Story Endings – Part Two

ending, finish, party

Last week Washington Post book critic Ron Charles’s recent essay about book endings that disappoint was reviewed on this website. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one intrigued by this account. Says Post editor Stephanie Merry, his essay let loose a torrent of reader comments that aired “their personal grievances about the endings that still haunt them.” The result, she says, was a funny, eclectic, and, not surprisingly often contradictory view of how we want our books to conclude. She reports on that outpouring here.

According to Merry, there was “nearly universal agreement on a handful of books.” Perhaps readers were reminded of these loathed conclusions by Charles’s post, as the comments repeat many of the examples he highlighted. A “top contender for worst ending” was Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. After all the clever and powerful twisting back and forth between Nick and Amy, the consensus seems to be that it’s just too weak. Another popularly unpopular ending was that of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I think I read that years ago, but maybe I just remember Rene Zellweger.

In contrast to Gone Girl, in which the ending just flopped, the disappointment with Cold Mountain seems to be a case in which readers didn’t like the ending the writer chose (my problem with Tess of the D’Urbervilles). People have been saying the same about Romeo and Juliet, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina for generations It’s almost as if we readers are saying, don’t make us care about these characters so much unless you plan to keep them alive long enough for a sequel!

As one reader (Javachip) wrote more eloquently, “There’s a difference between endings that crush you with their sadness or horribleness but still work, and indeed you hate them because they work, (he cites examples), vs. endings that feel like a cheat.” (Emphasis added.) In that category he puts Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett—the first of hers I ever read, years ago—and I do not remember the ending at all. Must not have made much of an impression. At least it didn’t make me mad.

A surprising number of readers confess to reading the end first. “I always enjoy a journey more if I [don’t] have to worry about where I am going,” said Post reader Alison Cartwright. Something I would never do, would you?

And then there were the contrarian readers who suggested nominees for best ending, including The Great Gatsby and The Underground Railroad. Lopezgirl5 is a fan of Charlotte Bronte’s ending for Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.” That might make a good first line for a certain kind of story, as well.

Photo: pixel2013 for Pixabay

Adding Some Theater Magic to Your Novel

Lady Macbeth

The set and costume choices used in theater are akin to how authors describe settings and the clothing their characters wear. Everything’s a choice—a tangible one or the words used to describe it. People (readers) evaluate our surroundings and what people wear all the time in everyday life, which puts a burden on writing about them. Are the details we choose meaningful? This is what set and costume designers understand to a fare-thee-well.

Where Are Your Characters? The Setting

Sets and costumes were the topic of my third “How to Watch a Play” class led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Theater J in Washington DC. Sets and costumes give a show its tone and style and help define where and when it takes place. Check Google images for different productions of the same play, and you’ll find “dramatically” different interpretations that serve different dramatic concepts. Authors can use their descriptions in the same way, in order to establish a vision of a person or place in the reader’s mind. Auntie Mame wearing “all her pearls” (tells you everything you need to know about her!) or the foggy treetop setting for Nick Petrie’s escaping hero in Burning Bright.

The big difference is, of course, the theater audience can take in the set and costumes in a glance, whereas a written text works best when it focuses on a few key aspects. Does it matter that the carpet is beige, or is it more important that all the tables and shelves are glass (later to be broken)? Does it matter that the protagonist’s shoes are black, or will it be consequential that those shoes are the aptly-named stilettos? As a reader, I don’t care that a woman’s suit is gray, I care that she hasn’t changed style or color in forty years.

Innumerable specific choices in the set design—the materials used, their color and texture, and whether they appear buoyant or heavy, for example—can be brought into the visual field or, in writing, into the text, to convey not just what a room looks like, but to suggest the kinds of things that have happened there and can happen again.

What Do Your Characters Wear?

To convey a sense of the status and personality of a tale’s characters, costume designers use line, color, fabric, accessories, makeup, and wigs/hair. One of my “unforgettable theater moments” was a costume moment during a Folger Theatre production of Richard III. The cast was dressed all in black, the simple set was heavy and dim. No color at all. As Act II (I think) began, Richard, wearing a black cape, trudged up a short stairway. At the top, he flung open the cape, revealing a spotlit scarlet lining. No question about his murderous intentions! Or think of a Walter Mosley character wearing a wife-beater.

Dressing a character in all black or all white also suggests something about them. White usually implies purity. A bit of counter-costuming often gives Lady Macbeth a long white gown. In one production I saw, she was on stage alone and turned her back to the audience to grip the iron bars of a gate in both hands (thereby breaking gel-packs of fake blood). She ran her hands up and down her torso and, when she turned to face us, the blood-stained white dress was a shocker and, of course, dramatically significant (the pictured costume accomplishes a similar message).

