Endgame Part 2

>> Wednesday, April 27, 2011

So, if climax and denouement endings are powerful and have great impact, why not end all your novels that way? Well, because they have limitations.

There isn't one perfect ending type for every story because it depends on what story you're telling and, largely, what the focus of the story is, what the emotional draw to the story is.

In general, you see climax and denouement endings on plot driven books where the emotions being drawn from the reader are terror, suspense, tension, excitement, where the story is all about the circumstances or the mystery, the danger of a situation or set of situations. Once you've addressed the mystery or the danger, the story is over. However, if you have primary characters that the reader is emotionally attached to, invested in, this kind of ending can leave the reader feeling cheated.

For example, using the same climax ending from the previous post:

Mickey smirked as the last of his shots echoed and faded. Cautiously, he approached the figure sprawled face down in a muddy puddle rapidly turning red,. His smirk turned to a grin as he saw the gaping red holes in the black duster. The bastard was dead for sure.

Mickey kicked the corpse for good measure. "Prick," he said around his cigarette. "You should have killed me when you had the chance."

"True," he heard behind him. Mickey swung around in disbelief and hardly had time to register Lamont was alive behind him before the top of his head was blown away.

"Wrong prick," Lamont said, holstering his weapon. He walked away without a glance behind him for the dead.
If Lamont is the MC, killing Mickey may mean the end of Lamont's troubles. If the reader's involvement with Lamont is completely a part of this story, the reader might close the book happily, convinced that Lamont can take care of himself without worrying what might wait in his future. Depending on how much readers liked Lamont, they might be interested in future work where he figures in, but there's no urgency. As long as the key threats and threads of this story are tied with Mickey's death, the readers are cool.

But, what if Mickey is the MC, someone the readers followed through the whole book, thrilled for, worried for, stressed for. They're unlikely to be satisfied when he's blown away and left for dead. Readers are going to want an explanation (how did Lamont fool him?). They're going to want to know what will happen to Lamont (Will anyone make him pay? Will he be going after whoever Mickey might have been shielding/defending?) They're going to feel like the whole mess was a cheat. Why were they made to care about this guy just to blow him away? Which isn't to say you can't kill your MC, but that you'd better get the reader some resolution on why it happened, what made the story worthwhile anyway. The climax ending, in this case, won't work.

If a character, like Lamont, is the focus of the story, rather than the situation, with Lamont being multi-faceted and loaded down with history, relationships, and concerns beyond the risk from Mickey, this ending won't work either. If the readers are truly invested in Lamont, in him as a person, resolving the situation here may not be enough for them unless the writer has carefully cleaned up everything else that's key before. In general, the climax ending is for a book about a particular crisis where the crisis is the focus rather than characters or other relationships. It's very effective for a surprise ending, but it's risky if it's a surprise the reader is going to hate.

The case is similar for the denouement ending. Surprises are welcome, but you'd best not impinge on characters the reader is heavily invested in, which is one reason mysteries often use complex and intriguing characters to solve the mystery that are relatively outside the mystery itself. The characters who are involved might be likable or sympathetic, but the reader is generally not so invested that any answer is going to cause heartburn. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, are fantastic characters, but readers all know Wimsey/Bunter, at least, didn't do it. Anyone else is fair game. The story arc is all about the mystery, this mystery, and its resolution, so that's why the denouement ending can work for those kinds of stories over and over again. Because the reader doesn't really have an investment with the victims affected by the mystery, with the implications, addressing the mystery itself is enough.

However, get a character the reader has a stake in involved - Sherlock Holmes' theoretical daughter ends up dead/implicated - and the author will need some extra time post mystery solution to address the impacts of those events on the characters the reader might care about.

And that's why climax/denouement endings are challenging to use for situations where the reader is meant to identify closely with a concerned character. Solving the crises/mystery isn't enough - the reader wants to understand the impacts to the people he cares about, needs to be reassured that the characters are in a stable state, have dealt with any tragedy they've faced personally, are ready to move on. So, the suitability of the ending is tied to whether the reader is tied to the situation or the characters with regards to the story.

So, what do you do for character driven stories or stories that involve something bigger than the specific crisis (for example, a book focused on a war campaign and its resolution, while the war continues before and after)?

Good question. I'll talk about some other ending types next time.


Endgame Part 1

>> Monday, April 25, 2011

So you know what an ending is supposed to do, barest minimum: resolve things and bring the story arc to a close. But is that enough?

Not hardly. The ending, like the end game in chess, makes a hell of difference on the caliber of the game. Leaving the story arc unresolved may ruin the story, but making an ending that totally rocks can mean the difference between a "not-bad" book and "the best book ever!"

