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.

Advertisements

What’s your motive? A closer look at character motivation.

I came across a great post today by Elissa Lauren Field in which she examines her characters motivations. (You can find that post here.)  She shares a kernel of wisdom from another blogger, E.B. Pike (here) that I will also re-share (here).

E.B. suggests that your work as a writer will be made easier if you take the time before you begin to write to understand your character’s motivation(s).  Become intimately familiar with your character’s goals.  Those goals can be defined as “what your character is fighting for.”  As the writer, you can think of learning about these motivations as a form of psychotherapy.  Take your character into your office and invite them to lie down on the black leather couch.  Ask them to take their shoes off and talk about their mother.

It turns out that being nice to your characters isn’t in the writer’s job description.  E.B. goes on to state that knowing about the goals enables you to throw some “roadblocks” up in front of your characters.  After all, it isn’t fun to sit down to a book in which everything goes swimmingly for the characters all the time.  It wouldn’t be much fun to write either.

To aid you in your Sigmund Freud routine, she lays out a six-step plan of attack.  I’ve copied the steps here as they were posted and re-posted:

  1. Write down your character’s name
  2. Write down what your character wants, as succinctly as possible
  3. Ask yourself: If your character doesn’t get what he/she wants, what will happen?
  4. Now, write down three ways describing how you could make this matter even more.
  5. Again. Think of three ways you could make this matter even more. Write them down.
  6. You guessed it.  Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself if there’s any way you could make it matter even more.

What I enjoyed about Elissa Field’s post was that she actually followed these steps with two of her characters, laying them down on the black leather couch and asking them about their mothers.  I haven’t spent any time in Sigmund Freud’s office, but I imagine that it was a relatively private place, where people didn’t get to watch the sessions through the windows.  Elissa, on the other hand, psychoanalyzed her characters in the most public setting possible: the Internet.  So kudos to her for her bravery.

And now, with a hefty dose of creative license, I’d like to try!  I’ll take a close look at the main character from my (currently unpublished) novel, Minzanto.
————————

(Speaking into brass-plated intercom mounted on my desk) “Ms. Jones, would you please send in Mr. Rees?  I’m ready to see him now.”

A youngish man with brown hair and a patchy growth of stubble enters the office.  He is dressed in battered denim jeans and a flannel shirt.  Both articles of clothing are clearly hand-made.  After he has removed his boots and stretched himself over the black leather couch, I remind him that he is free to leave at any time.

“What is your name?” I ask.

“Julian Rees.”

His voice is dry, and I ask him if he would like something to drink.

“No, I’m fine,” he says.

I wait until his breathing has slowed, then say, “Julian, I’m going to ask you to tell me, in three words, what is it that you want?”

I see the tendons in his hands go tight and his lips press together, as if he wishes to keep the words in.

“To forget Maria,” he says finally.

My eyes move over my clipboard and the information there.  Three years ago, Julian’s wife, Maria, and his infant daughter burned to death in an accidental cabin fire.  I know that he blames himself for not being home to save them, and I suspect that the guilt he feels has festered into a self-loathing—a conviction that he should have died with them.

I learn that since their deaths he has followed the Appalachian Mountains northeastward, working dead-end jobs and living in tenements, falling deeper and deeper into depression and debt.  He says he wants to forget Maria. But what I see in front of me is a man who is trying to run away from himself.

“Julian, where are you going?”

He turns his head sharply towards me, as if surprised, then sighs. “God, I wish I knew.  Anyplace but here.  Minzanto, I guess.”

“Minzanto?”

“Yeah.”  He reaches into his pocket and pulls up a folded slip of newspaper.  “Some place up in Vermont.  I saw it in this ad.  A job offering to pay in gold.  I need the money.”

I examine the advertisement.  It says nothing else—no mention of what sort of work is waiting for him in this town, Minzanto.

“And will you be able to forget Maria there?”

For a moment, he is perfectly still, as if moulded from rubber.  His eyes close slowly, and when he opens them again, his lashes are wet.

“No.”

