Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Come, Sir. I Draw Toward An End With You

This weekend I finished the first draft of my current novel-in-progress (not so much "in progress" now, I guess), which meant that I had to write the ending of the book. I knew, more or less, what I wanted to happen at the very end of the story. I knew the ending before I wrote a word of Chapter One. But there is, of course, more to ending a novel than dramatizing the final plot point. Isn't there?

I wondered the whole time that I was writing my ending what the purpose of a novel's last chapter is. To finish the story, certainly. To say "what happened." To tie all the strands together into something satisfying for the reader, I guess. To close things off with an image that's appropriate and aesthetically pleasing, I suppose. Really, I'm not sure. I wrote my way from where I was at the end of Chapter 23 to the image and final paragraph I had for the close of the book. The path took some surprising turns that I didn't see coming but those turns please me, at least right now.

I tried to push away all those thoughts about purpose while I was writing my way to the end, but I wasn't entirely successful. There was one point when I was convinced that I had to have something Significant--something that summarizes or comments in some way upon the story--and I resisted that urge as much as I could, mostly just by avoiding my protagonist. The point of view of my final chapter circles around the protagonist, the story coming instead through some of the supporting cast; we only actually get inside the protagonist's head about a page before the end of the book, and when he finally thinks or speaks, I make him sort of inarticulate so as to deliberately not moralize or make him a proxy for my authorial commentary on the story.

Anyway, I think I've written a satisfactory ending. I think.

Naturally all of this makes me wonder about endings, especially the way endings are written in "modern" novels, whatever that means. Modern novels seem to have a certain expectation regarding endings, an expectation I've not really figured out. I've read a lot of 19th-century novels, where there is a tendency to have the author look back and reflect upon the events of the novel, to make some kind of a statement to/for the reader. There is also a tendency to have long denouements where we get a picture of the lives of all the characters after the story ends. I used to follow that model, but now I prefer a more abrupt ending, where you get the hell out of the story once the principal action is over. My favorite ending of any novel is that of Joyce's Ulysses, but my actual model for endings, I think, is Shakespearean tragedy:

Hamlet: Ouch! (dies)

Horatio: That's all folks! (waves at audience)


My latest book (like all my books) is a tragedy. Because things end unhappily in tragedies, some writers try to put some kind of positive spin on the action right at the end. Dickens gives characters heroic speeches sometimes (think of the end of A Tale of Two Cities); Hari Kunzru in Transmission goes fantasy and his protagonist may be happy, somewhere, after all; Junot Diaz in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao keeps tacking ending upon ending after the tragic finale until we are finally presented with an absurd and (if you're me) annoying happy ending. William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor were brave enough never to go that route.

Anyway, I am wondering in my long-winded way if you kind folks have any thoughts about endings. What is the purpose of the last chapter of a novel? Does the author owe the reader anything (I understand that in some genres there are conventions governing endings)? How do you feel about authors who supply morals and the like?


  1. Scott, first of all, congrats on your ending! I know what a relief that is, and how good it feels. That's one of the reasons I write novels - that feeling when I write the last sentence. Not sure if you get that, but I sure do!

    Anyway, to answer your questions.

    What is the purpose of the last chapter of a novel?

    Ah, good question. I think the purpose is, like you say, to get the hell out of the novel. At least, for me, that's usually the case as I'm writing and planning that last chapter. But, the trick is to get out in a way that shows style, grace, and often a clever idea to wrap everything up without it all feeling conveniently wrapped up. I'm not sure I'm very good at that.

    Does the author owe the reader anything (I understand that in some genres there are conventions governing endings)?

    I think the author does owe the reader things in the last chapter. At least we should know the significance of any changes in the main character and what the point of his journey was. That can be quiet or loud. I like quiet endings, myself. I usually hate big loud finales that are obvious endings. I like things to quickly wind down from the climax and exit the stage with a short bow. In Monarch, I have three character POVs to wrap up for the end. So, essentially, I have three ending chapters. I'm not sure if that works, but I certainly like it so far. That doesn't sound like a quick ending, does it?

    How do you feel about authors who supply morals and the like?

    I'm usually annoyed by it, even if it's in one of my favorite classic novels. If there's morals implied in the story, I feel like the writer should respect me enough as a reader to figure out those morals during the story. There should be a layer of them if the writer wants them in there. I don't need to be told those morals at the end. Please, no.

  2. Scott, congratulations! I'm very excited to hear that you have another book under your belt, and I'm excited to read this one whenever you want a reader.

    It's fascinating to me that you would mention these questions about endings because I feel like I have gotten much better at endings after getting your comments on Rooster and after reading some of your stories. Granted, I've also been reading a lot of Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, and Elizabeth Strout short story endings, so I guess I've had a chance to dissect several in the last year.