If it's the second kind you're shooting for, you'd best aim to do more than just resolve a few loose ends and write "THE END." Endings can have tremendous impact and power, can really reinforce the sense of the story, set a tone, add dessert to the meal of the book as it were and even set the stage for future work (or just a future for your characters). But that doesn't just happen. You have to make it happen. To do that, you have to know what you're trying to do with your ending.

For instance, in a high-tension thriller type novel, you might want to be keeping the reader guessing until the last minute taking the climax to the very end. Something like:

Mickey smirked as the last of his shots echoed and faded. Cautiously, he approached the figure sprawled face down in a muddy puddle rapidly turning red,. His smirk turned to a grin as he saw the gaping red holes in the black duster. The bastard was dead for sure.

Mickey kicked the corpse for good measure. "Prick," he said around his cigarette. "You should have killed me when you had the chance."

"True," he heard behind him. Mickey swung around in disbelief and hardly had time to register Lamont was alive behind him before the top of his head was blown away.

"Wrong prick," Lamont said, holstering his weapon. He walked away without a glance behind him for the dead.

This kind of ending is terrific for a short story, where you don't have much to clean up and the impact of the ending is enough to flavor the whole story. You can use it for a novel too as long as you've already resolved anything else that needs cleaning up. If not, don't use it. And, if you do use it, leave it as close to the climax as you can. Don't succumb to the temptation of going back and adding more. This kind of ending is most powerful if you end it like I did without extraneous winding down like describing him getting into this car and having some philosophical thoughts. You can end with philosophical thoughts, of course, but it's no longer a climax ending.

If you need a minimum of clean-up to your climax ending you can do the mystery staple, a denouement ending wherein the climax comes only a handful of pages from the end but is still centered on shock and awe, before explaining why it ended the way it did:

"In the end, the real murderer was his apparently innocent teenage daughter, frustrated beyond belief at the limited number of text message she was allowed on her cell phone. Driven to madness by being able to text only once every other minute, she killed her father by sliding her nail file into his ear so that the wound was hardly noticeable, especially after the car accident."

[Then explain, explain, explain, perhaps some tearful remorse by our teenager, now faced with the prospect of jail where she'll be stuck with a corded phone shared with twelve other inmates. Maybe our detective with smoke a well-earned pipe.]
The tighter and shorter you make the after explanations/winding down, the more impact it tends to have, so open questions and resolutions are often crammed in there willy nilly. Mysteries tend toward this model because you don't have to tie up loose ends as you go, it keeps tension up until nearly the very end and, well, it's easy. Let's face it, it's a formula that's been played until cliché. You can use it for non-mysteries, of course, but you need to be careful. Cleaning lots of stuff up neatly in a couple of pages often feels contrived and bewildering. It can be done, cleverly and so tidily that you impress the reader instead of bore them, but it takes a crisp conclusion that tidies itself to really make it shine. Otherwise, it tends to sound slipshod and clumsy.

More to come.

[Wow, a whole blog post without mentioning manga!]


Bringing it to a Close...Part 2

>> Wednesday, April 20, 2011

When it comes to endings, it's important to appreciate what an ending is supposed to do. And not do.

Endings, in general, should pull the story arc together and bring it to a close. There are exceptions to this, of course - television shows left hanging, manga chapters with shocking revelations on the last page so that readers will be desperate to find out why and what the implications are in the next issue. It's a gimmick that's worked well for long-running serial works for ages.

But, in my opinion, that's not the kind of "ending" for a novel. Oh, it's been done and there are series of novels where several volumes are nothing more than a lead-in to the next. But, it's a copout, and a stupid gamble for any author that doesn't already have a huge and slavish following. A novel is a sizable investment in time and effort, not just on a writer's part, but on a reader's part. If a reader comes to the end of that investment and feels cheated, well, what are the chances they're going to invest in your next book? Maybe, if they're completely in love with your characters and story, but they are just as likely, if not more likely, never to pick up anything you've written again in case they get cheated again.

Oh, and for the record, even if you have a huge and slavish following as an author, shame on you if you play this "leave 'em hanging" game. Can't you keep your following without such gimmicks?

A novel, like a short story, should be able to stand on its own. It should have a complete story arc with beginning, middle, and ending that an unfamiliar reader should be able to absorb and enjoy without reading five novels before or having to read what follows. Everything required should be there. That doesn't mean there can't be allusion to characters and situations from before that would allow a fan who read the whole series to get something special. But the book should not require outside information pivotal to the story arc of this novel. This story has to stand on its own using only information provided inside the story or it's a cheat and a dirty trick to force more sales.

Not that I'm opinionated or anything.