He despairs of forgetting her, and so he hopes to forget himself.  I want to tell him that if he desires to know happiness again, he must let go.  He must forgive himself, and experience the forgiveness that Maria would surely give him if only she were able.  But Julian’s heart has been filled with pain for so long that he no longer hopes for happiness.  He expects nothing but suffering.

“Do you believe, Julian, that ‘misery loves company’?”

“No,” he says. “I think a man can be so down that all he wants is to hole up and never see another living soul.  No do-gooders or people trying to help. No one.”

“Then why are you here, Julian?”

“To forget Maria.”

I hesitate. “I don’t think you ever will.”

He looks at me, and I see fear in his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“You won’t forget her, Julian.  She is a part of you, a vine grown into the very cracks of you.  To forget her would be to forget yourself.”

Julian’s eyes are fixed on the ceiling above us. He inhales deeply, then exhales.

“So there’s no hope?” he asks.  His voice is barely a whisper.

“Of course there’s hope,” I say. “Julian, go out and find people—normal people.  People who share this world of happiness and bitterness and laughter and pain.  Find them and learn about them, and I promise you’ll see there is hope.”

He looks at me, and I see distrust in his face.

“It’s that easy?”

“It won’t be easy, Julian.  In fact, it will probably be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it’s the only way I know of towards forgiveness and healing and happiness.”

Julian sits up and slips his feet into his boots. He fits the cuffs of his jeans over the tops, then rises and shakes my hand.  Unexpectedly, he smiles.

“What do I owe you, Doc?”

“It’s on the house,” I say.
—————————-

I know I strayed from the formula is it was handed down by E.B., but I had fun, and I think I see Julian’s motivations in a slightly different light than I have previously.  I can think of many more characters that would benefit from this kind of thorough examination.

Ahem… Ms. Jones, would you please send in…

First Lines of a Novel: Baiting the Hook, or Selling Snake Oil?

The BBC recently interviewed author Richard Ford, whose books include the Bascombe Trilogy: The SportswriterIndependence Day, and The Lay of the Land.  In that interview (which you can watch for yourself here), the interviewer asks whether the opening lines of Ford’s latest book, Canada, don’t give away too much.  She calls them “a kind of spoiler.” Here are the lines:

First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

Ford shakes his head dismissively, then crooks his finger and sticks it into his cheek. “It’s a narrative hook,” he says.

“Couldn’t it be the opposite?” the interviewer wonders.

“No. No. You always have to deliver the goods in a novel, irrespective of plotting,” says Ford. “And that’s a plotted, you know, decision on my part to say to the reader, ‘Now, someplace along here in a few hundred pages, you’re gonna come to a murder, and you’re gonna come to a bank robbery.’  So it’s not a spoiler at all.  It’s actually a hook that needs to plant itself in the reader’s mind, perhaps not consciously all the time, but I think that once the reader reads that, certain kinds of pressures are acting, and then I get the good out of it.”  He pauses.  “I also get the advantage of a first good sentence. So for me, it was win-win.”

I’ve wondered about the type of line Ford uses to introduce the reader to Canada. The line that basically reads, “Within the covers of this book, you will find tantalizing mysteries, and to learn about them, you’ll have to keep reading.”  I’ve wondered whether in this context, “spoiler” here couldn’t also read “gimmick” and, if so, whether lines like that should be avoided or not.

But then I think of Ford’s comment about getting readers hooked. Finger-in-the-cheek hooked, so that they can’t swim off to nibble on some other book. What is it that hooks a reader?

There’s a list that I’ve seen in various forms across the internet—a list of the best opening lines from fiction.  One such list can be seen here.  A quick glance at this list will show that most of the so-called “best” lines are the first lines from big-name literary classics by big-name authors. Fitzgerald and Dickens and Joyce. By definition, the first lines of books are what you see first when you begin reading, and I can’t help but wonder if the inclusion of classics on such a list isn’t simply a function of their status as classics, and not necessarily a function of having the “best” opening lines.

Some lines on the list, however, do really stand out.  For example, take this line from Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942):

Mother died today.