    Last night I finished a draft of a short story. With everything in mind about what satisfies me as an ending, I realized that I was just trying not to think about it. As I got to the end, I didn't imagine stopping, but tried to keep writing as I normally would if I had a hundred more pages to read. Then, when I hit a particular detail, I just lifted my hands and stopped writing. I don't know if that makes for a satisfying ending, but right now it feels good, like I didn't try to hard or give up either. I think may stories, especially when they are dividing into scenes, have many potential ending places. So, I'm toying with the idea of just stopping at one of them, hopefully at a time when the future can be imagined and when the story resonates as a whole.

  3. I have a tendency for a bit of reflection in the final chapter, a tying up of loose ends, but also a promise of something else. I want an open ending, so to speak, rather than a closed ending a la "they all lived happily ever after". Give me something to think about, ponder, and imagine.

    I think the author owes the reader a sort of closure, but not necessarily total closure - see above paragraph. Life isn't perfect and I don't think the endings of novels should be perfect as well. I like how the movie Avatar ended (and I'm not saying more in case people haven't seen the movie). I think an author owes his/her readers that much.

    Forget the long winded morals of the story. Write a good story, engross me, and leave the morals about to my own belief system . . . and not that of an author. Everybody interprets things differently. Don't skew the interpretation by saying that Dorothy's shoes in the Wizard of Oz represented . . .

    Congrats on finishing this draft of your novel. I'm about there on my current WiP . . . and dragging my feet because I really don't want it to end!


  4. I should be able to comment on this thread later today, The final conflict of my first novel has just ended, and I am pounding out the falling action. It's been a long, strange trip so far...

  5. I prefer a concise ending to a drawn out denouement. I agree with Michelle regarding morals...don't preach to me, if they are evident in the story that's enough for me.

    There are genre-specific requirements, for example in a mystery, you can't leave the case unresolved. However, in a character study, that's fine (e.g. in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN the protagonist retires and the bad guy gets away).

    I like an ending that makes me remember the book and keeps me thinking about it. If it's a cool twist, like in a Harlan Coben novel, it makes me think back to the clues dropped along the way. I recently finished THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF CAVALIER AND CLAY, which ends at a point of transition for all the major characters, and I enjoyed the opportunity to draw my own conclusions about their futures.

  6. For me, the thing is that I don't often remember the endings of novels as well as I remember the middles, so I don't necessarily think that endings are a big deal. Antonia Byatt's The Virgin In The Garden ends with something like, "All novels must end somewhere, and this is as good a place as any." It was as satisfying an ending as any but it was a character study, which agrees with what Rick says. I do think that because my book is a tragedy, there were certain expectations I had to fulfill, because tragedy is, after all, its own genre with its own rules.

  7. I think you (or whoever) shouldn't worry about satisfying anyone, except the ending you set up in the beginning of your particular story. Each story should have the ending IT demands. And to figure that out, you've got to look at the beginning. Questions should have been generated there--did you answer most of them by the end? That’s the only “rule” I expect followed as a reader and I follow as a writer.

    I don’t want to read fiction that’s too realistic in one way: many real-life questions are unfortunately unanswered, but I want them answered in fiction. I’d rather read writers being all-knowing on the page so I don’t wind up as frustrated as in real life.

    You can't get into every reader's head, probably have no idea what each and every one will think; you can't satisfy every reader. Some people will probably wind up annoyed, confused, send you hate mail, no matter what you've written.

    I've written every ending everyone here has complained about. I don't worry about what people will like. That's not my job. Staying true to my story is.

  8. Congratulations on finishing the draft, Scott. That's quite an accomplishment.

    The Last Chapter? I suppose it's to tie up the storyline, to bring the story to a close. Does that mean all the threads end in a knot? I don't think so. There should be a feeling of "the end", but I don't think you have an obligation to provide anyone a warm fuzzy. The last chapter should just be in the same vein and voice as the rest of the work.

    Stephen King's latest novel "Under The Dome" is a prime example IMHO of where the end was done completely wrong. The book is huge, and the last bit felt like he just got tired of writing it and found a convenient and quick end. That is the wrong way to do things. Yes, I dare to question King's greatness. Even a great writer like King can put out works that aren't completely his best.

    I think the only thing you owe the reader is that you will remain true to the story. If the story calls for an uncomfortable ending, then write it that way. If everyone ends up smiling and wealthy, then you should write it that way as well. The reader has stayed with your book because they enjoy the story being told. Don't disappoint them in the end by being "convenient".

