Sidebar: Send a message, not a sermon

>> Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Agents and publishers frequently express concern about stories sent them with a distinct message, noting such stories are frequently heavy-handed with the story subverted by the need to make the message plain. Stories completely focused on such messages are often preachy, condescending and, much worse, boring and pompous. The stories, twisted to suit the message, come off contrived and clumsy.

This not only makes a crappy story, it does a rotten job of sending a message. Anyone with kids can tell you beating a kid over the head with a message is no way to get them to learn. Example is, and will always be, the best way of communicating behavior and life lessons, as many a parent has learned the hard way. Do as I say and not as I do–you're dreaming if you think that's any way to raise a child. But, if a child understands why something is, if they see the effects of what you do, that can make an impression they don't even consciously recognize. Which is why so many adults discover they're channeling their parents when they deal with their own children–to their chagrin.

But, as I said last time, I don't think a story sans message is even feasible. I don't think you can have challenging situations and characters that grow and react to those situations without sending messages: what are good things to do, what are bad things to do, how those reactions reflect on you, what society does as opposed to what it should do. Sometimes the stories speak of a situation that needs changing by shining light on the parts people in the "clean world" don't like to believe actually exist. These are the ones that most easily can slip into sermon. However, that same subject can be just as clearly portrayed as a backdrop on a story, having repercussions naturally through the story without subverting it or being the focus. The message comes through as thoroughly, if not more thoroughly, because it feels true, it feels real instead of contrived. It doesn't subvert the story which can be as positive or negative as one's heart desires.

However, even stories with no axe to grind whatsoever still have something to say, a natural fallout of characters that grow. The messages might not be uplifting: "sometimes bad things happen no matter what you do," "some people can't be trusted," "people are stupid," etc. Sometimes, they're light: "live a little" or "sometimes love is enough." But even fluff can have something important to say, can say it unmistakably without getting weighed down or even precluding entertainment. The less the reader notices the message, the more effective it likely it might be, because that often means the reader has identified with the message so absolutely they already agree or they've just absorbed it as natural.

As soon as your message starts to make the story unnatural, you're doing the neither the message nor the story any good. In the interest of stopping with the dead horse beating, let me give you some examples from my own works.

Curse of the Jenri: Badass Amazon-like women (Jenri) excel in magic and armed combat and marry men outside their tribe because they can't have male children. Tander, happy-go-lucky mercenary, and Layla, serious top level Jenri, are married. Tander has to embrace his "shameful" magical talents and ally himself with others in order to rescue his wife and others from top level magic-wielders (tolerance, using one's potential fully, learning responsibility). Layla's prideful self-sufficiency nearly gets herself and others killed because she keeps her problems hidden. Flashbacks to Jenri show how an oppressive and abusive environments can warp one's character, drive one to do what one would never do otherwise, but also how kindness can promote healing. With my badass Jenri, feminism is a rather natural fallout. Most of this is not specifically driven but falls naturally out of the story. I don't know how, in fact, I could tell the story without saying all these things that I believe. I don't have to state them directly (though I sometimes do via one character or another). The story tells it for me.

Beast Within - Xander (dragon), and his secret group of shapeshifters, is stranded with a large group of refugee children on a remote planet with no hope of escape. The planet might kill them if they don't use all their shapeshifter talents. The humans might kill them if they find out they're shapeshifters (as many humans consider shapeshifters and those with psionic talents "demons"). Fear of that makes the shapeshifters willing to kill to protect their secret. Xander is the leader (though not the oldest) because he is the strongest in his animal form, but he fears his perceived "weakness" and his other form because of his father's abuse. He must embrace his strengths and overcome his own fears of his other self in order to have his group (and the humans) survive. He must also stand firm on doing the right thing rather than succumb to fear or lose his humanity and precious abilities. This is a story all about what one is vs. who one is. Xander (who begins the story with a great deal to be proud of if only he knew it) must learn to appreciate his own abilities and those realizations and what the behavior of both shapeshifters and humans do (and their prejudices) are what propels the story forward.

