Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Unhappy Endings

Blink quick and you'll miss it. The End.
I'm not sure whether it's a reduction in attention span or a general trend towards sloppy writing but, based on the numerous books I’ve read recently and what I've observed on the idiot's lantern (TV in case you wondered) that adorns our wall, abrupt endings are definitely in vogue. More’s the pity.

But why do we accept them?

It's not a race!
A typical book will take at least 10 hours to read - probably more; a film, 90 minutes to 2 hours to watch. The storyline is usually:
  • Part 1 - grab the attention with something dramatic
  • Part 2 - introduce the characters and the situation
  • Part 3 - stuff happens
  • Part 4 - more stuff happens that changes or resolves Part 3
  • Part 5 - the end
In many cases, it almost seems like the author has invested so much time and effort in their work that there's no energy left to inject into the ending. Your current account at The Bank of Inspiration has gone into the red.

The French, bless their little cotton socks, even have a word for the resolution of a story - the dénouement. The official definition of dénouement is the final revelation of the intricacies of the plot - note the words 'intricacies'. This is no 'and they all lived happily ever after' ending, a book must flow like a river from its furthermost spring to its marine estuary and, while there may be the odd waterfall near the source, they just don't belong in the river's lower reaches.

If you reflect on the literary classics, you'll find that endings were not rushed - look at Bronte and Hardy; they didn't just stop on a sixpence. Perhaps it was because books were relatively expensive in those days or perhaps the advent of the computer game and the need for a quick resolution has taken over. Whatever the reason, the abrupt and premature ending of a book gives rise to a poor reader experience and that diminishes the probability that you'll get repeat business for your next title.

Before you type those final two words 'The End' or put your 3 asterisks in the center of the page, just stop and ask yourself if the ending has:
  • Received as much care and attention as the rest of the book
  • Arisen plausibly and with total continuity of style
  • Included all the dialogue (often truncated, I've found) and actions necessary to achieve whatever resolution you've decided upon
  • Followed all of the characters to their natural termination points
  • Maintained integrity with the rest of the book
I can't give you an all-situations solution but I would urge you to carefully analyse the proportion of your book which you've set aside for your tale’s conclusion. Everyone has their own writing style but I'd suggest that hurried endings and 'linear writing' (that's where the ending is the final thing that you write) have a high level of incidence. With that in mind, write the last section of your book, put it aside for a month or so and then re-read it from cover to cover. Does it seem like the last chapter or so was bolted on a bit like Frankenstein's head? If that’s what it’s like you need to consider very carefully how all of your characters have progressed from the main storyline to the closing paragraph and then undertake some very delicate literary surgery to join the sections together.

Anything less just can't be called a happy ending.

About the author

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