  9. I also think it's important that a story end with a feeling of inevitability but not be predictable. I enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, but I saw the ending coming for about 100 pages so by the time I got there, my reaction was more "get it over with already" than "wow." Mighty Reader is currently reading "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" and she's pretty sure, at page 42, that she already knows how it will end. We'll see, and I hope she's wrong about it. Although it's also true that we should read for more than just the mechanics of plot.

    The book I just finished could've ended at the conclusion of any of the last four or five chapters, I think, because it was pretty clear by then what was going to happen. But in a tragedy, at least in my reading (and bolstered by Aristotle, so take that), it's the playing out of all the negative consequences that is the point. And, you know, it was kind of fun to write it all out. I'm oddly morbid that way.

    Hey, perhaps it would be educational if people would talk about endings they thought didn't work, and why. For example, Ian McEwan's Atonement has won all sorts of awards and was a successful movie and I think the ending was a bunch of crap that cheated the reader and I want the money back that I spent on my copy.

  10. What I want from the ending of a book varies according to the type of book it is. I love happy endings but only if the book leading up to it warrants that happy ending.

    I want a resolution--plain and simple. I want loose ends tied up. I HATE being left hanging. I don't even like that in the books of a series. It seems only fair that the end of the book has closure.

    Have marriages. Have murders. Have mayhem. Insanity--fine. There's nothing quite like good psychoses. Love and kisses--great. Everyone but the narrator dies--okay, but there better be a good reason for that. Just don't leave me hanging.

  11. Morals are icky. No, that's not true. Moralizing is icky. I love one particular fantasy series by Stephen Lawhead, but he threw me for a total loop at the end of the third novel in the trilogy by beating me over the head with the moral that I had already apprehended way back in the first or second novel. It's still a very cool series, but I wish he'd restrained his urge to say, "Look, this is what I mean! Isn't that profound?"

    I suppose I'm more a fan of the ambiguous yet strangely satisfying ending. Wrap things up, sure, but not everything. Time will tell if I can end my first novel that way...

  12. Once the climax is reached, I like stories to end. It's rare for me to need to know how all the characters continued on in their journey's or lives. Clear up the main plot issue, resolve personal conflicts (even indecision is a resolution if its written as such), and just end the story. I like memorable last lines better than first lines.

    Especially for trageties. I dislike padded happy endings. I felt Nicholas Sparks' CHOICES had a contrieved happy ending for the sole purpose of making the author's moral point.

    I think both Jane Smiley's THOUSAND ACRES and THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold tied up the main plot nicely, but the book did not end with the families living happily ever after. There were still some issues left hanging. Some readers I talked to didn't like not having all the relationships mend and the story to have a happy ending.

    I thought it was fitting. Life is sometimes messy.

    Congratulations on finishing the story Scott. I know how hard you've been working on it lately. Seems like you made your personal goal.


  13. The one thing I request from writers is that there is an ending and not just a halt in the story.

    The purpose of the ending (AFAIK) is to demonstrate that the main character has "learned his lesson" about life and has grown in some important way, and carries this new knowledge forth in life. It's the closing of the circle. Maybe in chapter one the protagonist is pushed around by bullies, in the end he now pushes them around or is friends with them or whatever makes sense. I think that's why it's called "closure" anyways.

  14. Andrew: ...the main character has "learned his lesson" about life and has grown in some important way, and carries this new knowledge forth in life might not work in all types of stories. This would be the worst possible ending for, say "Hamlet" or "Romeo & Juliet" or "A Farewell to Arms." What then? How do you feel about the ending to The Iliad, where the war isn't over yet and everything stops at Hector's funeral?

  15. Wouldn't your 'tragedy' be more of a tragedy if you broke the genre rules? Inquiring minds want to know!

  16. Scott: I don't know how you make a tragedy "more of a tragedy" except by adding more tragic action. If I ended the book earlier than I have, I think it would become less tragic, rather than more. So my answer is, like, no.

  17. In a tragedy, the main character has really learned his lesson. It's one you don't come back from. His death serves as an object lesson to others.

  18. Andrew: So it's like the whole process is inverted, and the author is actually writing the story of the reader, who learns a lesson and then goes on with his life, older and wiser!

  19. Andrew's first paragraph reminded me that the same thing annoys me. I talked about this a bit here before, and lots of good stuff posted by others in that conversation.

    Scott, you're using mostly examples of ancient stories. People had different expectations of stories then, and those tales had an of-their-time style. Also, they often followed the "enter late, leave early" maxim screenwriters (and fiction writers for that matter) are still taught to follow, both scene-wise and overall story-wise.

