These novels usually carry a message of some kind; some moralistic titbit to amaze your readers; something that is also reflected in the body of the tale, if you specifically go looking for it.

Unaddressed/Hanging-Theres are usually preparations for a sequel, and dangle some morsel of intrigue before the reader’s eyes that can only be resolved by buying the next book. (Quick aside: I define series as novels about the same issues/places/storylines which may or may not feature the same characters, and sequels as novels which follow-on after the events previously related and feature the same characters). So why only sequels? Because for the morsel of intrigue to work, the reader needs to be invested in the characters, which means you will write about another episode in their fictional lives. I’m sure you can think of examples of both.

What’s even more interesting to note is the preponderance of Sequels on the best-seller lists. Readers seem to enjoy following characters over extended periods through multiple novels, and any reasonably good author, after sweating blood to generate reader empathy with their protagonist, loves to exploit that in future tales.
(Another aside [Oh how I love brackets!]: My own writing style has frequently been likened, in reader reviews, to that of Lee Child (British author Jim Grant). I confess I had not read any of his books until a couple of months ago, when I purchased “Killing Floor”. {And, yes, I can see what they mean – we both have a similar short, punchy sentence style used to quicken the pace of the action – so why isn’t Tom Cruise acting in a film of one of my novels?} Child has created a superb character in this novel, a man born of a dark past, heading for an uncertain future; the very mainstay of a great sequel(s) and that allows him to continue to write about Jack Reacher’s adventures for many years).

However, the Unaddressed/Hanging-There sub-group presents a danger: You could easily make your readers feel cheated or, worse, manipulated.

I positioned ‘2012’ clearly in the Addressed/Hanging-There category.

Hybrids – no, this isn’t a catch-all for the stuff that doesn’t fit easily into the above, rather it has its own rules. Basically these are composed of novels with an Epilogue of some sort where the main body is a hermetic story, and the epilogue is a lead-in/set-up for a series or sequel.

At the end of the day, and the novel, it’s all about READER ENGAGEMENT. We try to create empathy for our Protagonists, loathing for our Antagonists and intrigue for our tales and, with a dash of Pacing and a Good Story, hope to entertain our readers for a while. The more we can have them rooting for our characters, the better. In the traditional hermetic novels, this is of course true, yet the Addressed/Hanging-There sub-group goes one-step further. Here the aim is to having your readers close the completed novel, sit back and muse for a minute, then become infused with an insatiable desire to discuss the ending with their peers (or instantly write a crappy review because they just didn’t get it – depending on their attention span, I suppose). The novels in this sub-group try to take reading from being a Passive, Isolated activity to an Active Social Experience, and I think that’s a good thing. And therein there be dragons: as readers we have become too accustomed to novels that tie everything up in a nice neat bow and we are, to an extent, programmed into expecting this from our entertainment (books, movies etc). It would be another world if we were not sure if Pooh Bear got the Honey or not, right?

Einstein is supposed to have said that we only use about 10% of our brains. Wrongly-attributed Urban Myth aside, maybe it is time to provide literary circles/discussion groups with more fodder from the popular fiction stable and write more Addressed/Hanging-There fiction. What do you think?

Finally, and this must really be over thinking on someone’s part, we have to accept if we choose the Addressed/Hanging-There route, some people just won’t get it. And, in the true tradition of modern man, will question the writer before they question themselves. Worse, we can get too clever! The last chapter of my novel ‘Full Disclosure’ was presented as an ‘Author’s note to the 25th Edition’ written by myself and one of the novel’s fictional characters – this was another twist at the end of the tale, as well as an opportunity to tie-up a couple of deliberately hanging threads. Then I receive a poor review from someone, who I will not embarrass by naming, who obviously thought the novel had finished as soon as they saw the Author’s Note heading and chose not to read anymore!

Opinions? Comments? Let’s get polemic, people…

Sorry about the profusion of brackets. Please choose one of the following excuses:   
  1.   I used to write Operating Systems for Super-Computers and the technique stuck.  
  2.  It’s a new keyboard and it’s not house-trained yet.
  3.   I think like this. I also hear voices telling me to… (fill in as desired).

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