Writers can’t achieve the same visual shock on the page but can always rope in a gobsmacked observer. Next time you go to the theater or watch a well-designed tv show, notice how the choices about sets and costumes shed light on the story and characters. Those skills are there for adaptation in writing. Choices (good, bad, or indifferent) have been made.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Theme

There’s a place in the world for books whose sole aim is to entertain, but these books often don’t have staying power. Shakespeare, Dickens (the inspiration for the names of our kittens, Will and Charles), Twain—wrote stories that were popular and, because they explore universal themes, have continued relevance to readers today. Modern authors tackle difficult themes too: Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison. As do mystery/thriller writers: Steph Cha, Walter Mosley, Don Winslow.

Author Philip Pullman’s Insight

In a recent Guardian essay, author Philip Pullman discussed how he arrives at a theme. His works have themes, in retrospect, but “that aim or purpose, or theme, wasn’t where I started. It’s far too abstract.” He allows as how some successful writers can start with a theme and develop a novel to illustrate it. Not him. “I don’t start with a theme in mind at all,” he says, “but with characters in particular situations. If I’m lucky a theme becomes visible to me before I reach the end of the story, so I can go back and cut, or shape, or move, or amplify, or reduce various parts of the text in order to clarify the theme I’m beginning to see.”

I was so happy to read this, because I’d been feeling rather dim that I didn’t recognize sooner the theme of the novel I’ve been working on. I thought of it as a simple crime novel, in which a man fails to do something important and fears he’ll be found out. He torments himself about this, but before he can substantively confront his failing, a great many more bad things happen, to him and to those he loves. Not until I was writing query letters (better late than never) did I realize the story is about a man trying to regain self-respect. (You’ll have to read the book to find out whether he succeeds.) In other words, a theme can reveal itself organically out of the work.

Surprise!

This recognition was a surprise. I hadn’t counted on being skilled enough to create something around a Theme. Even the idea sounds like a prescription for deadly prose. However, I shouldn’t have been wary. As Donald Maass, in his excellent advice to writers suggests, no matter what the specific content (time, place, characters, plot) of a novel is, these specifics need to connect to something larger, to the universal. That’s what creates the emotional connection for the reader.

We may not have the experience of being stranded on Mars, but we know what it is to feel abandoned, to keep our spirits up by busily plugging away at tasks that are manageable. We may not have the experience of living in Margaret Atwood’s Gideon, but many women (at least) know what it is to play eternal second-fiddle to another group of people, to be systematically devalued. We may not have the experience of my character, architect Archer Landis, who discovers a murder and doesn’t report it, but we know what it is to feel shame.

For the past few Thursdays, my posts have examined influences in my crime novel, tentatively titled Four Proofs of Courage. I’m delighted to report that it is under contract with Black Opal Books, and when I have the schedule, I’ll share it. I appreciate the readers who have told me they like these posts. I hope you do too and would love to hear from you. Previous posts in “Where Writers’ Ideas Come From”:
Why an Architect?
Who Are These Women?
Seeing the World Through a Character’s Eyes
What Kind of Trip Is It?
Slivers of Backstory

Photo: pasja1000 for Pixabay

Coming to a Bad End

End, Finish

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles recently wrote about his reluctance to spoil the endings of the books he reviews, yet worried about “the propriety of burying my appraisal of a book’s conclusion.” It’s a conundrum for him, because endings are so critical to what readers come away with. I know many many fellow readers who adored Where the Crawdads Sing all the way up to the last pages, because they believe the ending (whatever it is; my lips are sealed) wasn’t true to the character. Put me in that camp too.

There’s lots of reasons not to like an ending, and a disconnect with the rest of the book is a good one. Critics and critical readers didn’t like the ending to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, because it felt too manipulative and artificially tidy. One of my favorite classics is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I hate the ending—not because it betrays the character, not because it doesn’t ring true, but simply because I don’t want it to end that way. No surprise, then, that in all my many repeat viewings of West Side Story, I’ve sat through the last half-hour in a state of increasing anxiety, hoping against hope that Chino won’t step out and shoot Tony at the end (Oops! Spoiler alert).

Wishing the ending the author chose were something different isn’t exactly the same as disliking the ending that was chosen. In the first case, the problem is internal to the reader and, in the second, it may be with the author.