    But I don't necessarily agree with that maxim. I prefer slow relentless builds, stories that start at A and go through till Z, not that start at F and stop at W. Then it's like I've been hanging by a poorly rooted plant at a cliff's edge, the root finally yanked from the earth, and I plunged into the cavern below. Give me a strongly rooted plant to cling onto as I slowly walk down the cavern's side....

    "Andrew: ...the main character has "learned his lesson" about life and has grown in some important way, and carries this new knowledge forth in life might not work in all types of stories."

    --Yes, but that can still be a tragedy. For example, if one of the character's has died, the other character's simply learning a lesson won't bring that dead character back to life. A lesson can be learned but the character can still feel suicidally depressed over the loss. And the story could end there.

    I think the power of Shakespeare's work isn't in the tragedy; it's in the tragedy AND the comedy. He usually combined both. A juxtaposition of opposites, a perpetual contrast makes the tragedy sadder and the comedy funnier. The person experiencing the work tends to both cry harder and laugh harder. Till this day, Shakespeare's work remains "edgy" because of this schizophrenic quality.

    (When a sequel's planned would be an exception to all this--then a cliffhanger ending's usually a good thing....)

  20. scott: I was thinking more of the other characters, but that works too. I think if a story is done well then the reader does come away older and wiser. The alternative would be leaving them dead and stupid, and no one likes to leave their readers in that condition.

  21. F.P.: I am using old examples, but I don't think that anyone's done tragedy better than Shakespeare. I'd be happy to look at examples, though. Also, I'm using the examples that best illustrate my own reading habits. Shakespeare and Hemingway and Homer have been big influences on me.

    Thanks for mentioning the humor in Shakespeare, though. I think that the jokes in his tragedies are funnier (possibly only because of placement and the need for comic relief in the latter halves of tragedies) than in his comedies, and in my own tragedies I have again followed the Bard's example and used hi-sterical jokes to lighten the mood.

    I would politely disagree with the idea that Shakespeare and Homer and Hemingway are not timeless, especially if you are talking about story structure. (If that's what you're even saying. And, you know, I always jump up to defend my favorites.) Certainly the sort of "slow buildup" you mention is characteristic of 19th-century literature, but all of that has come and gone in and out of fashion so many times already that we can't really say there's a "modern" way of structuring a story, if by "modern" we mean "new" (though the fashion right now seems to forbid leisurely beginnings, damn it). Anyway, I appear to be rambling so I'll shut up now. Thanks for commenting; you don't do it enough.

  22. No! Of course I think Shakespeare's and Homer's works are timeless (but not Hemingway's--I don't agree there, not enough years have passed to prove that, and I've said I'm not a fan).

    I'm really trying to say that sometimes going too far back with comparisons isn't accurate enough--like people's consciousnesses have changed since, and, therefore, so will how they pen and perceive stories (probably). I know this sucks when you prefer older literature; I do too. But the reality is...we're all writing in this time.

    Unless I'm losing my mind, the modern books (and movies) that seem to last longer today--they tend to build slower and tell more comprehensive tales. Yes, all the talk of hooks and inciting incidents in first pages--that's all fine and dandy, and some popular books and movies have used that formula and gotten on bestseller's lists. But did they last longer than that? Usually, they haven't and they don't.

    To me, too many books today--the words end but the stories don't, that's the real reason why many endings fail. They aren't really endings! "Bad endings" seem the number one reader and viewer complaint. Endings are very important; they're the very last thing the fiction experiencer experiences. They easily leave bad tastes in mouths.

    I just think most endings are too abrupt, so are most beginnings. Like I said, this may sell books over the short term, but the opposite works tend to last over the long term--TODAY'S works I mean. Hundreds of years ago, the "enter late, leave early" seemed the more lasting case, and today's readers accept this structure in an older work more than in a newer one. Writers were more heavily influenced by the theater back then. Well, "the theater" was kind of everything at some points. But people normally have less patience in a theater than they do when sitting down with a book, so enter-late-leave-early makes more sense then.

    ??? I thought I irritated people more than anything with my comments, especially with their length--talk about rambling!

  23. Scott, congratulations on finishing the draft! You must owe yourself a drink/chocolate/lamb chop tonight.

    Of course, there are probably as many opinions on endings as there are readers, so in the end (ha) you probably have to do what's right for you. But I will say (and disagree with FP) that, in my opinion, authors do owe their readers something. First, they owe entertainment (and that includes enlightenment, enjoyment, sorrow, or other revelations). Second, I think ending a book is like ending a date, so when the reader is being dropped off by the author after a long night of wine and pasta (or country line dancing and rodeo or skinny dipping or whatever), a sort of representative denounment is due. Remind them how they felt during the date (while reading), reflect on the essence of that feeling. This can be brief - one sentence - or longer. But, in my opinion, it's hard to love a book with a bad end, so it's important.

