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Jay Lake
Date: 2011-06-23 05:02
Subject: [process] Endings, just bit thereon
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
I recently wrote a piece on crafting endings in science fiction and fantasy stories for a forthcoming project. (Details TBA, that's all I can tell you right now.) I've been thinking about that since, especially given that several writer friends have just this week made rueful comments on their troubles finding the endings to various projects in hand.

In my piece, I made some comments about Cordwainer Smith and endings that I think I can amplify here without stealing any thunder from the forthcoming project. Essentially, the point I want to make is this: the completion of the written narrative — ie, the manuscript — is only coincidental to the completion of the story arc. That's generally how we like to do things in the Western story telling tradition, but it ain't necessarily so.

Cordwainer Smith had a habit of using a Chinese narrative style in which the opening of the story handed you the completion of the arc. Or to use a different example, almost no one ever goes to see a production of Hamlet or Oedipus Rex expecting to be surprised by the ending. We already know what is going to happen, we're there to experience the narrative.

In other words, it's worth considering that notion the ending is about how the reader's journey through the story plays out, not about how the character's journey through the story plays out. The next time you're stuck on an ending, sparate the manuscript experience from the story, and see what that tells you.

Your thoughts?

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User: adelheid_p
Date: 2011-06-23 13:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a reader, I want the ending to feel like it fits the story. The ending of Mainspring felt right for the story. I've read two books where I thought the ending wasn't right. Neil Gaiman's American Gods is one of those books. The Horse Whisperer is the other one. The last chapter of The Horse Whisperer felt tacked on as an after thought. I felt let down by the ending in American Gods. I thought Gaiman was building to something much more than what actually happened and it felt almost like a cop out to me. Admittedly, in all these cases, my expectations may not have been in line with the author's own perception of where the story was going. In this respect the ending also belongs to the reader. :-)
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User: scarlettina
Date: 2011-06-23 14:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think that one of the reasons I got hung up on the end of the story I've been working on this week is that I got hung up on the advice one hears so often about not ending the story the way people expect; don't use the first idea or the second--use the third. It bent me into an absolute pretzel because, of course, I knew how I wanted the story to end from the moment I conceived of it in the first place. I saw it coming; how could a reader not? And then I remembered that, really, readers don't live in writers' heads, as often as we might think so, and I just had to take the reader along for the ride and hope that they find the journey as entertaining as I do.
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User: adelheid_p
Date: 2011-06-23 14:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In respect to my previous comment, having an ending that feels like it fits the story doesn't mean that it ended the way I expected. However in the case of The Horse Whisperer, the problem with the last chapter was that it didn't seem to have the same "voice" as the rest of the book. It felt like it was written almost by a different person than the rest of the book. I know at least one writer who sometimes has an ending in mind and writes to that ending. (Or perhaps that was only in the one story he was writing.) I don't see a problem with using the ending you had conceived.
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Twilight: WriterRose
User: twilight2000
Date: 2011-06-23 16:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Endings - one of the issues for Western readers (particularly of western mysteries) is that we don't want to see the end at the beginning of the book - we often simply call them "poor writers" when we can see the end. While other types of stories are less likely to get this reaction, I tend toward mysteries and adventures and I like to experience both along with the protagonist.
That said, the really "well-written" ones (that's of course "well-written" from my western perspective) manage to sneak clues to the ending into the opening that I can only pick up when I'm really paying attention - and even then I might only realize those clues as I approach the end of the book. For mysteries, that always feels like the best.

Writing that way is damnably hard :>
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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2011-06-23 16:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Very good point and one that needs to be brought up more often. When I write a story I might experience a lot of emotions, but what really matters is how the reader will feel.

I guess what I am saying is I always try to keep the reader (and not myself) in mind when I write a story. I have always felt the reader is much more important than the writer in this regard.
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The NewroticGirl
User: newroticgirl
Date: 2011-06-23 17:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I almost always read the end first. I like knowing where the story is going, so I can pay attention to how it gets there.
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User: bram452
Date: 2011-06-23 19:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Jay, I think you're spot on with this one. One of the best books I've ever read was A Prayer for Owen Meany, in which the end is never in doubt.

I think that what makes a book satisfying is fulfilling the reader's expectations, and one of the great tools you have in meeting expectations is that you get to be the one that sets them. I think it's a party foul to give *everything* away, but letting folks know where this bus is going is just smart.
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User: lindadee
Date: 2011-06-23 20:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Isn't that what all the movie and TV prequels have us do, in effect?
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2011-06-23 22:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I haven't written a narrative using this device, but I have constructed horror role-playing games using it. Part of my problem in Game Mastering such games is that I really stink at keeping a mood going. I'm far to lenient with my friends, and the game typically ends up being half a beer session away from utter and complete chaos.

But I've had success showing, "This is the worse possible way it could all end. Now let's go back to the beginning."

Then I bait and switch.
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User: cissa
Date: 2011-06-29 22:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I know I've never been fussed about "spoilers"- they don't spoil a book for me. I mean, I read romances (as well as lots of other stuff), and one ALWAYS knows how those are going to end! The fun is in the getting there.

Similarly, "The Wreck of the River of Stars" tells the ending in the TITLE- and it's an engrossing read, though depressing enough that I would not want to re-read it, much as I admired it- it's a very classic tragedy.

I've been a voracious reader for something like 45+ years (I'm 53), so I seldom find "unexpected" in my reading, and don't really even want that. What I want is an engrossing tale... and it can be just as engrossing even if I know how it ends- as long as the writing is good.

In fact. at this point the mechanisms that authors may use to keep up "suspense" are often pretty obvious to me, and even a tad annoying when they interfere with the flow of the narrative ON PURPOSE.
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