Monday, February 20, 2006

The End of It All

As natural continuation to yesterday's flaming asses, what do you look for at the end of a tail...tale?
One might say there are three categories of endings: happy, sad and ambivalent.
Or two types of construction: one where everything is neatly packaged and all questions in sub-themes answered; or one where the major points are satisfactorily concluded but niggles remain.
Some category stories spend the last few pages in de-briefing session with the main characters where they discuss the plot, in effect, over a meal in a restaurant, on a beach ( far from the maddening crowd) or have one of those effusive, talkative villains reveal all, or the hero/ine confess their motivations/strategums before the closing clinch in the sunset. Et cetera. Very tidy.
But how does a serial story, which by nature has to employ the reader hook of suspense fit in all this?
Some serials are constructed on the basis of the adventures of one or more characters. Each story ends in a tidy knot, but the profession of the character/s (I'm thinking characters like Perry Mason, Nero Wolf, James Bond, etc. or any detective/spy type here) leads one to expect and anticipate serial adventures. Eagerly.
A form of character suspense, as it were.
Then there's stories where certain themes or problems are introduced but not solved; and while the ending satisfactorily concludes the major adventure, the story is plainly "to be continued."
Here we may see the Sherlock Holmes thread of the arch villian, or the romantic interest in the elusive hero of Elizabeth Peters's Vicky Bliss series.
Examples abound of writer's who have combined these two main hooks, or added others of a quest-type nature.
Theme suspense, perhaps, for want of a better term.
Sometimes acerbated by ending the story at the beginning of the next adventure.
Everything is winding down and as you, the reader, begin to smile and think about investigating the fridge, then the hero's car blows up.
Then there's Robert Jordan.
He uses everything, all of the above - but then, in his series, the Fate of the World is the over-riding plot. I just wish he'd get to some sort of conclusion - but that's irrelevant.
But to get back to the point, my Damie, whose adventures began as a stand alone, seems determined to involve herself in further disruptions of the space-time continuium ( there are so many wonderful legends for her to de-bunk, you see); doesn't expect her relationship/ mutual attraction with John to be solved in the usual, simple manner, ( she's a mature, not particularly dewy-eyed, woman with a bitter grief behind her and a clear-eyed view that love/attraction doesn't necessarily conquer all conflicts.)
Thanks to Rick and Savannah, I just finished a short adventure featuring Damie (and John), and dammit , at the end - the car blew up!
I'm wondering if, in your eyes, this is kulturni - or just clunky.

Backward, ring the bells: To give the alarm, circa 1500-1890; colloquial to Standard English. Derived from the practice of beginning with the bass when the bells were rung.
Bacon-tree: A pig; Lancashire jocular colloquialism; 1867; because a pig is "growing bacon."
Badge, he got his: branded on the hand; about 1720-1840.
Badger: (1) nautical - Neptune in equitorial ceremonies; 19th c. (2) a red-headed person; 19th-20th c. (3) in cant, a river-thief, who, after robbing, murders and throws his victims in the river; about 1720-1830. (4) a common harlot; 19th c. (5) a brush; artists; late 19th c.>. (6) a bandicoot, rock wallaby,or, in Tasmania, a wombat; Australian; 19th-20th c.


Sandra Ruttan said...

What do I look for at the end?

Oh, um, most issues resolved, I guess. Not all - I'm pragmatic enough to feel that in real life we don't get that, and I don't understand people pressuring for police procedures to be technically correct in every aspect, but then want an unrealistic ending. Sometimes, you don't get the bad guy.

One of the best endings ever was The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham, and if you've read the book, you know it left you hanging. But I loved it.

So closure, happiness... it isn't required for me as a reader.

As a writer, particularly trying to get a publisher, the pressure was definitely on to tie up loose ends.

Maybe best said that if you look at the story as a problem you confront your character with that will require them to grow or change, the outcome is when they've made that change. Does that make any sense?

It's too early. And it's a stat holiday here. I'm going back to bed.

Sandra Ruttan said...

should have been police procedurals - see, told you I should go back to bed.

Savannah Jordan said...