First of all, it’s short.  It’s got an intimate feel that comes from the naming of “Mother.”  Not, “my mother,” but “Mother,” as though you, the reader, also know her and would call her that, too.  And of course there’s the how.  How did Mother die?  Is the narrator sad about this?  Happy?  Was Mother sitting on a big, fat lump of money that the narrator was just itching to inherit?  It’s these sorts of things that would hook me, the reader.

Here’s another line I like, from Ha Jin’s Waiting (1999):

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.

I think the reasons for my liking this line should be obvious, but in case they are not, I’ll spell them out. Lin Kong divorces his wife every year? How does that work? The reader can guess that it’s some sort of ritual, but then there’s a sense of mystery (or at the very least, a sense of bizarreness) around it. And then the reader might wonder whether the cyclical divorce is something Lin Kong wants, or whether he actually loves his wife. All these elements combine to make the reader want to continue—to invest the time it would take to learn the answers to these questions.

I have to admit that I have used the Richard Ford-style hook in one of my short stories, Contract for a Slice of Uruguay, which first appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs.  The line is:

In this story, there are two brothers.  One will die and the other will live.  The brother that will die is named Antoni, and the lucky one — I’ve heard some people call him that — is named Santiago.

I must also admit to having mixed feelings about this line.  On one hand, it’s got what Ford called a narrative hook. Antoni dies and Santiago lives.  However, it’s also got what might be called a gimmicky quality that could turn away some readers. In fact, an editor for one of the magazines who rejected the story said:

After a careful read, I have decided to pass on this one.  There’s too much back story for
our tastes, and the voice comes off as far too preachy at times.  Unfortunately, I feel this weakens the story for the reader.

At the time, I thought this was a damning summary that relegated my story to the digital ash heap.  Back story is one thing—I mean, Victor Hugo dedicates however many zillion pages of Les Misérables to the backstory of Father Madeleine, a priest with only a small role in the actual plot of the story.

No, it wasn’t the inclusion of backstory that bothered me. It was the word “preachy.” I read the story again, searching for parts of the story in which I’d preached.  Had I imposed any kind of moral judgment on the characters or coerced the reader in any way?  I decided that I was defining “preachy” incorrectly.  Bad preachers are like snake oil salesmen—trying to sell a product, vying for a quick buck. That, I think, was what the editor was getting at.  As far as they were concerned, the story had no intrinsic appeal, and relied on gimmicks designed to hook the reader.

Perhaps the more relevant point that the editor’s comment highlights is how intensely subjective criticism can be.  Not only was the story accepted by another publication; it was  included in their “Best Of” collection.  So the rejection could have read:

After a careful read, I have decided that this story does not float my boat.

As for Richard Ford’s novel, Canada, it may be that the issue of hooks and spoilers and gimmicks can only be settled by you, the reader.  Perhaps you have a special use for snake oil no one else has discovered yet.

Grind Away, Little Rumour Mill

Have you ever driven to British Columbia from Manitoba? It’s an endurance battle. I am, by no means, the type of person who thinks that the Prairies are boring. Far from it. But after driving for hours and hours and hours, there is something — the flatness of it all, maybe, or the absence of people — that starts to wear on a person.

Writing a book can be a little bit like that, except that instead of 20-some hours, it can take you months, or even years.

And then… you see your first glimpse of the mountains. You’re not in Banff yet — that won’t happen for a while. But the ground isn’t so flat anymore. You look around, and suddenly realize that you’ve already climbed, without even noticing it. You’re in the foothills.

What am I getting at?

Well, I feel as though I’ve reached the foothills with my novel. I’m not finished-finished (as in, close the file, I’m never touching it again). But I’m sure getting close. And when that happens, it will be time to start a whole new chapter — mountaineering.

I expect that mountaineering is probably a pretty good approximation of the “trying to get published” process. Maybe only for some. But I’m already trying on my crampons (my favourite climbing word, aside from crevice — both so distasteful). I’m donning my oxygen tank for those extended periods above the Clouds of Try-Try-Again, where the air is too thin to support life.

One last tidbit before I extinguish the flame of my Metaphor Machine: I’ve settled on a name for my novel. In actuality, I’m returning to the first idea I had for a name, way back when the writing process began. I’m going to call it Minzanto.

Bye for now.