Tarot Queen - smart precognitive has spent centuries locked up in a little house, not really living. Enter the demon, Dante, whom she wishes to free from his demon possession so she can become his lover. She must leave her safe but boring life behind and discovers reality's a lot more challenging than she thought, but also that she can do a great deal more than she ever imagined if she doesn't stand in her own way. Dante, long cynical and uncaring, having lived a (really long) life where everything came too easily, realizes that loving something precious is its own reward, and more than a little frightening because most things are more fragile than he is. What he/she is vs. who he/she is is also a big player in this story.

Catspaw - Hotheaded shapeshifter (Laren) with a chip on his shoulder finds himself thrust into leadership when Xander (the star of Beast Within) falls deathly ill. Only by keeping a rein on his temper will he be able to think his way through the dogpile of catastrophes that fall naturally from Xander's illness. In doing so, Laren finds he understands more about his fosterbrother (Xander) than he ever did before and discovers the world isn't nearly so black and white as he'd often thought, especially as he finds himself drawn to a human. Hard to hate them when you love one. Who vs. what (from the other side) again.

Saving Tessa - Rich, intelligent and self-sufficient, Dylan's life revolves around his best friend/girlfriend, Tessa. Without her, his life would be an endless succession of work that neither inspires nor challenges him. Tessa does both. When she is stolen to coerce him, he must come to grips with his own limitations and trust Tessa's own abilities to take care of herself. In many ways, this is a character study for Dylan, because no one can do everything themselves. Everyone has something to lose. This isn't a big overarching theme story, but more a study in a relationship where we learn more about what makes a healthy relationship than just "love." Or that could just me be.

One thing you want to avoid, besides the heavy hand of preachiness, is building a story where the message you're sending isn't the one you thought it was. I think Frankenstein is a good example of this. In my opinion, Mary Shelly seemed to be saying that the "monster" was inherently evil because he was an unnatural creature that man should not have created. But, when I read the story, the monster doesn't seem evil at all, but a creature, abandoned and reviled for no other reason that what he is, who is driven to desperation to obtain even a chance of happiness, only to have that happiness thwarted time and again, whether he uses exemplary methods or violence.

Let's not forget the far-too-common message many modern romances send that rape's acceptable if the guy really loves you ('cause nothing says "I love you," like violent rape). I'll stop there or I'll be beating dead horses again. Oy!

The point I'm trying to make is that a writer should understand what messages fall out of the story. He shouldn't bludgeon the story to produce the message he wants, but he might want to rethink the story if the messages he's making aren't ones he wants to send.


Wasted Potential - Making the Most of a Workable Idea

>> Friday, May 27, 2011

Even the best and/or most original idea isn't enough to make a story great. There are many ingredients to cooking up a great story, but before we start sautéing characters, seasoning up the story with settings and details and scheduling plot elements, you need to know if you've completed the work on the idea itself.

Say what?

Like the caliber and cut of meat makes a difference in how it's prepared and what you can do with it, an idea needs to be fully understood and conceptualized to get the most of it. Before you take an idea and start scribbling, you might want to ask yourself what you want to say with this idea, where you want it to go and what the appropriate scope is for the story that comes out of it. Maybe not in that order. Or maybe.

What do you want to say? I've mentioned before that I think a story, of any length, should have something to say. Not necessarily a moral, but, in my opinion, messages are brought forward as part and parcel of a story where characters grow and events take place. I've talked about this before and I maintain that a story with nothing to say is probably not worth the time to read it. I'm not pro-sermon; I just don't even know how you tell a story without imparting some sort of message. I think it happens whether you intend it to or not, with how your characters grow and what happens to them In my opinion, you should be aware of this, cognizant, so you're imparting the messages you want.