My favourite ending (to write) is what my primary reader calls a "rug puller." Seems I have a skill at letting the reader believe there might be some kind of HEA, but then WHAM! jerk the rug out from under them. *evil grin* Kind of like the ending of that dance vingette in my blog. ;)

As far as reading others works, I want an ending that is not disengenious from the rest of the text. If it is a series, there should be room for logical progression, that 'niggle' as you've called it.

I'm proud of you venturing out and trying new things, Bernita! Yay car crash!! I say leaving wondering... And I appreciate the nod, too.

Ric said...

I dislike investing hours of my time in a character and then have the author resolove the main problem and leave us wondering what happens next.
ESPECIALLY when you know there isn't going to be another book. (Unlike Bernita's series idea)

In reality though, there is no other way to do it. The hero rides off into the sunset.

Perhaps that's the genious of a good writer - you don't want to close the book, you want to ride along, stay with your new friend, grow old together.

Carla said...

I like to have everything tidied up at the end, certainly everything important. I don't mind if it's hinted at rather than explained ('Villette' comes to mind), but I feel done if I'm left with a 'so then what happened?' or a 'why did she do that?' question.

Since Damie is an investigator, the serial issue could be solved for you in the same way as for James Bond (or Richard Hannay, for that matter); you resolve the current investigation in each story and then a new investigation/event starts a new story. I'd have no problem with that. If her relationship with John is going to extend and grow over several books (and/or if the individual investigations end up fitting together to make a pattern), that would be terrific - a sort of series theme on top of the individual stories.

Bernita said...

Thank you, I tend to like things tidied up but it occured to me that series writing doesn't necessarily follow that taste absolutely, and if the character/issues/adventures are attractive enough, I like repeats. I want more.
That, of course, depends on the skill of the writer ( which in my case is presently moot).
I think what I'm asking is basically a technique- related question.
How irritating do you find "rug-pulling, as Savannah puts it; or, less wickedly, a direct and specific indication, of the 2x4 variety, that - while this episode is over - the adventure is on-going.
And there are certain character relationship that realistically can't be resolved in some time-lines.That's what got me into this series thing. It wasn't intended at the first.
One finds oneself between the Scylla and Charybdis of opposing methods of instigating reader's interest in "more."
I really appreciate your comments.

Rick said...

I'm not a fan of ambiguous endings (though The Burning Girl is such a hideously good title that it instantly catches my attention). Generally, though, I want the major issues in a book to be tied up.

This isn't to say that the resolution of one book can't imply the next. For detective/spy type characters, their job implies further adventures, that need not be directly connected. When we close the book there are no loose ends, but we can be sure that another sultry brunette will show up in the hero's seedy office, or another megalomaniac will steal a nuke.

An alternative approach is a "historical" progression, like Toynbee's challenge-and-response and Asimov's Seldon Crises. Our hero has overcome a challenge, and we can take full satisfaction in it, but the nature of the situation implies another challenge to come.

Thus, Catherine of Lyonesse ends with my girl sailing for home to take her throne. Which resolves the issue of the book, but implicitly raises the question of how 17 and female will hold the throne now that she's got it.

Carla's synopsis that she ran through the Crapometer has the same implication. Wulfric (or whatever his real name is) has solved the problem of loyalties that he faced, but by solving it he has created new possibilities and challenges for himself.

Bernita said...

That may well sum it up, Rick, Damie's character and the situations, both internal and external both imply on-goings.
I'm wondering if that is enough.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"'m not a fan of ambiguous endings (though The Burning Girl is such a hideously good title that it instantly catches my attention). Generally, though, I want the major issues in a book to be tied up."

Oh, the major issues are. Just one thing...and it is part of a series, so you get your answers in Lifeless.

I asked Mark Billingham about it and one thing he said, which I agree with, is that in a series the events in one book have to impact the character in subsequent books to greater or lesser degrees - you can't have a character that doesn't carry some baggage, have 'history' with people like an ex-wife or whatnot.

I think if you read TBG you'd kinda see better what I mean. It's a brilliant mystery novel that had me glued to it.

And yes, the genius is in making the reader not want to see characters go. I get to the end of the book and am depressed because I want more, that's a great book.

Bernita said...