Which leads me to my number one, my biggest and most essential ingredient to any ending: resolution. You've got to bring this story arc, novel or story, to a satisfactory close. Not necessarily a joyous one or a comfortable one. Happily ever after isn't required. Everyone doesn't have to fall in love and every loose end doesn't have to be neatly tied.

But the big ones do. The characters need to be in a stable condition (even if something else might be looming in the amorphous future). The crisis(es) that formed the focus(ii) of this story need to be resolved, even if it's not the ending the reader was hoping for. Ideally, relationships should be at an equilibrium (though, if that's just a sidelight instead of the focus of the story, that's less important). Key people need to have learned something, grown in some way.

As an author, you need to be aware of where your story's headed, whether you're a planner or a seat-of-the-pantser like me. Maybe not the specific ending for the story, but where you want your characters to be and what you want to accomplish with the story. The ending is your last chance to have your say and accomplish your goals, but you lay the groundwork for that ending from the very beginning, whether your ending is effectively polishing off a fulfilling entree or topping off a light meal with dessert.

You want to leave your reader feeling satisfied, you need an ending that makes the reader feel like all their time and effort was worth it. Which is the best possible advertisement for your next book. Or even an incentive to read that book again.


Bringing It to a Close...Part 1

>> Monday, April 18, 2011

So. who did I scare?

I'm not talking about bringing this blog to a close, by the way, but wandering back to topic, i.e., writing. Not that I didn't think the talk on manga wasn't about writing, but it wasn't about novels per se and was focused on what both mangas and I tend to like best: characters.

In fact, I've spent an inordinate time speaking about characters, protagonists and villains and even side characters. But, as Relax Max pointed out (correctly) characters ain't enough. You're going to need a story. There's several pieces to the story: the premise, the plot, including climax and wind-down. How you introduce the story (and the characters) can make or break a novel/short story because many who might be interested in such things will stop reading quickly if the beginning doesn't grab their attention no matter how good your follow-through might be.

But, far too often I think, I find writers are lax with endings. Since I'm a backwards soul, I'm going to talk about that first. Partly because I'm contrary. Partly because I just had a distinct example.

[Spoilers here for Hana Kimi - if that's a manga you've been meaning to read and you don't want to know how it ends, stop here and come back after the "spoilers over" notice]

Pardon me for a moment as I temporarily allude back to manga. I recently read a series called Hana-Kimi, a long one (145 chapters, 23 volumes). Lovely characters, weak premise (as it frequently is), but amusing (not laugh out loud) and appealing. I wanted to know how they were going to pull it all together. I wanted to know what would happen to all these interesting people. I'm all geared to put this on my "must-have" list, put all the volumes on my wishlist for Amazon and then read the last handful of chapters.

Oh. Damn.

143 chapters of everyone working toward a single goal, allowing our heroine to stand side-by-side by her hero, no matter what. All of that was tossed away in chapter 144 for no discernible reason. True, our protagonists get "sort of" back together a year later (at least they're in the same country), but really, that was the only alternative? What was the point of the 143 chapters that came before? The dozens of friends and compatriots standing up for them? The many sacrifices made along the way? OK, it's a very Japanese ending, self-sacrifice in the face of support, but still. Everyone suffers. What were we all rooting for for so long?

And all the loose ends, those suffering from unrequited love or having the potential for all kinds of things (including winning national/international championships) left undone or unnoted. Even the MAIN characters are only promised to be promised three years after the original parting.

[End spoiler]

How frustrating!

Instead of me desperately trying to figure out how to justify buying 23 volumes of a manga when I've already bought so much, I'm quietly removing them from my wishlist. I no longer "have to have them" - now I'm not sure I want them at all.

Now, people can sell a lot of books that way, and not just manga. There are many series that have gone on forever, dragging on love stories or a plot arc over so many books that you wonder the author can remember what the characters look like. And, in all fairness, if you managed to capture an audience's interest for book after book without a real resolution, the temptation to continue to cash in on that notion has to be pretty high PLUS you could make an argument that, once you've gone to a certain length, no ending's going to be quite good enough to make your readers satisfied.

I suspect, in the case of some book series, some movie series and undoubtedly any number of manga, the end comes across as anti-climactic or unsatisfying because there's no ending good enough. Or worse, it comes to a close unexpectedly and they just don't have enough room to put it together properly.

But it can happen within in a single novel, too. Mickey Spillane said, "Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book." That's true of any book, in my opinion, not just mysteries.

A satisfying read means that, when you're done, you feel like things have been resolved sufficiently that the time you spent with these characters and in this story arc were well-spent. A bad ending can send even the best read into a tail-spin to crash and burn.

So, what do you need for a good ending? Good question. And one for the next post.



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