Thursday, August 23, 2012

Novel Endings

I just finished working with my editor to make final (pre-copy-editing) revisions to my forthcoming novel This One Day (Five Star/Gale, late 2013 or early 2014). The editing process was relatively simple, aside from my having no experience editing a novel in electronic format. (We used Microsoft’s marginal comments to do so, which made me long for the days when I’d receive a marked hardcopy in the mail.)

I had been surprised when, in June, a pre-reader read a draft and told me she liked the ending. When we discussed the book, I realized that she interpreted the character’s final thoughts far differently than I had intended. So I asked my editor to walk me through his interpretation of the final paragraph as well. He did so—and read it the same way my pre-reader had. Both found the ending satisfying.

It got me thinking. I believe the novel plays fair with my readers. The elements of the mystery have been resolved; there is no question as to who committed the crime—and when, where, why, how are all explained. The dénouement is, though, I have learned, ambiguous. Max Tyger, who suffers from stage-two esophageal cancer, is leaning on his car roof, staring at the sunset, contemplating the tumor in his throat that he has just been told is not shrinking. What’s next for him? This is where readers seem to interpret differently. When I originally received my pre-reader’s comments, I wrote a second concluding paragraph to clarify my ideas at the end of the book. However, thinking it through, I’ve decided to go with the original conclusion, allowing for ambiguity at the end. After all, by the end of the story, I don’t want the book to be mine any longer; I want the reader to have taken over.

It all brings me back to what we look for in story endings. I thoroughly enjoy open-ended short stories, and I love novels like Winter’s Bone, where I close the book and can’t stop thinking about some aspect of it. (“Who killed Jessup in Winter’s Bone?” has Kindle Forum participants at odds.) However, critics have long considered Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which went unfinished at the time of Dickens’s death, to be the only “perfect” mystery because the “play-fair” components of the story are not complete. Dickens died before completing the manuscript, so the ending is quite literally unknown, making it the only truly “perfect” mystery. This is because for a writer to simply choose not to reveal the antagonist in a murder mystery breaks the rules, goes against the conventions of the genre.

But there’s a difference between playing fair and offering a satisfying conclusion. If I spend $27 on a hardcover and give up six hours to read it, I trust that the author is going to end the book in a manner that allows closure. (If not, I’m not dropping $27 on his/her next effort.) But that doesn’t mean I need to know everything in the end. Winter’s Bone is indeed a murder mystery, but it is more: it’s a coming-of-age story, it’s an epic journey, it’s a story about a girl discovering who her father was and who she wants to be. Do I need to know who killed him to be satisfied with the ending? Given my description of the novel (and thus my interpretation of it), no, I don’t. The central conflict of the novel has been resolved by the story’s end: she found her father; she saved the house. And of course there’s always something to be said for exceeding the conventions of the genre.

So what do we want in endings?

And where does ambiguity exceed playing fair with readers?


Charlotte Hinger said...

John, I understand--really, I do, but I simply prefer conclusive endings where really wicked people get their just deserts. I prefer that in real life too. I think that marks me as non-literary and immature--but there you have it.


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