Seems to me, Sandra, that's related to what I call the Greater and Lesser suspense - and that both should leap-frog, throughout the book and on to the next.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I like "tied-up" endings, at least of the major plot points. I once finished a book, while walking on my treadmill, that ended so lousey, that I threw the book at the wall in front of the tresdmill with such force that it propelled me off the back....never bought that author again...dangerous to my health!

Carla said...

Thank you, Rick; well spotted. I came to the series issue from the opposite end; I originally started out writing the story as a single book and discovered there was so much to cover that it would take several. So I turned it into a series, which raised the problem of how to make each book stand by itself while still contributing to the overall story.
Bernard Cornwell deals with this in 'Sharpe' as follows. First chapter, some toff (on his own or the opposite side) annoys Sharpe. 250 pages of events deepen the conflict between them. Last few chapters, climactic battle scene at the end of which Sharpe kills the guy who annoyed him in Ch 1 and may or may not get a (usually temporary) girl. Repeat for each book. Overall series has the theme of the Peninsular War, so Wellington gradually drives Napoleon out of Spain, plus a rather limited development of Sharpe's love life.
It works very well, except that after however many Sharpe books I'm finding the repeat-as-needed formula a bit, well, formulaic. I'd prefer either a stronger series theme or more variety in the individual stories.
I find a developing relationship is a good series theme, because it's ongoing by its very nature and the individual story themes can play into it - as the character(s) react to the events in each plot they alter, and so the ongoing relationship naturally also alters. The original series of 7 or so Sharpe books did this reasonably well with Sharpe's three women, but then when Cornwell went back and added lots more Sharpe to capitalise on the TV series, I suppose he couldn't slot the extra stories into this relationship progression; hence all the temporary one-book girls. So I got bored.

Rick said...

Sandra - I think what Billingham describes is the difference between a true sequential series, and a purely episodic one, in which it doesn't matter in what order you read the books.

Interesting to compare this to television. American TV series were traditionally purely episodic, linked only by the setting and characters, but there's been a distinct trend toward overall story arcs.

From a practical viewpoint each has advantages. Overall development in a series adds richness, but it means they should really be read (or watched) in order. Someone who starts with the 3rd book will never get the full flavor of the thing, because even if they backtrack, they already know the overall outcome of the earlier books.

Though this whole thing about knowing the outcome is interesting. People really dislike spoilers! Yet was anyone who read Pride and Prejudice really expecting that Elizabeth wouldn't end up with Darcy?

The worst ending I have ever read is A Farewell to Arms. Yeah, Papa Hemingway was all arty and deep and all, but having Cat get run over by a bus on the last page just plain stinks.

Carla - That sounds familiar. I ended up writing a prequel to the original book I had in mind. Which has since vanished from the story arc; God willing and the river don't rise, I'll follow the original Catherine books with a second series set some years later.

Cornwell ran into the problem of extending his series beyond the original concept. I'm reminded of the poor girls on old "Bonanza," who always wound up getting killed off so they wouldn't clutter up the ranch.

Bonnie - LOL! I've often heard of people throwing a book against the wall, but this is the first time I've heard of Newton's Laws taking a hand, and propelling the book-thrower in the other direction.

Carla said...

"Though this whole thing about knowing the outcome is interesting."

I have a vague theory that a good story is one that's still good even when I know the outcome. Those are the books I keep and re-read. 'Pride and Prejudice' is one. 'Sharpe' isn't.
(And no, I can't define the difference. It's the same thing that makes 'story' rather than 'plot', as discussed a few weeks ago).

ivan said...

We are all subconsciosly aping Agatha Christie (Myself, I prefer Iris Murdock, especially when she teams up with Colin Wilson on some science fiction thing).
Love Iris Murdock for style. brings me up to the 20th century at least. I also like her point of view, usually from an elderly upperclass gent...Certainly not me, though I am elderly and violently kicked out of the upperclass, or uppermiddle to be precise.
Sandra knows what she's doing, and her advice would be well adhered to.
Myself, I am fond of open endings, as was the case with my Light Over Newmarket; the hero could go either way, or could just go on forever. My book was only successful in Ontario, so there is a caveat.
I would certainly revisit Iris Murdock--and if you want to give up writing, Joyce Carol Oates. She gives me a complex.

ivan said...

