Friday, November 30, 2012

Endings and Beginnings--Finding the Reader-Satisfying "Loops" in Your Story

Recently I finished a pretty good story.  It is making the rounds of my friends who love literary fiction, and I'd gotten at least three recommendations, which made me reserve it at our library.

It's a debut novel by M.L.Stedman, called The Light between Oceans.

Gorgeous title and very interesting premise--a lighthouse keeper and his wife who live on a remote island off the coast of Australia find a baby in a boat that washes up on shore. The wife, desperately childless after three miscarriages, argues to keep the baby.  The husband wants to contact the mainland and let them know, thinking that some mother there will be equally desperate.  But the wife wins, they keep the child, and their world cracks in unexpected ways.

Although I love reading just for reading's sake, I have a writer's high expectations.  I found the writing lovely, with generous use of images and tense character interaction.  The setting of the rocky island and its isolation, the keen details about the lighthouse, were amazingly crafted. 

The thing that really bothered me was Act 3--the way the writer wrapped up the ending of this marvelous story. 

Imagine a book like a giant weaving.  Threads of all colors and textures are woven from beginning to end.  And Act 3 is the place where all these threads become a cohesive picture.  The reader reads forward with this expectation.  If threads are dropped along the way or if Act 3 is wrapped up unskillfully, the book does not "earn out" its ending, as one of my instructors once said.

So what have you begun, do you carry it through to the end, and do you allow us enough time to absorb the emotional meaning of this ending?
Working Backwards from the Ending--How Each Thread Connects Back to Its Beginning
When I get my draft sketched out, and again at revision, I make a list.  I list all the threads I've woven into the book, from beginning through the middle. 

Then I begin working backwards, using this list.  Do all the threads make it to the end?  Do they unravel or disappear? 

This task is one that editors used to do.  Writers just wrote--they didn't look at structure.  Kindly editors helped find what was dropped mid-book and helped thread it back into the tapestry.  Now writers must do this for themselves, and it must be done deliberately and methodically. 

Some call this continuity checking.  Is the red Fiat in chapter 1 still red by chapter 36 or did it become a blue Honda because the writer didn't make a list?

Beyond these small details are the larger thematic threads and relationships that begin in early chapters and must be carried through in some way.  These also go on the list.  What expectations do you set up for the reader?  Are these earned out by the end?

Don't misunderstand:  I'm not looking for neatness or pretty endings, just a sense that the writer hasn't forgotten any threads. 
Just remember the sage advice from writer Anton Chekhov:  If a loaded gun appears in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 3. 

Making a List and Checking It Twice
I recently worked with a writer who had an intriguing box of letters that appeared in Act 1.  I kept reading his manuscript, looking for where those letters might reappear.  There were a few small mentions of them, but they didn't actually come into the story again.  When I asked about them, the writer just said he forgot them. 

You can start your list anytime.  It'll help you a lot when you get toward the end of your book.  My list for my current book-in-progress looks like this:

1.  Ed returns and helps Kate
2.  Kate's mom
3.  the necklace
4.  Molly's portrait of Zoe
and many more items

Once I get my list written, it's easy to see where there are holes in the draft or revision. 

Ideally, these threads are strong both forward and backwards.  Ed's return to help Kate needs to work well from the ending back through the middle, by foreshadowing.  I have to plant good clues that this will happen, but not reveal how it will happen.  Good endings are anticipated but not expected.  Get the difference?

So look for all the important details, especially objects, places, and any promises made by one person to another.  If you use a key image--such a letters in a box--make sure it tracks forward and backward for the reader.  They will look for it.

When I finished my list, I made notes about what I had forgotten, as my student did with the box of letters, and I began to weave in what was missing.

Beware of Wrapping Up Too Quickly
My beef with Stedman's book was that these threads--although skillfully woven from beginning to end--were tied off very quickly in the final two or three chapters. 

A series of short "islands" at the end, maybe 10-12 packed in a chapter, presented how each problem was concluded.  It felt somewhat summarized, as if the writer had gotten tired of the story and just wanted to wrap it up quickly.

Be very careful about doing this.  You not only have to earn out your ending in a physical sense but also emotionally.  The reader will need sufficient time to emotionally absorb your book's conclusion. 

If the ending comes too fast, we feel cheated.  It's confusing--we think we've missed some big emotional clues, but we haven't (often I read back to try to find them).  So we will just feel unsatisfied.

Act 3 is often the shortest part of a book.  But it needs to be long enough to let the meaning of the story really settle in our hearts.    That makes for a satisfying read--one that we will recommend to others.

I liked The Light between Oceans enough to suggest it to a few more people, but with a cavaet.  I hope they are not as picky a reader as I am.  And that they are not working on the ending of a book of their own!

Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Writing the Last Chapter
An exercise I give in my advanced book-writing classes is to write your final chapter.  Even before you've finished your draft. 

Scary, yes.  But it's great fun too, and it can help you craft a better story. 

Remember--this can be a very bad chapter, very sketchy, put together with whatever you know now.  Build it by imagining what you want your reader to feel as they turn the last page.

Here are some possibilities:

1.  You want the reader to take some kind of action, inspired by your book.

2.  You want them to question something in their lives.

3.  You want them to be surprised by an unexpected twist.

4.  You want a mystery to be solved.

5.  You want a new mystery to be revealed, or a new question that is not resolved (often leading to a sequel).

There are many other experiences a good ending can produce.  What do you imagine for yours? 

Try it:  I promise your book will take a leap forward, as well as your confidence in yourself to actually finish it!