Charles reports on an analysis by online retailer OnBuy.com of GoodReads reviews to identify the “Books with the Most Disappointing Endings.” Their methodology, he says, “feels a bit dubious,” but, nevertheless, here are the top five: Romeo and Juliet (you want it to end differently), Atonement (too neat), Requiem by Lauren Oliver (don’t know it), and The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray (don’t know it either). Two Harry Potter books are on the list: “Deathly Hallows” at spot 9 and “Half-Blood Prince” at spot 11. Weaknesses, if there be them, haven’t hurt sales, though. “Half-Blood Prince” sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours and “Deathly Hallows” 8.3 million—before most readers got to their questionable endings, I’d wager

Here are the contradictory assessments readers provide about the endings they hate: they’re too rushed (that deadline is looming; wrap this baby up!) or too drawn out (enough already; The Goldfinch is a prime offender here); they’re too surprising (surprising? If no groundwork is laid, sure, but if it is . . . don’t we like plots with a twist?) or too predictable (thrillers, especially, have developed a too well-worn plot groove). And here, Charles notes, other readers bedsides me lament the fate of poor Tess.

Charles’s article prompted hundreds of WashPo readers to comment, “and the result was a funny, eclectic and often contradictory look at how we want our books to conclude,” wrote editor Stephanie Merry. More on that next week.

Photo: Alexas_Fotos for Pixabay.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Slivers of Backstory

Authors are constantly admonished not to dwell in backstory—especially early in a book or at the introduction of each new character—yet there are aspects of a character’s prior experiences that writers want readers to know. Unless you start your book at the very beginning of a character’s life, like David Copperfield’s “I Am Born,” there are relationships and episodes you need to review in order help readers understand who the character is in the today of the novel.

Since my character, Archer Landis, is in his early sixties in 2011, he was in his mid-twenties as the Vietnam War was ending (I have done this arithmetic about a hundred times, convinced I have it wrong!). The war, the draft, the demonstration would have been very much top-of-mind to him at a crucial and formative stage of life, with indelible impact.

Rather than take a deep dive into his war experiences—like Michael Connolly did so well in his first Harry Bosch story, The Black Echo, which was so immersive that when the story returned to the present day, I was briefly discombobulated—I doled out Landis’s war memories in small bites.

He briefly returns to his Vietnam experiences at three points in the novel. I hadn’t realized it as I wrote, but looking back, in each case, they come to his mind at times he is very much in peril. It must be the intensity of the hazard that resurrects them. For example, late one afternoon, Landis is standing in front of a window in his office, and someone shoots at him from across the street. He reflexively dives to the floor. No standing there, thinking, “What? Where did that come from?”

Some chapters later, anticipating a possible violent confrontation, he hearkens back to his Vietnam experiences and the way the Viet Cong would enter hostile territory and contrasts that with his options in the situation he finds himself in. It causes him to reflect on the kind of person he has become. I’m not telling a war story; I’m showing who he is.

Many pages later, when an attack on him and a well-armed colleague is expected—this is now forty years after Vietnam—he asks whether he should have a gun too.
“You done much shooting?” his colleague asks.
“Not since Vietnam.”
“There’s your answer.”

These snippets are reminders that Landis engaged in the issues of his day and was a part of them. They help me—and the reader too, I hope—see him as a fully rounded person who has a past, but is not dominated by it.

For how to think about this aspect of his past, I relied on Karl Marlantes’s fine novel, Matterhorn. Marlantes is a Yale alumnus, was a Rhodes Scholar, and served as a Marine in Vietnam.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: What Kind of Trip Is it?

Tarifa, Spain

When describing characters’ travels, do you bear in mind the purpose of the trip? Is it business, pleasure, family, or personal? The trip’s purpose will of course affect their actions, but it also colors what they see and observe.

Think of a destination as a bare-bones stage set; what the writer adds can reinforce the drama and the character’s state of mind. To some extent, writers may do this almost unconsciously. If there’s danger, they might describe a cold wind, trash in the streets, streetlights blinking out. If there’s romance, they may provide beaches and outdoor cafes and bright colors.

So the ideas about what to describe in a place and how to describe it come from the place, from the character, and from the character’s purpose in being there. These descriptors need to be tightly connected to all three or they risk feeling arbitrary and superficial.

I try to move some of those unconscious—call them automatic—choices into the conscious realm, hoping to strengthen them and make sure I’m not sending mixed signals. My novel’s protagonist, Manhattan architect Archer Landis, travels to Brussels for work and to Tarifa, Spain, for powerful personal reasons. In Brussels, he was there to get a job done. But in Spain, he can’t escape the emotional reasons motivating his trip. As a result, a different set of details are highlighted. In Tarifa, food and street life and vistas are emphasized over the newspapers and briefcases and cabs of Brussels.

Tarifa is on the southwestern tip of Spain, and, amazingly, right across the Strait of Gibraltar, you can see Africa. When I was there myself and realized Tangier was only an hour away by hydrofoil, I had to go. Proximity to Morocco is one reason my characters ended up in that spot.

