The Cigarette Moment
Yesterday I went trolling for blog post ideas. I’m more or less on the brink of not having any, or, as one of our group members put it, when we were doing a short story a week, “Every Saturday I get up and stare into the abyss.”
This is worse when there are things going on in my life/life in general that require my attention. I probably won’t be giving anyone great news if I say that I don’t blog about my private life in detail, even when I seem to. It used to be, when the kids were much younger that I deliberately obfuscated anything having to do with them, because I was afraid the younger one would get kidnapped. (The older on? From about the time Robert was five, I pity the fool who’d try to grab him against his will. Dangerous under any conditions comes to mind. Took me a little longer to get the younger one up to snuff.)
Now, let me start by dismissing fatal illness or divorce or any of the big nasties. There’s nothing like that going on in my life. It’s mostly “Stuff that needs to get done” in the administrative sense which, because G-d has a sense of humor, all hit in the last couple of months, and also my awareness (since precious little has been done about it) that this house needs to be readied for sale partly for our financial survival, partly because we’re likely to move (though it’s now at least two years.)
It’s just some days I feel as though I’m being pulled in five different directions, I’m exhausted by noon, and I’ve yet to do any writing.
Which brings us to the going trolling for blog ideas – on my facebook conference – and getting a request to write about ends. What makes a satisfying end? All books end, of course, but how many do you close and walk away feeling “curiously unsatisfied?”
First of all, I intuited the importance of ends in fourth grade. When writing school essays, I was aware that if I started well and finished with a bang, the teacher would forgive any number of noodling in the middle.
So – this works for essays – I borrowed from poetry and started with some big evocative image, which I would then bring the essay around to again, in the end. Say the visual was Atlantis sinking, in the end I’d bring it again, to the waves closing over the land mass, as if it had never been. Even if the metaphor were being used for… things people would rather ignore, or someone’s feelings, it worked.
Second, unfortunately it turns out that novels aren’t essays. You need more than a cute image to open and close, and if you lose the plot in the middle, people are likely to tell. Unless you’re writing for the sort of refined sphere from which the books came that we had to study in Modern Literature. But then again, if you come from there it’s also perfectly all right to chop your novel to pieces and put them together in random fashion. I’m not sure what a satisfying end is in that case, but it’s probably a Nobel prize of literature.
For the rest of us… for the rest of us it still needs to work.
Third, what makes the ending satisfying is what comes before – be it the beginning of the essay or, in a novel, the slow build of theme and problem in the middle. In other words, what makes an ending satisfying is when the people you’ve been rooting for win and the right sobs you wanted dead die. This might seem simplistic. “But what if there’s no one whom you want to win? No one you want to lose?” Well, then it’s possible you’re writing grey goo. Look, weirdly, people don’t read to experience what they experience in daily life. The difference in fiction is that it makes sense and we know whom to root for. This is, btw, the difference between Marlowe and Shakespeare. Marlowe was far more realistic, and in a way, probably “better” in the sense that he tried to make it harder to root for someone. (Oooh, so sharp he cut himself, right?) But Shakespeare, by clearly signaling who to root for, grounded people in the story and left the way open to concentrate on the really important stuff, like “real” characters and making everything else seem vitally important. In other words, he used the “whom to root for” as scaffolding and upon it built the “slice of humanity” important stuff. Because humans like things to make sense, that gave him a huge advantage.
So – give us someone to root for, and build upon it, so we really want the problem resolved the way we want it.
Four, of course, that is not all. The minimalists, who can never be sufficiently reviled and who, for choice, should be hoisted on a stake – minimalist. Made of clear glass. It would make them so happy. All function, no form – for years wrote how-to books telling you that when the action is over the novel is over. This led to books where the couple finally got sort of together, and the minute it became clear she would say yes, the book… ended.
This is somehow very frustrating to human instincts. Campbell talks about the return from the journey and seeing the hero again in his normal environment. Heed the man. He knows of which he speaks. The other is a fable for grown up children who attend graduate school and want to be hip and speshul.
Or, as my husband explained to me when I briefly succumbed to the siren song of minimalism, “It’s like you just had incredible sex and as the last tremors pass, your lover kicks you out of bed and gives you cab money. Most humans prefer cuddling and if they smoke maybe a cigarette.” (He started critiquing my books’ “cigarette moment.” – i.e. the reward for what you just put the reader through.)
Five – sometimes ends don’t come naturally. Oh, right. Yes, when you start the book, you sort of know how it will end… by and large. “They end up together” “the colony thrives” “he gets shot in the fracas’ – whatever. BUT once you’ve gone 300 pages, that end might no longer feel “right.” Or it might feel too strong or not strong enough. Or there’s some minor character who wasn’t even in the original idea whose end needs to be tied up. (I can see this post will unleash no end of puns. Go on then. I’m not afraid of you.)
Just finish it anyhow, then work on the end in revision. And run it by your beta readers, who will tell you if you got it just right.
Lately I’ve been plagued by double climaxes (what? You complain about this? – Shuddup, you. I’m talking in writing, of course) which means that I find the book is having its big to-do battle before it should, and still leaving things untied. It’s very annoying, but it’s part of increasing complexity. (Witchfinder is headed that way, btw.)
After struggling with one of the ends, it finally hit me this is perfectly all right, provided the second climax is bigger than the first. (Shut up you.)
Anyway – so, to have a good end to a story, make sure you have a strong plot, build upon it by letting us know who to root for, and in the end spare not the cigarette moment.
Oh, yeah, and for the record, strong imagery at the beginning and end still works – provided everything works in between.
So, finishing a book is easy… provided you know how to write it. And yeah, guys, I’m still working at it.
Which is why this ending is kind of lame. Deal with it. Anyone got a cigarette? I need cab money.