What kind of messages? Anything can be a message and a message don't have to be "good." Your message might be "Life isn't fair," or "No one can be trusted," or "Everyone has a price." Many books that touch on murder or war have those kind of lessons as part of messages that come with it. It might be "Love stinks." It might be that being happy is worthwhile for itself ("Entertainment for its own sake"). An idea can lend itself to social commentary like gender/racial/religious/philosophical differences and/or tolerance. Done with care, you might be able to illuminate both sides of the issue (since many issues are not black and white). It might be half a dozen related things. But you should know what concepts you want to pursue and promote that fall out of that original idea. I like to, anyway.

Where does the idea lead? Many a great idea has been murdered ignominiously by a poor understanding of realistic implications. Events and repercussions what followed from the original premise were either so unnatural or nonsensical that the useful cleverness of the original idea was lost in the stupidity. If what you want to say and the idea and its realistic consequences are at odds, you the writer either need to change what you want to say, change your idea or you're going to have a mess. That doesn't mean that there is only one path for the idea to progress, or that one set of realistic consequences exist per idea, but what falls out of the original idea has to makes sense, has to follow along lines that seem reasonable, even if the original idea is fantastic.

Understanding the implications of your idea from the get go can also do a great deal to help determine what kind of characters you need, where they'll be going and who they'll be facing. It's a little extra effort up front but far better than trying to force a story in the wrong direction later on or finding oneself on a path that leads...nowhere.

What is the scope of the idea? Some ideas are big and sweeping, so big with so many opportunities that a single book can't even do it justice. Even an in-depth character study and growth of a primary character can drive a series of books. Sometimes, though, the idea is more an single event or image, a circumstance that make one go, "What if XXX happened?" The magnitude and impact of such ideas might expand to fill a book (okay, or more than one book) or might be fully explored in the course of a short story or play.

So, how do you know? Well, I don't think there's one rule. Everyone doesn't work the same way. However, there are some things I ask myself. First of all, it makes a difference if this is a story that involves a large group of people rather than being tightly focuses on one or two. What I mean is that, if the story is completely centered on two people with other characters being minor to the central story, I'm not planning a series of books. If I'm focused on just a couple (since romance is frequently an element), chances are I'm thinking of a stand alone book or a short story. Ensemble casts, however, especially with multiple key characters, lend themselves to sagas. Similarly, if what I'm trying to say is complex and sweeping and has many contradictory facets, chances are it's more than I can manage in a short story and may drive more than one book.

Despite my not being a planner, I usually take a bit up front to understand an idea when I get it, where it's going, what it tells me (that I might impart to the reader) and how big an idea it really is. Sometimes, I get surprised, but mostly it lets me start out on the right foot toward telling the story I think the idea merits.


Wasted Potential - Sifting Out Good Ideas

>> Monday, May 23, 2011

When one talks about the potential of a project, people, writers and readers, often assume it's all about the original idea, the premise behind the story. That's only part of the story and it's a big part, but, the premise that gets the story started is only part of it because it's not just the idea, but what you want to do with it that's important. That's key to everything else in your story.

I've never spent much time talking about generating ideas because (a) writer how-to books frequently devote tons and tons of time and effort into how to get ideas and (b) generating ideas is not and never has been my problem. If I wrote to fruition every workable idea I've come up with to date, I'd be busy, 24/7, for three or four lifetimes at least. And I expect to come up with more ideas. However, the devotion to coming up with ideas makes it pretty clear that it's not that easy for everyone. Moreover, getting an idea doesn't equate with success; you have to know how to tell a good idea from one that stinks and you need to understand how an idea must be filled in and completed to make the story work.

I joke, since I'm a character driven author, that I often start with a premise and throw my characters into it, while I sit back and take notes. I do that but it's also an oversimplification partially because that's funnier and partially because my subconscious does most of the real work. It only works if you know what you're trying to say with your idea, and if you've worked the idea to effectively say what you want it to say. Your characters have to align with this, too, but I'll touch on them a different post.