  24. Scott, I want to ask you some questions.

    If you spend months penning something and it doesn’t come out the way you personally like, but it nevertheless technically works the way it is and matches the original idea you had in your head, which you actually misunderstood at first, would you then ignore your own feelings and respect what you’ve created, as if it knows best?

    Or, would you then change the work, especially because a favorite book from some other writer (ancient, modern--whatever!) has the kind of ending YOU as a reader like, and you as a CREATOR want that ending on your book?

    For myself, I’ve written stories that I wasn’t personally happy with as the creator, but I could tell the stories nevertheless did their own thing well. And I wasn’t going to spend month after month, year after year arguing with something that now possessed its own reality. I may have decided I no longer like that reality, I may feel disappointed in some of the choices the characters have made, some of the things they’ve said, and so on. But who am I to argue with a story that now has a highly functioning life of its own?

    I tend to first-draft fast beginnings, which aren’t my favorite, as I’ve said. After I’ve penned the endings, I’m often forced to go back into the beginnings to pad them somewhat. I can’t stand this. It’s a flaw in my process. At the same time, I’ve found I can only pad so much. The way my stories (and ideas and themes) are structured overall--my pacing gets messed up if my beginnings aren’t somewhat fast. So, in this way, I’m quite often writing a structure I don't prefer reading. My particular stories demand this, my particular ideas demand this.

    Unfortunately, you can't create a truly marble sculpture by using clay...something like that.

    On your blog I think you’ve indicated that this new novel will wind up being about 90,000 words or so? Would you really say that after all that storytime, you think the natural ending of your story is an abrupt one, like an ending that happens over only a few pages? Is that how you think this will wind up, and that’s the best wind-up? If so, I’m gonna ask...what are you smoking???????? Of course I’m asking this out of my bum as I haven’t read the work, and you’re not even finished yet. But I hope you’ll keep what I’ve been saying in mind a bit for your next book at least.

    GOOD LUCK, however you write!

  25. And I say this NOT because I'm trying to tell you personally how to write. No! My intention is to get other writers to SLOW DOWN some, like in the OVERALL. I feel like we're all rushing around, rushing through our works and forcing readers to rush too. Are we missing some things in all this rat-race writing and reading behavior?

  26. F.P.: I'm going to admit first off that I'm not quite sure what you're asking me. But...

    Can a 90,000-word novel end abruptly and that be a good thing? Yes, depending on the 90,000-word novel. Length of book has no bearing on length of scenes.

    Am I basing my structure on what I think some other writer would do? No. I'm basing my structure on my own ideas and on how I think the story would be best told.

    Are there things to be learned from masters of the craft of fiction and do I think about those things while I write? Certainly.

    I don't think my book is rushed, if I understand the way you're using the word "rushing." As I say, I could've ended the book at the conclusion of chapter 20, but it goes on another 4 chapters as the tragic results play out. But there is no long denouement after the real climax at the end of the book, because I don't like them and one would serve no point.

    But some of the scenes rush, and some of the scenes move languidly, as necessary for each scene. Again, I guess I'm not sure what you're getting at. Feel free to expand. Meanwhile, I have a bus to catch and an hour-long commute! Ta for now!

  27. ...I guess maybe we write too differently to agree on this because the length of the scenes versus overall length does count to me--it counts in the pacing of the overall read, not necessarily the text's pacing. Let me explain....

    A 90,000 word book written in one-paragraph scenes will probably be a different feeling read than a 90,000 word book written in one-page or ten-page scenes. Now a single paragraph can be written slow-paced, and ten pages can be written fast-paced. However, a novel is more than a single paragraph and ten pages. It's page after page after page...after page. As much as I don't write to satisfy readers, whose individual minds I don't know, I do recognize that I'm writing for humans, who have species-wide mental abilities, attention spans, and so on. The experience of a piece of fiction, the length of the sentences, the density of the paragraphs--all this and much more probably affects how the read comes out. It also may affect the interpretation of the contents. I try to keep all this in mind. When I've said I consider myself a "wholistic" writer, I also meant I look at everything, I consider everything.

    I think genre is also relevant here, like a romance written in one-paragraph scenes for 500 pages--that would be tough to pull off because everytime tension between the leads builds, it's interrupted by a line of space or asterisks and the like.

