Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tying Up Romantic Loose Ends

Now, I know what the dirtier-minded of you are thinking.  Yeah, I was thinking it too.  No, this is not about S&M novels or erotica.  Sorry.

One of my fellow authors on Facebook recently asked the question of how a (stand-alone) novel should end.  Specifically, should a plot point be left hanging open?  The example she gave was that of Gone With The Wind, in which we read all the way to the very last words printed inside the book, and then all the way down to the bottom of the back cover, without ever knowing whether Rhett and Scarlett get back together.

I started with an easy, short answer, but I failed at writing that because it's not an easy issue.  As I was revising what would become a multi-paragraph response yet again, then, I decided, "Ah, heck--let's make this a blog post."  It's an interesting question, and the answer is of some substance, so why not, right?

So should a plot point be left hanging open?  And should we have been told in the text of Gone With The Wind whether the ill-fated couple would reconcile their differences and be swept away in the--well, crap.  I was about to toss out a metaphor that's so sickeningly sweet I couldn't even type it.

They're two separate questions, though, aren't they?

The plot point in GWtW, after all, wasn't whether they grew old together.  The issue, and one of the key conflicts in the story, was the nature of their relationship and the tragic love triangle it supported.  It was a relationship that started off on rocky enough footing and quickly headed South, so to speak, and so quite honestly the fact that they split up is the resolution I was looking for.  All sorts of things can happen later on, to be certain: the pair can get back together, or they can not.  She could have gone and forced Ashley to love her through some dark magical trickery--or, um, she could not.  A giant meteor could have struck Atlanta followed by Earth's enslavement from Mars, causing all possible future loose ends to become moot.


My point, I guess, is that there's no way for a novelist to tie every conceivable loose end up.  It would take too much paper, for one thing, and it would also be boring as crap to read.  As someone else once said: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn what else might happen."

Or, something like that.

Now, on the broader question--when should a novel end?  I'm not sure anything renders such differences in opinions from readers.  I've sat through several conference sessions where the topic came up, and some readers love an ending that ties all the little loose ends up into a tidy bundle, while some love an ending that, in one author's words, "comes right before the real end" and thus makes a reader wonder and use his or her imagination.

Some readers love to have to use our imaginations, and others don't, I suppose.  If only every reader were the same, all wanting the same thing, then our job as novelists would be much, much easier, wouldn't it?

Yeah, and much, much less interesting, I'd argue.

The trick, then, comes in figuring out which plot points the reader is going to want you to close.  It's not always easy, though.  I panned Inheritance, the last book of the Eragon series, for the fact that it does pretty much the same thing GWtW does: leaves us hanging on the core emotional conflict/relationship of the series.  I don't want to spoil the plot for anybody, so I'll just say that the ending of the book (which we as a family listened to on audiobook on one of our long drive weekends) left us all screaming in reader-rage.

But it's not the same thing if you really think about it.  GWtW has the emotional conflict build then resolve slightly, then build then resolve slightly, then build then resolve slightly, and then bang!  Finally it resolves in a climactic scene that is permanently etched on many movie-goers' retinas as well as embedded deep within our ventricles.  We don't like the way it resolves (at least, those of us who like happy endings don't), but it does resolve.

Compared to that resolution, and again avoiding any plot-spoiling, what happened in Inheritance was just a warm sizzle which then fizzled.  But wait! you cry.  That's how elves are, romantically: heat, heat, heat, fizzle.  True, but Paolini wasn't writing the book for elves.  He was writing it for us, and we expect there to be a grand staircase scene at the end rather than some keening wailing of a mysterious nature.

What do you think?  Do you prefer to know more or less about the resolution of emotional conflicts?  Is there a difference between what you expect of emotional conflicts and what you expect of other types?


1 comment:

  1. I haven't read Inheritance (I got bogged down in the terrible writing in the first two books and just quit), but when I was in high school, I remember the shock when I got to the "end" of Piers Anthony's Virtual Mode. That one isn't just unresolved; it's as if the author chopped his manuscript in half at a random point and then just published it as separate works.

    So, it really does depend on how the ending is handled. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, "We don't like the way it resolves (at least, those of us who like happy endings don't), but it does resolve."