The idea has to be plausible. Not real-world plausible, but fiction world plausible. So, since it's fiction, anything's plausible, right? No. There's physical world plausible (and that can be twisted and skewed in fantasy and paranormal work fairly easily) and, more importantly, societal plausibility. You can start from almost any point in the world, any realm, but the idea and premise have to make sense within that framework. The weirder the starting point, the more assiduous you must be in making the rest of it make sense within that realm (unless you're writing strictly broad comedy). I've touched on this notion before here, here and here. Well, it still holds.

Every world, every place in the time/space continuum has rules, whether or not they resemble the ones here or not. The fewer here-and-now real world rules you use, the more you have to make up and follow. If you write historical fiction, you are even more constrained (or one of those hacks that make me hate to read much of today's historical fiction). So the idea has to be plausible within the paradigm you're writing. Note that "real world" doesn't have to be limited to "American." Just sayin'.

An easy way to test a notion (even a wild fantasy notion, since we're talking societal plausibility at least) is to look at history. Has what you're envisioning or an analog ever occurred? Did it ever go the way you'd envisioned? If yes, you can safely say your idea is plausible (though you need to be aware of the circumstances that made it so - more on this later). If not, you've got to sit down with yourself and make sure you understand the reasoning on why it's plausible in your case. If you think it would be "cool," "should" have happened that way but didn't or is just necessary to further your plot, history and logic bedamned, you might want to rewind or reboot. You've failed the plausibility test.

But, even if history shows examples of the same sort of idea leading in the direction you're going, beware. If you have a fairly agnostic society, for instance, don't set up a Spanish Inquisition type scenario unless you have an equally mind-numbing conscience-soothing philosophy with a similar amount of power to religion. Patriotism can work (think Nazis), but you need to understand what's been done to use it. Fortunately, history has many examples. It's your responsibility to ensure that your idea, your notion, your paradigm makes sense in its own context. Don't cheat on this. Don't skimp. Don't shrug this off. Start a story have a crappy idiotic premise (and, yes, it can be done), you'll have to work extra hard to get anything worthwhile out of it. On the other hand, frequently, the germ of a notion, with a little research and thought, can be made into a very workable believable premise. Ideally, you want to start with something like that, something that makes sense without you, the writer, having to expend tons of extra time justifying it.

Bottom line, if you have to spend more time explaining why your premise works than describing the premise, start over.

"Never before seen." Many people get excited over a unique idea because "no one's ever done it before." Well, rein in a second there. First, don't count on it never having been done before. Chances are, someone somewhere has done something like whatever you're thinking about. I mean, there have been a lot of people born and dreaming in this world. But, whether it's truly original or just so rare it feels unique, that doesn't make it a good idea.

One reason you might not have heard about it (if someone else has also thought of it) is that it was just a bad idea. Yes, that happens. If you've no indication that anyone has ever done anything like that, make sure you think long and hard about whether or not that means the idea is a real stinker.

But it might also be a great idea that's challenging to pull off, either because it's complex or confusing or requires extensive know-how or any of a dozen other reasons. If a great idea gets butchered by well-meaning hacks enough times, it can be hard for anyone to take it seriously. If you have an idea you think is fantastic and unique, sit down and think it through, make sure you have the knowledge and tools you need to do it justice. More on that in later posts.

Old standby ideas. So, let's say the idea you want to pursue isn't that unique or original. Let's say, in fact, it's been done to death. Should you stop? Not necessarily. Pretty much 99% of the most successful works done this past century are based on tried and true ideas, things that have been done before. But (and it's a big but), the authors/directors/producers put their own unique spin on those old ideas and made them fresh and approachable.

Classic concepts and ideas are that way because they have broad if not universal appeal, because they build on universal truths and human nature. But, if you don't have a unique take on it, a unique twist, a clever variation, you'll just be telling a story that someone's already told. Seriously. And that's not good.