Despite having visited, I still had to study maps to remind myself of the broad strokes. From Google street views, I gained a sense of different neighborhoods that let me pick an area for my characters to stay in. I studied people’s photographs for details—whitewashed walls, narrow brick streets, potted red geraniums, wrought iron balconies. These were among the things an architect, like my character Landis, would notice. If he’d trained as a Navy Seal, the claustrophobic streets, the balcony shutters ajar, the low-rise, flat-roofed buildings would have had totally different significance.

Although I didn’t write a point-by-point description of the streets, I worked these elements into the action. For example, Landis naturally notices how the whitewashed buildings bring light into the narrow streets; at one frustrating point, he says he’s come to hate the geraniums’ aggressive cheerfulness.

One photograph I studied a long time was a rooftop view, akin to the one reproduced here. Staying in a hotel penthouse suite (sixth floor), Landis’s view would have been similar. Studying that view, he pulls together stray thoughts about the Pillars of Hercules (the nearby Rock of Gibraltar in Spain and the mountain Jebel Musa in Morocco, in thispicture, only slightly visible through the haze).

Tarifa, Spain

Hercules wasn’t in mind at all when I wrote my first draft, but I do a  kind of “see where it leads me” research, and at some point I realized the myth’s potential metaphorical value in the story. As a result, Landis muses that the difficult task he’s set himself in Tarifa would be worthy of another of Hercules’s labors.

It’s a few simple words, but for those who know their Greek myths, I hope it has resonance. And, even for those of us (like me) who have forgotten so much, such associations still work, I think, at some subconscious level. On a business trip, that kind of wandering thought probably wouldn’t have a place.

Other posts in the Where Writers’ Ideas Come From series can be found under the Writers’ First Draft tab.

Photos: balcony, Akuppa John Wigham; rooftop view, Andrew Nash; both for Pixabay

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Seeing Through a Character’s Eyes

subway station

In my novel about Manhattan-based architect Archer Landis, he travels from New York to Brussels to visit the site of a major design project about to break ground. His firm, Landis + Porter, has the commission to design the reconstruction of a major station in the city’s rail and subway system. The station I chose for his firm to work on was Schuman station, located in the heart of the European Union district. Aside from strictly architectural considerations, it faces two major challenges.

Foremost, Landis is worried about terrorism, and he wants to be sure there’s nothing about his firm’s design that makes it more vulnerable. Would a glass canopy make terrorists think access is simple, or that they are too easily scrutinized?

I selected Schuman station some years ago when I began working on this book and so was shocked when, in the morning of March 22, 2016, suicide bombers attacked Maalbeek metro station, one stop east of Schuman. This attack was coordinated with two others at the Brussels airport. In all, 35 people were killed and more than 300 injured.

The second concern arises from protests at the site, because it will involve the destruction of a building regarded as “Belgium’s Stonewall,” where a young gay activist was killed some years earlier. The protests seem manageable, and Landis doesn’t immediately realize the danger associated with them.

Eventually, of course, as a matter of business and despite the personal issues he’s facing, he must deal with both of these dilemmas.

To write about Brussels, a city where I’ve never been, I used several detailed maps of the city center and the EU district, and walked the streets with the little guy in Google maps. I studied the websites of hotels near Schuman station, restaurant menus, and news outlets, as well as the station itself, which at that time (2011) was undergoing a major renovation, thoroughly described and dissected online. The availability of that information to me, to you, and to anyone, led to a major epiphany for my fictional architect.

Photo: labwebmaster for Pixabay.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Who Are These Women?

sangria-colored room, andallshallbewell Tumblr page

Archer Landis, the Manhattan architect at the center of my forthcoming novel, has been married and faithful to his wife Marjorie for thirty-odd years. But Julia Fernández, a new associate in his firm, has unexpectedly stolen his heart. For me as a writer, describing these two women and their worlds didn’t happen all at once. At first, my thoughts were akin to a sketch I kept going back to—adding, subtracting, refining, and shaping details—so that their ultimate descriptions show them to be distinct three-dimensional characters. Writing my first or second draft, I did not understand them well enough to do that.

Where They Live

In the novel’s first chapter, you see Julia’s Chelsea apartment as Archer, with his strong design sensibility, sees it. He’s aware of all the references to her Spanish origins—the sangria-colored walls, the heavy dark curtains, the chaise longues upholstered in deep carmine velvet. “It would require all his French curves and a full palette of rose and violet pigments to reproduce the effect.”

