July 18th, 2006

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

"Sigh of satisfaction" endings

It's like this. I'm two and a half chapters away from the end of this novel now. I can smell the end. But I also recognise another thing altogether, something that often happens to me towards the end of a book - endings are damned hard. They are hard to do well. And when they ARE done, what that means is that the story you've lived with for weeks, months, sometimes years... is done. DONE. DONE. (well, that's not counting the copyedits and the proofs when it comes to the publishing process, but that's another can of worms altogether)

You're finished.

And if you're me you always go through withdrawal, after. You miss the damned CHARACTERS, the same ones who made your life a misery not so long before by being obstinate and bloody-minded about plot points you considered to be important and they persisted in dismissing with a wave of their hand before haring off in directions you never wanted them to go and into problematical situations you quite frequently didn't know how to get them out of.

When I go to within the last chapter or so of the book which subsequently became the "Changer of days" duology, I hit this wall with a vengeance - I had my three protags sitting there on their horses on a snowy mountain slope... and that's where I left them, and left them, and left them, for three months or more they just sat there and I couldn't seem to finish the story... until a beta reader pleaded that I do SOMETHING with them before they all died of terminal frostbite. So I finally caved and wrote the end of the tale, and then, yeah, you guessed it, went into withdrawal.

But it's more than that, though. There's the bitterweet parting, sure, but there's... something else. There's the final part of the contract between writer and reader - providing the kind of ending which will be a closure, a completion, a vindication, possibly leave the reader questioning things they never thought to question before but still a CONCLUSION. SOmeone once said to me, concerning one of my own books, that she dived under the covers with it on a cold winter Saturday and didn't emerge again "...until I had turned the last page and closed the book with a sigh of satisfaction". And it's that, THAT, the "satisfaction", that I owe at the end of a story of mine, and it's that, I guess, that I'm so scared I'll fail at.

Because stories are made of three important parts.

There's a beginning, which takes you into a new world, and if done well remains a memorable one (things like "Call me Ishmael"). This is the second-hardest thing to do well when writing a story. Most people who set out to write have some idea of what a narrative hook is - some of them can't CAST one, but everyone can recognise one when they're caught by it and can feel the line of the story tugging inoexorably at them, pulling them in, deeper, higher, faster. The thing that BEGINS, the thing that opens a door, the thing that lures the reader away from the safety of their armchair and into the breathtaking complexity of the writer's own universe.

The story - the plot if you will - the middle - that's the easy part. (Assuming you ARE a storyteller, but if you are not then it's no more difficult than the rest of the process...) Stories, the good ones, have their own momentum and once you're into it you're rolling, it's spilling, it's like you've rolled a ball of yarn out ahead of you and all you have to do is follow the unravelled string down the labyrinth until you get somewhere.

The ending... is what makes you close the book with a sigh of satisfaction... and remember it. The best first line in the world, the fluffiest of plot yarns, and a bad ending can kill it all stone dead - you have a limited storage area in your brain, and the catalogue contains only the things that some demented inner librarian with s set of usually idiosyncratic criteria seems to think are worth keeping. I've had the experience, not once, of picking up a book which intrigued me with an opening which I didn't recognise... and then, as I got further and furher into it, finally triggering the really BURIED catalogue which tells me, "this ended badly, this ended without a satisfying conclusion, buh-bye book".

I desperately want all my stories to have that sigh-of-satisfaction ending. I owe it to the story AND to the reader. WHich is possibly the reason I have such a hard time writing "the end" - it has to be perfect, and in the real world nothing is perfect, so I'm left chasing that elusive quality which I will never QUITE reach and because I know I won't... I procrastinate over endings.

Which is why, probably, you're reading this blog entry right now. WHat I SHOULD be doing is inching closer to "the end" of the current work in progress.

I supposed I'd better go and do that. These characters were good to me so far. They deserve a rousing send off.

Sigh.

Back to the book.