The more classic and timeless your notion, the more effort it is to make it special, unique and interesting. Making it entertaining is always good, but, if you want to make it something special, you're going to have to add something new or give it a serious makeover. You'd best do your research to make sure your clever and unique twist isn't a rehash of someone else's.

Make sure the idea appeals. Having a cool unique idea or a clever take on a classic idea, however plausible, isn't enough, though. It needs to have appeal, speak to someone (at least you). As a writer, you're going to be spending a great deal of time with the idea and characters supporting this idea - it better be something you like or you're not going to enjoy yourself. But, even if it's entirely your kind of thing, if you're hoping to get someone to read it, you need to think about what will appeal to others as well. Who is your target audience? What about your idea do you think will appeal to them? What will the reader identify with or find compelling? If you don't know, you ought to. At least know what makes it appeal to you.

But the getting the germ of the idea, the premise, isn't enough. You've got to make that idea into something and figure out what you're trying to say with it. More on that next post.


Wasted Potential - Introduction

>> Saturday, May 21, 2011

I reread the manga that got me started railing on endings. I'll be writing a review of it over on Unlikely Otaku later (partially to get it off my chest and partially because if I gush about my current favorite manga, I'll have to reread that whole thing and I've read it twice this week already).

But the issue I have with that (bad ending) manga is one common to all kinds of story telling media, from movies to stories to novels to, well, pick one. That problem: wasted potential.

There is nothing I hate more than reading/watching something that should have been good, that had the elements for being good, even great, and turned out disappointing. Even if the end product is "good," if it's only a shadow of what it could have been, I end up feeling let down. Frustrated. Even angry. An example that leaps to mind include the movie 9.

Contrast that to my general pleasure at watching or reading something where I didn't expect much because the idea seemed stupid or uninteresting, and yet I ended up really finding it compelling nonetheless. Something as absurd in conception as say, Edward Scissorhands, by way of superlative acting and careful and clever handling, becomes an unexpected charmer.

If you're going to err, the latter is the way to go. In other words, handling even the silliest notion with care and skill can still be a winner whereas inept or careless treatment of even the best ideas will lead to utter failure. Particularly notable failure, because wasted potential is a broken promise to the customer: I had something that should have been great and didn't deliver. People remember those that have let them down. I sure as hell do.

That doesn't mean everything one writes has to be classic or great literature, but it needs to deliver on its potential. If it's escapist adventure, make sure its exciting and entertaining. Keep the writing crisp, the pace brisk, the humor bright and the pathos to a minimum. Make the characters deep enough so the reader cares about their fates, but not so deep and convoluted to drag the story down. If it's a romance, the characters need to be deeper, their relationship compelling even if the premise or story isn't as as strong.

However, making those secondary elements stronger makes the whole package better and can change a little bit of escapist literature into a favorite book. Make the story stronger, the plot plausible, the humor entertaining, and a romance novel stands out against in a sea of "meh."

Writing a novel is much like making a complex meal. You want the best ingredients, of course, but how you cook them, in what proportions, when you offer them, even how you present them, all matter to making a satisfying eating experience. You can't dump even the best ingredients for a five course meal into a blender, purée then pour into a pan and bake it and expect it to be satisfying, even if you shave black truffle over it.

I suspect many would-be writers get caught by this, falling in love with an idea, thinking it's so cool but not realizing that that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to crafting a satisfying story. They're dazzled by the potential of the idea and can't see that what they've delivered is still raw on the inside or poorly proportioned, because they see the product they wanted it to be.

So, I'll be talking about getting the potential out of my ideas, my stories, my characters, what I do to try make sure I don't break any promises for my readers.

And, yeah, it's another multi-parter.



>> Monday, May 16, 2011

Before I sally forth to address other plot and story related topics with regards to novel writing, I'd like to make an announcement. My largely neglected (mostly by myself) blog, Ask Me Anything, is getting reworked to address my current fascination with manga/anime which, after more than four nonstop months, is still going strong. As in I'm going to try to learn how to read Japanese which puts me, I think, a step beyond a dabbler. The new title is "The Unlikely Otaku" where otaku is a term to describe an obsessive fan of some form of media or another.