That should be Iris Murdoch.
Woozy this morning too.

M. G. Tarquini said...

At the end, I want issues resolved in a satisfactory way. One that lets me imagine the true ending, at the very least. Even in serial books. I read LOTR back before it was available on every street corner. I remember getting to the end of Book I and thinking, 'Now what?'. I got to the end of Book II and thought, 'WTF?' (Or whatever the colloquial equivalent of the time was). I got to the end of Book III and was like, 'Okay, that's fine, you can end it any time now.'

Imagine had I picked up The Two Towers on the bus and tried to just READ it. I mean picked it up having no idea who JRRT or hobbits were? That was possible back in the days when I first read it.

So, an ending that does not REQUIRE I go to the next book. Also, I want a happy ending. Or at least a hopeful ending. All Quiet on the Western Front had a good ending. Doesn't mean I'd want to read it again. It bummed me out. Think of all the sad, tragic ended books you've many do you want to pick up and read again, knowing what is coming? Not a lot.

Does that mean I won't read books with tragic endings? Of course not. But if the writer isn't Hemmingway or Faulkner, if the subject matter isn't so compelling that I can't NOT read it. I won't be reading it again, and maybe not seeking out the author again.

So - I want to be left with hope for the future. Most of the time.

Erik Ivan James said...

The other commentors have said far more than I possibly could already, but I like M.G.'s thought re "...hope for the future."

However, in your series Bernita, I don't want to see John hang around very long. Damie is the series character strength to me. She is strong and new adventures will be created by her and because of her. In my mind, John gets to be hot for awhile then he's gotta go. But then, that is just a personal thing---maybe I want Damie all to myself.:)

Bernita said...

You know, Erik, I've contemplated killing John off - the pathos - but he's such a really decent guy...I hope she is an attractive character and you're just being your usual Dear Guy.

Carla, you've put your finger on the fact that sometimes we are content and interested in the "how" rather than the "what." I like to see versions of Shakespearian plays, for example, just to see how the story's treated.

I like the distinction between episodic and sequential, but I'm not convinced about the drawbacks, Rick, I've landed in the middle of a series, and have been frantic to find the earlier books, because the characters/plots/twists/what-have-you made me hungry to read them.Goes with "how" again, rather than "what."
Your description of "historical progression" being implicit is excellent.

Ooops, Bonnie!
~looking at the exploding car with dismay~

I must be dim today, Ivan, I don't get the Aggie Christie connection.

Like you, Mindy, I really don't care for the sad ending. Enough of that in real life.

Rick said...

Bernita - What I said about sequential series was a bit muddled. You can still be eager to read the previous books (if the series is good you will be), but it won't be quite the same experience as reading from the beginning.

MG - LOTR started the fad for fantasy trilogies, but it is not really a trilogy, just a single looong novel split into three volumes. So trying to read it starting with Two Towers would be like starting any novel a third of the way in!

But working on a sequel, as I'm finding out, is its own interesting challenge, because I have to take into consideration both readers who have read the first book and those who haven't. (And, on another level, I already know some characters well from the first book, but others I'm only now getting acquainted with.)

And yes, if I want sad endings I can read them in the LA Times. All Quiet on the Western Front was a bummer, but still an appropriate and thus "good" ending. The ending of A Farewell to Arms felt forced, a Hollywood ending in reverse. Like Hemingway got to the logical end, then said "Oh, wait! This is 1929, I'm an expat, and an embodiment of 20th c. angst - I can't write a fun book like this! Ah, but if I kill off the girl at the end, for no particular reason, that will make it Deep."

Bernita said...

Maybe I'm weird, Rick, but I find it just as satisfying.
I wholehearted agree with you on the endings contrived to be "deep" and "tragic." So like an old worn-out sofa, where one can see the frame and springs.
I've dealt with those challenges in this sequel/short/episode/what-ever-it-is.
Tended to use the references to past events as a suspense-in-reverse technique - a hook to make the reader want to read about the previous adventures and get the whole "exciting" story.
I found it relatively easy and natural to insert references, but that claim, of course, is entirely subjective and suspect - without peer review, one might say.

