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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

Loose Ends

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Endings (Part 2).

What is it that actually ends?

Everything in a story has it's own arc.  Each character, each plot line, each relationship.  Writing a novel is like climbing a mountain and everything you put into the book is like a rock into your backpack.  The more you put in, the heavier the pack gets, and the longer the climb.  And the weight we're talking about is all the stuff you have to do as a writer by the end. Everything has to be resolved in some way by the last page, even if it's with an explicit lack of resolution.  If something is built up and not dealt with by the end than what's left is as unsatisfying for the reader as the proverbial gun on the wall in Act One that never goes off.  Readers want to know how things work out, and if you raise up something and put it in your backpack as a writer, they're putting in their backpacks as readers.  To leave them hanging is churlish.

And so we're looking for an ending that answers all our questions.  I know, I know you don't want to answer everything.  Sometimes when it's pat it's too damn pat.  But even if you don't have the answer, you just can't ignore the question.  An ending that leaves things open is fine, as long as it does it explicitly, not by simple omission.  A reader shouldn't be wondering if the author just forgot about the thing that was keeping her turning the pages.  That's cheating.  Which makes endings harder and harder as you go along and your backpack get's heavier and heavier.  How do you end so many things at once?

Damn good question.

Leave them hanging in the middle, not the end.




A little more on 1984

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I mentioned 1984, one of my all time favorite books in the last post.  The line that always gets me, and never loses its relevance, is this one, from O'Brien, when the truth of things is revealed to Winston Smith:

“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

I don't want to get political here, but whenever the discussion moves to torture, I always think of Orwell.

Another great book that was an inspiration to Orwell was Koestler's Darkness at Noon.  Koestler is actually a little hot right now, with a new biography out.  I recently re-read Darkness at Noon and found it just as chilling as I remembered, the story of functionary for the state who is imprisoned in a purge.  But when I read it this time something popped out at me, which was really cool.

In 1984, Orwell's hero, Winston Smith, has a job of rewriting newspapers to fit the current political agenda, writing disfavored persons out of history, bolstering the history politicians currently in favor, just like the way the Soviets used to airbrush purged figures from their photographs.  It is quite the sinister job, but Orwell didn't come up with it on  his own.  In Darkness at Noon, Koestler has his hero make a prophetic remark:

Rubashov remarked jokingly to Arlova that the only thing left to be done was to publish a new and revised edition of the back numbers of all newspapers.

From a throwaway line in Darkness, Orwell created magic.  Somebody told me once that it's okay to steal as long as the work you're writing is better than what you're stealing from.  I think Orwell is on solid ground.

Don't be afraid to dig like a miner through books.




Closing it Out.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I'm thinking now about endings, as I'm revising my most recent book.  Novels aren't often judged on their endings, unless the ending is baldly unsatisfying.  The beginning and the middle are the meat of a novel, the reason the thing was written, the crime, the investigation, the uncovering of the conspiracy, the ideas that were the very purpose of the work.  The ending is often just the way for the author to get out from under it all.  There is even something artificial about endings in novels because life never ends so neatly.  That's why the two most popular endings are death or marriage because they coincide with real endings in life, death of the body and death of the spirit. (If my wife sees this, it's just a joke.  It not . . .)

And yet, in a way, endings are the most crucial part of a book.  If every novel is the battle between two ideas, as I've written about before, than the ending gives us the winner.  1984 is about the forces of fascism versus individual freedom.  Which prevails?  We don't know until the end, when Winston Smith is famously broken in room 101.  There is no hope here, no love, no triumph of will, no transcendence.  This is what we get instead: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."  Would Orwell's masterpiece be as powerful if Winston Smith prevailed?  Would we still read it?

So the ending rules.  I never start a book unless I know the way it will end, not the actual step by step thing of it, but the feel of it, the idea that will come out ahead.  And I usually have a final image that sums of much of what's been going on throughout the book.  John Irving says that he can't write even the first line if he doesn't know how it ends, and I understand that.  A lot of time I'm moving forward toward that final image.  Although I must admit that my endings often change as I move through the book.  The more I develop my characters and ideas, the more I get a sense that maybe I was wrong at the start, which is, paradoxically, a great sign.  If a book is working, it will talk to me more than I will dictate to it. 

And there are a number of ways to go about to close things out, which I'll talk about later.  The thing I want to emphasize now is don't minimize the ending.  It's not just the final big battle, the ending provides the ultimate meaning of the work.

End big, end bold, end smart.