How does it affect this site? Well, in some ways it doesn't except that I won't be writing any more manga obsessed entries over here. Here, I'll be sticking to writing related topics. I will, at least for the time being, keep the manga widget, but it might eventually be replaced with books I recommend reading and why. Eventually.

I will also be, slowly over time, removing my manga entries from here and reposting them on The Unlikely Otaku without the comments (so if you said something insightful and still want it, you'll have to go comment again). The widget here will be duplicated over there and both will be updated as I transfer things over.

It's not particularly important, except to me, as I'm excited about making a venue for myself to continue to explore why I find this manga/anime worldl so fascinating. Some of it might bleed over here, but only if it has a direct bearing on my novels (and, yes, manga has had an impact on no less than four of my five completed novels).

The other impact is that, if someone has a question they just have to get addressed (that isn't writing or manga related), they'd best put it on Rocket Scientist, since this blog will now be fully focused on reading/writing and Unlikely Otaku is focused on manga/anime. Rocket Scientist I'm leaving to catch everything else, which isn't much at this moment.


Endgame Part 4 - Everything Else

>> Thursday, May 12, 2011

So, if we take out happy-ever-after endings, revelation and climax endings, what's left?

Everything else. And, yeah, that doesn't all fit tidily into categories.

But, never fear because I'm going to give you my insight into rules of thumb for any type of ending (which may or may not apply to the special endings I've already described—use your own judgement). These are things I keep in mind when writing the ending, including where to end the story.

First and foremost, remember the point of your story. Point of the story? What if it's just a frothy romp for entertainment? Nothing wrong with that. But, if your story is just to entertain the reader with a charming story or fun characters, don't kill them all in an earthquake or strike one down with AIDS. By doing so, the point of your story (having fun with fun people) has been subverted with an ending that sucks the joy out of it. That doesn't mean you can't have fun frothy adventures that end in despair, but the seriousness of the consequences, the reality that lurks behind the adventure needs to poke through in the story before the ending. Or the reader will feel cheated.

But most stories have something to say. It might be minor or even cliche, but the characters should all be striving and growing, be motivated by something or learning something. The ending needs to be working with that, part of that, in keeping with that intent. If the story involves the striving of people to be together against the odds, having them go their separate ways for spurious reasons at the end will be irksome. Give them good reasons, remembering their time together fondly, that's fine. But you don't want the reader getting to the last page and "Why did they try so hard for so long just to throw it all away?"

Some books have a very significant import, highlighting important issues like child abuse or war. Given the import of those topics, even if the story ends happily, it shouldn't be too easy, too tidy, too pat. There need to be scars and struggles with the ending emphasizing how challenging correction can be or the topics themselves become easy to dismiss.

The key is to not to lose sight of what you're trying to say. Bad things and good things can both happen at the end, hope from despair, reality striking fantasy, as long as you haven't subverted why you told the story for in the first place. That doesn't mean the guy gets the girl—perhaps giving up the girl is the greater expression of love, the greatest available. That doesn't mean tragedy is prevented, but you need to be careful about making every effort in the book seem futile. Hopelessness rarely makes a reader feel good about the reading experience. The key is that the ending should be part of the message, instead of negating it.

Don't be a tease. This goes somewhat hand in hand the first one. A novel is something like a promise that you build on over time. You're telling the reader what kind of book it is, what to expect from and for the characters. If you promise hot and heavy romance, having your main characters meet for coffee and then go their merry way is not likely to leave the reader feeling satisfied. If the book is all about someone training and striving to succeed at something, having them come in seventh with no fanfare or no particular reason can be frustrating. Why, again, did I bother suffering with this character? The ending needs to deliver on at least some of that promise, even if it doesn't happen to be exactly the way expected.