Gabriele C. said...

I like bittersweet endings. You know, the sort where some likeable character has to die and world is somewhat saved, but not perfectly so. Where too much has changed to go back to normal.

I'm not the most avid reader of series and multilogies. There's scarcely one that doesn't start to bore me at some point. In series, the problem often is a lack of development of the main character - he solves a lot of mysteries but remains more or less the same. That goes even for an interesting character like Cadfael, and James Bond is a plain bore, sorry. In case of multilogies it's the increasingly greater stakes that make it unbelievable at some point. A character may have been set up to deal with evil guy, but needs new skills to deal with eviller guy and those aren't developed in the books, they come out of nowhere.

And sometimes, writers just get too wordy, too repetitive, too lost in details. Like Gabaldon and Auel.

Oh, and I hate the romance HEA endings were an independent and strong woman ends up happily changing diapers and doing charity stuff instead of earning her own money.

Personally, I'm going to kill off enough characters to escape writing sequels. *mwuahaha*

Rick said...

Bernita - I'm doing the same thing, dropping in little references to events in the first book as teasers. Though a few have to be nailed down firmly, since they're important, but not automatically implied by the sequel.

Gabriele - Yes, endless series tend to become either repetitive, or require ever-escalating super-villains with ever more outlandish super-powers.

Your late-Roman settings kind of lend themselves to bittersweet endings, no? No matter what professional historians say, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is so deeply rooted in the culture that any story set in that era will be read in that light.

Killing off sympathetic characters - that's tough. Not just because you like them, but because that can also be a cheat, a surefire way to mess with the reader's head. Not to say it shouldn't sometimes be done, but it has its own temptations.

Bernita said...

I'm not fond of killing off characters, except for the bad ones, or minor ones, but I know what you mean, Gabriele. It can be very poignant and affecting.
One can't expect a mature character to change so much as a young thing. Not sure I have much use for the mature character who changes radically. Always makes me wonder why were they a useless idiot before.
Brother Caedful faces a number of conflicts of loyalties and duties during his detecting, particularly in Brother Caedful's Pennance.

I'm glad to hear that, Rick. I found it fairly painless exercise and supposed I might be doing something wrong accordingly.

Gabriele C. said...

Yep, I know that an older character can't change that much, that's probably why my MCs tend to be rather young - no longer boys, but young men.

In the context of so much war, death and suffering, it would be wrong to have the main characters all escape. I don't write romance, after all. ;-)

I think it can work if it's subtly hinted at in the book that someone might not survive, if the death is necessary in the context of plot and character development and not a spite of the author (Talorcan learns a lot about tolerance, but too late to save Cailthearn, and that's the tragedy) if there's no imaginable 'sorta happy future' for the character anyway (a heroic death is the best I can do for Roderic, believe me) and if one has several MCs and kills off one. There'll still be other characters for the reader to like and maybe identify with.

Look at GRR Martin, he kills of main charcters all the time.

And I have to do something about those extra long sentences. :-)

R.J. Baker said...

I don't know if there is a simple anwser. In the genre I love mysteries and thillers, the over all mystery is solved and neatly tied up or not, but the character development of the protagonist is ongoing. He or she evolves over the series, that's what keeps me coming back for more, honestly the mystery or "thilling situation" is entertaining thriller.

Is he or she going to sleep with X. Will his father or mother forgive him. Wife take him back? Divorce him? Shot him? Ex-lover? Etc.,etc.

Ambiguity is nice in some cases. Sometimes the villan survives the first novel to really get justice in the second.

There is definitely an art to the series. Many master it and many other lose the thread of reality.

Tricky writing, planning and a good question.

Rick said...

Gabriele - Well, c. AD 400 was a lousy time for life insurance!

I think part of my reaction in this discussion of killing off sympathetic major characters is reaction to a bit of advice I saw: In a series, especially the first book, always kill one off, so the reader knows the stakes are for real. I can see the point, but that is so cynical.

But if an editor tells me to do it, I'll do it - even though I'll feel terrible for one of Catherine's ladies in waiting, because she's got the target painted on her.

Shesawriter said...

I'm an HEA kind of girl, which is why I avoid every book Oprah recommends.


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