Ending the Never-Ending Story Right, or How to Keep Readers From Hating Your Book

(from wikimedia.org)

I am currently working through National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The aim is to write 50,000 words during the month, or 1667 words per day. Day 15 is already here, halfway through the month of November, and I am happy to say that I have reached more than 25,000 words.

But this post is not about NaNoWriMo, per se. Instead, I want to write about an observation my wife made when I read my story-so-far to her the other day. She’d been travelling for the better part of the week, so there were about eight chapters to read through. She sat quite patiently, listening as my story unfolded, not saying much. When I was done, her response was, “It sort of feels like The Neverending Story.”

Most people will be more familiar with the movie of that title than with the book, by German author, Michael Ende. I read the book a few years ago, and in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I did not like it. (I loved Momo, also by Ende, but that’s for a different post, perhaps.) In the words of the Horse from the Ren & Stimpy Show, “No, Sir, I didn’t like it.” You might even say I hated it. In fact, just about the only thing I liked about the book was the title, which I felt was an attempt at being honest with the reader. The story literally seemed as if it would never end, no matter how much the reader (or at least this reader) might want it to.

SpectrumBut what could possibly make me hate it so? After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that the thing that I disliked the most about it is the thing some people may have liked the most: the extreme fantasy element. Imagine a spectrum. Actually, I’ll save you trouble of imagining anything, provided you can stomach burnt orange. On one side, we have Hyper Realism, and other side, Abstract Fantasy. It its most essential form, Hyper Realism is so real that it approaches boring — a description of your day, or a summary of a business meeting. The only thing that keeps it from being non-fiction is that it didn’t happen. Abstract Fantasy, on the other hand, is meant (I assume) to cast off the shackles of the “known” and immerse the reader in something completely foreign. I’m sure that palatable examples exist near the both ends of the spectrum. As a general rule, however, the nearer one gets to the ends, the more challenging the read. We need a little fuel for the imagination, but not so much that we simply can’t imagine it at all.

In my estimation, The Neverending Story sits deep in Abstract Fantasy territory, somewhere between the Swamp of Sighs and the Delta of Disappointment. Building from an admittedly cool premise (a boy finds a book that, when read, draws him into another world), it never manages to put meat on the bones of its plot, characters, or settings. Even the nemesis is abstract — a nothingness that is destroying the world in the book because children in our world are no longer reading or believing in stories. How much concern can the reader have for a world they can barely visualize or feel?  And as if Ende was flipping the bird to readers who thought, “Surely, if I just make it to the end(e), I’ll be rewarded with something concrete,” he ties up the loose ends of the story with “that’s another story and shall be told another time.” (Shorthand for, “My editor says that if I go over 500 pages, he’s not taking the book.”)

OK, I hope you were able to take that mini-rant about The Neverending Story in stride, because it wasn’t actually the point of this point. It was context for the comment my wife made to me after I read a portion of my first draft to her. “It sort of feels like The Neverending Story,” she said.  We’re allowed to be straight up with each other like that… if you can’t be straight up with your spouse, then I’m not sure who you can be with.

Even so, comparing my story to one that she knows I care for so little seemed like a low blow. But I thought about it a bit, and eventually I had to agree. The part she heard was particularly abstract — two boys on a sailboat become lost in a storm, find out they are in another world, climb a mountain to see a mystical old man, and receive instructions about what to do next. It wasn’t just that though. Through all this, the boys’ emotional response to their circumstances (i.e., what they were feeling) was not clear.

Ordinarily, an observation like that would have sent me back to page one, determined to write in all the things I felt were missing. I wanted to pull it out of Abstract Fantasy territory by adding something more concrete. But I didn’t. I had (and still have) 50,000 words to write by November 30, and a good way to make sure they don’t get written is by puttering around with the finer details.

A comparison, for those of you who draw, would be to begin a drawing that is meant to occupy an entire page, but then get bogged down detailing an area of just a few square inches. This is easy to do, unless one intentionally steps back from page and takes a wider view. Detail that is built on in layers gives the work a uniform and complete feel; detail that is added on sporadically results in a helter-skelter mess.

So I’ve decided to push through and get a rough draft done before going back to add anything. Interestingly, by pushing through as I have, I’ve discovered my characters in a way that is, perhaps, more organic. When I do go back, after I’ve tacked on the final period and amen, I’ll be much better equipped to go back and enhance (or even rewrite) the parts I have reservations about.

(from neverendingstory.com)

To bring myself full circle, I find it interesting that in the movie version of The Neverending Story, the writers thought it best to end the movie at a point that is actually only 1/3 or so of the way through the book. It is as if they, with the gift of hindsight, were able to see that the book would have been better if it had ended sooner and invested more in developing its characters and setting into something that could be imagined and felt by the reader.  After all, who doesn’t want to share in the experience of riding their own dragon?

Do you totally love The Neverending Story and think I’m way off base?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

4 Responses to Ending the Never-Ending Story Right, or How to Keep Readers From Hating Your Book

  1. I was holding my breath throught this post to discover if you succumbed to the half-written curse! I was rooting for you- don’t go back! Press forward and finish writing the book before you edit those pages!
    I was cheering when I discovered you beat the curse.
    And now I know, you’ll win NaNo and have a complete draft.

  2. Pingback: A Useful Website: Best Fantasy Books | Jack Frey

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