Archer and Marjorie’s penthouse in an Upper East Side high-rise is light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the East River. The apartment is all straight lines, its walls are pale gray, the furniture has white leather upholstery, and a painting by Joan Miró provides only “a confetti of color.” A totally different woman lives there.

What They Wear

Archer thinks of Julia as the bright bird in his office. She wears simple silk dresses in shades like watermelon pink, lime, and saffron. She has licorice-colored hair. You get the picture. In Landis’s eyes, she’s delicious.

Marjorie dresses in long knitted skirts, tunics and drapy attached scarves in the palest rose, taupe, beige, and off-white. Colors so faint that, over successive scenes, Archer cannot always identify what they are.

How He Feels about Them

My intent is that these details say much more about the differences between Julia and Marjorie than their taste in interior decorating and clothing. Much later in the book, Landis muses on his love for them both, calling Julia his dazzling sun, and Marjorie his moon, the one who could regulate the tides within him and light the darkness. This analogy (I hope) recalls to the reader the earlier evocative descriptions constructed from specific details.

Avoiding Cliché Traps

Superficial inventories (height, hair, eyes, clothing, voice) when a character is first introduced tend to be flat and uninteresting. They read like the author is ticking the boxes. They’re akin to the first impression of someone, and nothing like the rich descriptions and telling details that reflect the real person.

Trying for an intriguing first draft detail, maybe, have you noticed how often authors give a female character green eyes? I am one of the two percent of people worldwide who actually have green eyes, so I notice this. A green-eyed woman has become a bit of a cliché. (One of my characters has them too!) In any case, eye color is not a significant detail. Rarely does a plot depend on the color of a character’s eyes (or hair). Height, maybe.

Some interesting research bears out the prevalence of male and female stereotypes in physical description that, thanks to overuse, no longer connect with readers.

Other posts in this series: Why an Architect?

Photo: andallshallbewell Tumblr page

The Woman Is a Spy

Three women who’ve made outstanding careers for themselves in the intelligence community were featured in a Cipher Brief webinar last Friday, moderated by the organization’s founder, Suzanne Kelly, former CNN Intelligence Correspondent. As a writer interested in that world, I was eager to hear the women’s perspectives.

The women were:

Over the course of these women’s careers, the attitude toward women working in intelligence has evolved, just as it has throughout American society. When they started out in the early 80s or so, the intelligence community was an old boys’ club, and most women were relegated to support staff and administrative positions. The diversity of job opportunities for women is much greater now—after all, CIA Director Gina Haspell is a woman—but vestiges of old attitudes remain.

Thus, the era in which a story is set makes a great deal of difference as to how female characters would be treated. Perhaps engineering backgrounds gave two of these women added insight or practice in breaching institutional gender barriers.

The panelists had all worked in a variety of settings—for both government and the private sector. They change jobs and vacuum up new knowledge and skills. So, if your character needs a particular expertise, it certainly would be realistic to create a previous position where she could have gained it, inside government or not. Or, even in her own security services company.

Savvy women in the intelligence community work hard to develop a network of women in their and other intelligence agencies for all the familiar advice-seeking, moral-support reasons we know. From the perspective of these women, a more diverse workforce—in terms of gender, cultural background, type of education, analytic style, and where people have lived —produces better intelligence outcomes, as intelligence community employers have come to appreciate.

Suggested reading:
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Bloodmoney by David Ignatius
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynn Olson

Where Writers’ Ideas Come from: Why an Architect?

woman writing

The architect who is the protagonist of my novel-in-progress, Archer Landis, has lived in my head so long, I had to scour my brain to remember why he designs buildings rather than runs railroads, manages a department store empire, or fixes teeth.

My parents were Frank Lloyd Wright devotees, read his books (I still have them), and in the 1950s, when they wanted to build a house, they wrote to the great man. The size of their budget undoubtedly stopped that conversation before it got started, but he wrote them a nice letter. So my dad designed our house himself along Wrightean principles. Small by today’s standards. Small then.

In college I lurked around the studios in the architecture school, using an empty drawing board for my own graphics work, fascinated by the students’ model buildings and the smell of sharpened pencils, rubber cement, clay. A scene in the novel has Landis ruminating on that kind of by-hand work versus today’s 3-D printing.

At a more symbolic level, Landis is confronted with people who are his opposites. He wants to build; they want to destroy. Their destructiveness affects him directly, both personally and professionally, and threatens his family, his business, his life.

As this book developed, the things he notices, his relationships, nearly everything he does goes back to the touchstone of his calling. Straightedges and French curves and stone samples. He could no more be a railroad exec, a retailer, or a dentist than he could be an emissary from Alpha Centauri.

Photo of woman writing: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license