    It's difficult to talk about something I've never read before--I'm only going on what you've said in your posts and any excerpts. I brought up catering to another writer because of this part in your post:

    "I used to follow that model, but now I prefer a more abrupt ending, where you get the hell out of the story once the principal action is over. My favorite ending of any novel is that of Joyce's Ulysses, but my actual model for endings, I think, is Shakespearean tragedy:

    Hamlet: Ouch! (dies)

    Horatio: That's all folks! (waves at audience)


    --I don't understand having a model based on someone else's storytelling. You're not Shakespeare. You're a modern writer living in a modern time, with your own genetic and environmental history. Who cares what Shakespeare did? You're Scott Bailey. Scott Bailey's endings should fit Scott Bailey's stories. I know you admire the ancients, but, again, you're not them. As much as you may be influenced by them, your language and content choices just aren't the same. I know because I've read what you have available. And, in the end, language and content choices should determine the structure, and vice versa. All of this is related.

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  29. I'm harping on this because I've always said (and I stand by it even though I can't prove it) that Shakespeare wouldn't have made a great novelist. He was a great playwright, yes. But I think reading a novel by him would have been torture. He was all over the place, dipping into this and then dipping into that. I DON'T think your writing is torture. But when you keep bringing him up, I'm afraid for what might happen with your writing someday!

    Novels require a laser-like focus for wherever the author is in the narrative AND for what the overall should portray; I wouldn't exactly use laser-like to describe Shakespeare's writings. He was excellent at condensing down "truisms," but then he was forever jumping off one truism's spring toward yet another one. He's just all over the place too much.

    I don't understand--why on earth don't you write plays? If you admire playwrights so much, why not give that a shot?

    For straight prose narratives and novels I'll make a little suggestion to everyone--FWIW! Try Cervantes if you must go back really far. Look at how comprehensive his writing was. Same for many of the other Spanish novelists. I think the novel (and the short story) probably directly came out of their "culture"--they deserve their due for the artform. Spanish-Latin prose tends to be very comprehensive, from beginning to end. But even their very short works--to me, out of all the short stories ever written, comparatively few in-quality match Pedro Antonio De Alarcon's The Stub Book. And the ones that do, several of them are by Jean Rhys.

  30. F.P.: I hesitate to reply, but I'll go ahead anyway. You seem to be saying two things: that I should ignore the authors I admire because they're from the past and I should remember that I'm a modern writer, and also that I should just be myself. The thing is, as just myself, I want to write books like the books I love. Which tend to be classics. So you give me conflicting advice even if you don't mean to. And like all conflicting advice, in the end it's of no use.

    The thing is, the lessons learned from Shakespeare, James, Joyce, et al are pertinant to today. Because whatever the forms used today are (and I disagree with you that books have more slow starts now and that the in medias res beginnings are old-fashioned; I think you've got it exactly backwards), the've already been used in the past because the fashions have cycled around enough times by now.

    That I love the ending of Joyce's "Ulysses" does not mean that it's an appropriate form for the end of my current novel. That I use the pattern of Shakespeare only means that I'm a bright guy and I see where my influences come from. When I was writing my end, I did not think "say, what would old Willy do here?" I just recognize the form I used, after the fact. I see that I phrased it badly in the post so it might look like I am consciously patterning the work on Shakespeare. But it's only now, that I've finished the book, that I see what I was doing with it. This is all in retrospect.

    I'd also like to say, as a sort of general comment, that while I agree with you in that writers should feel free to ignore all the models of the past, what I've read of your own work is pretty traditionally-written, at least in terms of prose and structure. Your premises can be pretty wild and head-turning, but the nuts-and-bolts of your writing seems to be informed by the same tradition as my own. Which is not a criticism, obviously, else I'd be criticizing myself and it's not that sort of day. My point, I think, is that your worry that my love of Shakespeare (or any other literary master of the past) is in any way a potential harm, is misplaced. I also must disagree with you that Shakespeare would be a bad novelist. He was a brilliant story teller. Lots of novelists, even those writing today, go on countless digressions.

    See? We can disagree, but that doesn't mean we have to be having a fight! As you say, we're just different as writers.

  31. Only disagree with me where it's something I've said lol!

    "and I disagree with you that books have more slow starts now and that the in medias res beginnings are old-fashioned; I think you've got it exactly backwards"

    --I didn't say that. I said/meant the opposite: that most books today have fast beginnings and fast endings. I wish they DID have slow starts. But the ones that have slow starts and slow endings today, I think those last longer, they don't normally wind up being one-hit wonders, whereas the ones with fast-starts and endings are more likely to. There's the comprehensiveness issue too: the more comprehensive works tend to last longer.