It can be tempting to pull a sneaky and do something shocking at the end. That's fine, but you can't break your promise. You don't have to give the reader the obvious solution, but you have to deliver something as good or better. Not necessarily happier, but as satisfying and meaningful as what the reader was hoping for. Pulling a quick change at the end just so it's NOT predictable is like trotting out a new suspect in a mystery at the last minute and making them the culprit. It's a cop-out and a cheat. The last thing a writer should want to do is have the readers feeling cheated. So, take a look at your novel, at the hints and breadcrumbs you left along the way, the promises and teases you offered on what the reader can expect and make sure you fulfilled those promises, even if it wasn't the way the reader might have expected.

Give the reader time to grieve. Tragedy can be a very effective part of an ending. Reality can be harsh and misfortune, even "senseless" misfortune, is part of it. But, if you, the writer, have taken the time to get your reader to know and love a character who is struck by tragedy, you need to give the reader time to grieve, either before the tragedy (seeing it coming like say, Love Story or Tale of Two Cities) or after the fact by allowing the reader (and the other characters) to come to terms with what's happened. Killing off the couple's toddler three pages before the end or losing one's mentor in the last paragraph can leave the reader without the ability to come to terms with their own loss if they've become entrenched with the character. It doesn't mean you can't kill off favorite characters or visit tragedy, just that you have to help the reader come to terms with the loss just as the characters must.

Don't wind down indefinitely. Just as it applied to the happily ever after endings, for heaven's sake, bring the story to a close within a reasonable timeframe. Everything that happens after the climax should serve a purpose to the story: cleaning up loose ends, bringing everyone into a stable condition, letting everyone come to terms with tragedy (and you need time for this, but don't let it drag on indefinitely)—you know, tidying up. Character exposition and development, adventures, should be minimized after the main core story has reached it's climax. Make it entertaining, sure, but don't take on chapters or episodes during this crucial period for no purpose other than entertaining. If it's not part of the winding down and putting the story to bed, move it to before the climax or let it go.

Foreshadowing with care. I have said and I maintain that a novel should be self-contained and complete, not leaving key story-arc issues unresolved or key characters in imminent destruction. However, some books, particularly those intended to be part of a series, frequently have an on-going conflict above and beyond the current story arc. In those cases, having a few loose ends to be tugged and tied in a later volume is fine as long as this story arc is complete, as long as someone can get a satisfying and complete story from this novel. In such cases, particularly if you know there are more books to come (or even if you want to leave the option open), a certain measure of foreshadowing is a fine way to end long as you don't actually start a new story arc. Whether you note the existence of a particular threat or remind the reader of how much work is still to be done, despite the successes of *this* battle, a little hint that there's more to come is fine.

About horror. The guidelines I've been discussing on endings largely don't apply to horror (with the possible exceptions of denouement/climax endings) because the intent of a horror novel is generally less about satisfaction and more about being unnerving. That doesn't mean you can't have a satisfying ending, just that it's not necessarily the best choice. To get the effect you're looking for in your horror novel (depending on what your intent is) might mean killing off beloved characters at the last minute or leaving promises dangling, even nudging your characters to the cliff edge. In those cases, one can deliberately add to the disturbing effect of the story itself by leaving the ending, well, not so ending-ish.

I have an announcement on a revamping of my Ask Me Anything blog and then I'll move off into other plot related topics here. Stay tuned as it were.


Endgame Part 3 - The Happily Ever After Ending

>> Sunday, May 1, 2011

The denouement ending is hardly the only one that's cliche. In fact, most type of endings tend to get done to bits because, let's face it, there are only so many ways to end something. But there are variations within those types of endings that make them suitable to certain types of stories and certain story resolutions.

For instance, the "happy ever after" ending (and variations thereof) is ubiquitous to romance novels but you can find them in all kinds of novels that (a) end happily and (b) aren't in a series. Although it's as cliché as possible, it's also effective and satisfying if done properly (more on that later), but it's also not appropriate for dealing with stories that have ugly or tragic endings or stories that are part of a larger saga where we'll be revisiting our characters elsewhere. A happily-ever-after ending is well suited to romance or adventure or character-driven stories where our characters end up in a happy place.