    I think all the structures used today are probably old, if you go back far enough. But the in-late-out-early seems to have the longest history--you yourself correctly indicated this when you said about the Illiad and then vs. the 19th century novels being structured slower. I think before then, the quicker "movements" in written stories were more common because of the influence of oral storytelling and plays. Even Moll Flanders, one of my favorites--the plotting's kind of wacky.

    In my opinion, novelwriting isn't wholly storytelling; storytelling's only one part of novelwriting. Playwriting and screenwriting are where storytelling is the almost sole focus. Novels are largely about ideas too, or they should be or else I don't consider them novels, just maybe superlong stories. A novel isn't simply a superlong story; something "other" should be going on in there. A glue also needs to hold the whole together more tightly because losing focus in such a long work is easy.

    To me, BAD novelists jump all over the place. The best stay focused. Most of the more recent classics read as very focused works. Balzac's work might be an exception. He's one of the few more unfocused classic novelists, I think.

    I've read very widely, including various kinds of classics. Informed by tradition doesn't necessarily equal copying tradition. Neither does being influenced by tradition equal copying tradition. I never copy. I stay completely within each of my works and never think about anyone else or any other writing or any writing history, even through my revisions. I love a good deal of Jean Rhys's writings, but I'd never want to write like her. I couldn't be as good as her at what she did. I'm not her. I think that correctly reading her own work within its own context may be the most important technique a writer must master.

    We're not having a fight--I never once thought that. But I hope my posts have answered why I don't comment here much--the differences in ideologies.

  32. "And like all conflicting advice, in the end it's of no use."

    --I'm gonna end here with one of my favorite quotes/ideas, from Walt Whitman:

    "Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then, I contradict myself
    (I am large--I contain multitudes.)"

    Conflicting advice CAN be of use: try doing BOTH ideas separately. Expand like a big balloon. See what happens after that.

    Finally, why can't you write what you like to read? Why must you think of it as "like the books you love"? Think of all the qualities the books you love contain and then write those qualities without referencing the books they came from. Even make a list of the qualities if you have to. The books you love weren't perfect--strive for something better than they are, something beyond them, your own favorite bestest book that you pen!

  33. But why not think of the books I love as "the books I love?" Where's the harm in that? I do try to write books like the books I love. Those qualities in books I like to read are qualities I found and keep finding in books I love. To pretend that I can think about the last chapter of "Ulysses" without thinking about the book and James Joyce is merely disingenuous. There is no harm done by thinking about our literary influences. There is no harm done by admitting that they have influenced us (because they have), and there is no harm done by attempting the feats they attempted (because we will attempt them anyway). To pretend otherwise is...well, I don't know what.

    I think that the idea of individuality is very important to you, much more important than it is to me. But I'm going to assert that in the end, we are equally influenced by the writers we admire. I prize good writing and good storytelling far more than I prize originality or creativity; there's a lot less good writing and good storytelling to be found, so it's more valuable. Your writing and storytelling is good because, like it or not, it's very solidly traditional.

  34. ...A fictional work’s structure is only one of its parts. A building could have a traditionally square framework, but the building winds up untraditional overall because concrete, clay--something is used to build-up pad the walls into curves. And without any padding, a framework provides no shelter, no warmth.

    I’ve read a lot and I’ve read widely, both in kind and date, so I’m sure I’ve absorbed traditional storytelling techniques, both subconsciously and consciously, the latter to a lesser extent. I avoid making formal studies of writing. I believe it happens more on a subconscious level than a conscious, and I don’t want to mess with that process. My fictions tend to be traditionally structured, but in my opinion they aren’t traditional overall because of the padding. If you’re saying they are, I must say bullcrappy! Maybe to you they seem traditional because structure is a primary focus of yours, and you’re used to applying this expectation to your own writing. That works in your writing, but I don’t think heavily focusing on structure while writing works for too many writers. They’ve not read enough classics and read them widely, so their writing often comes out too mechanical.

    Plus, in my work, the traditional parts are maybe a springboard--they’re not meant as The End. I can’t demand how anyone should read my writing, but I can say to try rereading some of it.

    Normally when judging a work's writing quality, I cater my reading to the specific written work--trying to gauge what the creator's intentions seem to have been and whether those intentions have been met in the executions; that's a primary focus of mine. I really wish others would use the same analysis for my work. But, at the same time, I don't like forcing reads.

    In general today, I see too much focus on “experimentally” messing with structure and not enough focus on messing with contents. Traditional storytelling techniques have already been proven to work, based on having been tested over the millennia by many different writers. Throwing those techniques away is like reinventing the wheel. That’s stupid. At the same time, like I said, all the stuff around the basic techniques is where I think originality should come in more. Lots of room for exploring there; in my opinion, writing humanity hasn’t done enough of that. That’s my focus in my work.

    I’m gonna cite two movies here: Memento and Run Lola Run. The latter messes with structure, but it does this in a philosophical way and for a seemingly philosophical purpose, and for a movie especially, philosophical is more original. Memento messes with structure even more, so much so that it falls flat in the end. The structure is all. The structure messing IS the movie’s seeming purpose. I don’t understand why most people who’ve seen both seem to think Memento is the better movie. To me, it’s too contrived. It’s art for art’s sake.

    Anyway, I just looked up in medias res, and at least wikipedia agrees with me about the ancientness of that type of technique lol!

    “The Roman lyric poet and satirist Horace (65–8 BC) introduced the terms in medias res (“into mid-affairs”) and ab ovo (“from the egg”) in the Ars Poetica (“Poetic Arts”, ca. 13 BC)…Likely original to the oral tradition, the narrative technique of beginning a story in medias res is a stylistic convention of epic poetry, the exemplar in Western literature being the Iliad (9th c. BC) and the Odyssey (9th c. BC), by Homer.”

    I’ve also randomly pulled out several of Shakespeare’s plays--they all start later on or "in the middle." The first lines of several--or even THE first line--contain the word again. The “English” language has changed so much--I’m not sure that again necessarily (or always) had the same meaning as today, but, regardless, I think there’s a strong feeling of not being in the past at the start of Shakespeare’s plays, almost like a constant nostalgia to his style.

  35. Scott, Congrats on finishing your WIP!

    I love endings most of the time. I think the purpose of the last chapter and the ending depends entirely on the purpose of the book. There's certainly nothing wrong with wrapping up things, or leaving the end open to interpretation.

    For my current novel, I knew the ending pretty much from the time I start writing and in a way, the novel took shape around it. However, I decided to expand the ending because the book went a slightly different direction.

  36. Yes, congratulations! I like to throw my pen out an open window to celebrate whenever I finish a novel.

    I've been working on this section of my book on writing a lot in the last few weeks: the parts of a novel. The ending does have a purpose, and it's very specific.

    The ending is the reason you wrote that entire novel in the first place.

    And why did you write an entire novel? (Years of your life gone!)

    To drop-kick your reader into space. That's actually a writer's fundamental job.

    The novel itself is just the set-up.

    Now I think about it, the post I put up on She Writes last Friday addresses this issue exactly, at greater length. (You'd think I'd remember my own posts, wouldn't you?)

  37. Crimey: Thanks! I think it's good to have an ending in mind before we sit down to write, but we can't rule out improvisation and new ideas.

    Victoria: I think I disagree with you that there is a single specific role for endings, or even that the ending is the most important part of a story. I think that in a lot of stories, the really important bits that got the author to sit down and write, occur in the middle of the book. In fact, about a third of the way through one of A.S. Byatt's novels, she stops the action to point out that the scene you're reading is the image that sparked her to write the novel. She's a funny old thing, that Antonia Byatt.

    F.P.: Yes, structure is only one of a fiction's parts, and I don't look at fiction primarily for structure; I look at it for ideas, just like anyone else. And your ideas, as I said earlier, are often new and different, or you give a new spin on an old idea. But the thing is, the basic mechanics of your storytelling (which goes beyond structure) are very traditional, and well-grounded in classic fiction. You might dislike my saying that, but it's still true and it's still a very important point to make. You have your individual ideas, but without the solid, traditional methods of storytelling that you use in all your writing, those ideas would be a meaningless hash of words. The ideas themselves are not enough to hold the fictions you write together; they are presented to the reader via a solid structure of good old-fashioned prose writing, that follows the general rules of good writing that Davin, Michelle and I all talk about here at the Literary Lab. Which is why I get cranky sometimes when you decry any talk of rules as some kind of shackles made to imprison the writer. Because they are not; they are tools we all use. You use them too. All the time. They are good things that we should embrace.

    Your subject matter, as I say, is often very interesting and intriguing, but here we talk about ways to make good fiction out of subject matter that interests us, and the techniques of making good fictions transcend subject. I think that a lot of good can come of writers talking to other writers about ways to make good fiction on a purely technical level. To my eye, you seem to resist that idea and I don't understand why anyone would.

  38. I think the purpose of the last chapter, at least in my writing, is to tie everything up and give some hint that things are going to stay sorted out, for the time being at least. To explain to the reader that things are different as a result of the story that just happened.

    I think the author owes the reader a satisfying ending, although the definition of satisfying can vary. Personally, I'm an HEA girl, so sometimes I'm a little bitter about being denied those, but I it depends on the reader and the stories.


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