Happily-ever-after endings have tremendous variations. Some follow so closely on the climax or revelation ("I love you!") they could look like a climax/revelation ending, but there are several key factors that makes them different.

First, the relationship situation must be resolved—love confessions made and accepted, friendships, partnerships, and familial relationships clarified and perhaps celebrated. Generally, the action/excitement climax has happened before we clean up the relationship aspect. So, though the relationship climax may be on the last page, chances are good the action/danger aspects have generally already been resolved. This relationship resolution can be simple and straightforward ("I love you, you know." "I know.") or complicated as one likes, taking paragraphs or whole chapters. Note that all relationships don't have to be resolved, but the key relationships of the main characters (including with each other) need to be.

The situation of the main characters have to be in a good position for the long haul. That means they're not dealing with horrible tragedy to struggle through or left in a situation where the end result is in question. That means, if they're left stranded in a lifeboat, we need to be certain rescue is coming. That means that one can't be dying of cancer unless a miracle cure is on the horizon. However, it does not mean the hero and heroine are a couple, or married, or even romantically involved in any way, just that they're both satisfied with the relationship as it has become. It does not mean that all their problems are solved—they don't have to win the lottery or have their dream jobs or make their business a success. Asthma doesn't have to be cured or the pegleg regrown, as long as the characters are content with the lives that face them. It doesn't mean that the main characters got what the wanted (gold metal), just that they're happy anyway.

All of this doesn't have to be overt either. Our main characters can just resolve/clarify the relationship, with the reader left to conclude that all is well. ("And they lived happily ever after." Or "Let's go home." etc).

Or it can be overt (even exhaustingly so). There are a whole slew of options on how to show this, including considerable time with characters post "resolution" that allow both relationship/future to be further clarified and some/all of side threads tied up. Or, there's the ever-popular foreshadowing of the future with glimpses of near or far future with situations that clarify long-term success either with walks down the aisle, watching a child graduate or the infamous old couple celebrating their umpteenth anniversary.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the happily-ever-after ending in my opinion. I've used it for three out of five novels. It's well suited, particularly, to character-driven novels when, even when the story's effectively ended, you're not quite ready to let the characters go. But, there are dangers and a reader should be aware of them.

Making everything too happy. If everything tidies itself up perfectly, with all conflicts resolved to the best possible outcome and our main characters cooing at each other incessantly, I won't be the only reader with his or her stomach turning. Life isn't that tidy and having everything too rosy is a good way to alienate the reader or to make even a very believable appealing story come off sounding false. Nor am I the only one who tends to think idealized relationships are probably doomed.

Dragging it out too long. It's hard, when you have characters you love, not to add bits and pieces to share with readers you hope love them too. Still, once the story arc is ended and the crisis is past, there's only so long you can drag out the thread-tying and relationship clarifying/reveling without boring the reader to death. Happy relationships, I might add, are boring relationships to the outside most of the time. Set up what you need to so the reader is comfortable with where they are and where they're going, then leave the rest for the reader's imagination. I have a rule of thumb that, post climax, the book should end within two chapters (and only that long if you have some big pieces that still need to be put into place). Not saying that has to be your rule, but if you look back and see the story climax happening nine chapters back, you might want to ask yourself if (a) you need everything afterwards and (b) what resolutions you might be able to clear up before the climax so that it can wind down a bit faster.

Happy endings fall in and out of fashion, even if there are some genres where they are de rigeur, but there's nothing wrong with one as long as it's not too sugary and not dragged out too long. End it when you have the resolution you need and not beyond that point. Keep the characters as charming and entertaining as they need to be until the end.

The goal is to leave the reader satisfied, not bored, not anxious.

More endings to come.



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