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What a Writer Owes

First, I just want to note that this is not inspired by the Sopranos ending. I never watched the show and have no opinion about the conclusion. This is inspired by a lively and interesting conversation I had this evening with a writer friend. That said, I am struggling with the question of what kind of ending does a writer owe her reader? I don’t mean happy or sad. I mean what makes and ending work? What makes it satisfying. Some readers demand happy endings and many movies have been changed accordingly. In the book Cujo, the boy dies. I heard that in the movie, he lives. Movies changes book endings all the time.

But writers change book endings too. Charles Dickens did it in Great Expectations. I love that novel, and I don’t believe the nicer ending where Pip gets the girl. She has to break his heart because that’s who she is. But people want her to change. Was Dickens wrong to change the ending of his own book?

Should writers be “allowed” to jerk you around. You think the story is about this, but..ah-ha!..it is about something else entirely! I’m all for surprise endings. And I don’t think tragic endings are more authentic than happy ones. But I can’t say I’m a fan of getting to the end of a story only to have the writer prove how clever she is by proving what a sap I am. I’m a gullible reader. I believe in the stories I pick up. I don’t want to be a fool for doing so. I don’t want to be an unwilling participant in someone else experiment.

Some recent stories I’ve bought into (spoiler alert)…The novel The Brief History of the Dead had an open ending–does she die or not? Not sure. Did this ambiguity bother me? No. Another novel The Seas. The ending may me wonder, so is she crazy or not? I don’t know. Did this bother me? Yes. Maybe because in the Dead, the character being alive or not didn’t change my belief in the idea of the book. But in the second novel, not knowing if she is crazy or not means I don’t know if anything in the story is real or not. It’s like that episode of Dallas–it was all a dream! How irritating was that?

Perhaps this leads to the question of how invested a reader should be in a story. Some books work; some don’t. What one reader finds disappointing or vexing, another finds enlightening and rewarding. There doesn’t need to be a solution to that–stories should be a as varied as the people who read them.

But a writer should remember that a reader has to spend hard-earned money to buy a book and take time out of his life to read the book, and jerking that person around seems like poor sportmanship at the very least. And a writer should remember that some people read books to escape their lives, to find solace, to find answers. Sure, plenty read to be amused and impressed and those are vaild reasons. I guess it has to do with the reader I used to be, long ago, as a teen when I read to escape the lunacy of life. I didn’t care about reading happy stories. Plenty of miserable stories appealed to my melodramatice self, but I did care about believing in the fictional world I was in. If I was made to feel fooled, made to feel like my emotions were used to show off someone else’s cleverness, it was bitter.

I suppose this conversation was, in part, about meta-fiction, which in basic terms for me isn’t about story-telling, but about art-making. I probably don’t know what I’m talking about, but I guess I want to be an old-fashioned writer. Let me tell you a story–no tricks, no slight of hand…

Well, all writers need to write what they must–there is no promise for how the reader will take any of it.

6 thoughts on “What a Writer Owes

  1. Part of the conversation we had touched on the idea of the writer having at least as much invested in the story as the reader. If it’s just a formula, or to jerk people around, then it feels hollow and cheap.

    This ties into what you say comparing the specifics of stories that you’ve read lately, and I can’t comment in detail because I haven’t read those specific books, but I think there’s a key difference between something like the question of ‘is the POV character crazy’, because that’s an exploration of something meaningful, even if it never ‘happened’ in the fictional world. The things that character experiences have meaning to her and are a reflection of her psyche, and that’s something to explore. The ending of that episode of Dallas, on the other hand, was what’s known in online fandom as a retcon–the writers wrote themselves into a corner, so chose to take away something that happened as a way out of it. And that definitely counts as jerking your audience around.

    Cool post! I was thinking of writing something on this topic on my own blog after our conversation.

  2. Excellent point! This reminds me of a quote I found on the Net about plots, that a story should have resolution, which doesn’t necessarily mean a solution to the conflict. I think some genres are obligated to give readers the happy ending- romance for instance. Some readers are also selfish with their wants, avoiding anything but the happy ending and not appreciating the more complex endings of loss and despair.
    In Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the movie Bladerunner was based on this book), then ending is by far more depressing than the movie version. At first I did feel a bit cheated, but I think the ending left more impact. No, I wasn’t happy, but the story still hangs on me, letting me roll the plot around in my mind.
    Again- excellent post!

  3. This reminds me (too late) of a conversation one of my professors and the class got into about his choices of novels for the class. Not one of them had a happy ending and we protested. He said, and convinced most people, that the best literature does not end well because usually neither does life. I like your point of authenticity being based on believability not whether it ends happily or sadly. I should track the man down and show him this post 🙂

    • While I might think it not necessary to protest having to read unhappy books, I’d disagree with the professor. And I think some writers choose sad ending because they believe it will make people take their work more seriously, not because the story deserves that ending. In real life there are plenty of happy events/moments/periods–just because we’re all going to die some day doesn’t make them less happy. Not to me anyway.

      Thanks for coming by and reading.

  4. I know I’m at least a thousand years late to everyone else, but I’m rolling through your blog from start to end to get a feel for it and what kind of things you post.
    I think that this particular post [bearing in mind I am starting at the back and I haven’t even started to dig the dirt up] is really interesting and when I write my novels I have asked myself this. You know? Do I owe the reader anything? I’ve thought about tricking my readers but then I sort of paused and looked at everything I had in store for this character and I wondered if it was all worth it – you know, to create someone and their life just to destroy it all for a “HA! SURPRISED YA!”.
    I haven’t got an objection to happy or sad endings, though sometimes I find that I would have preferred one to the the other but like yourself, I feel a bit downtrodden if I’m suddenly smacked in the face with something that seems to eliminate the entire story. Personally, I believe that a writer owes a reader everything; after all, what use is a book if someone isn’t around to pick it up? As you’ve said, readers spend their hard earned money and they spare time they’re never going to get back to read a book. A writer owes a reader the richness of life, the twists and turns of an imaginary world, a challenging point of view, or an intricate character. I don’t write specifically to please people – I don’t plot and scheme of a night wondering what would make someone smile, I just write and put everything I have into my words and then I just hope; hope it speaks to someone, hope someone see’s differently or has something backed up, or even that they’re just interested. You know?

    • I like how you put what a writer owes. Well said and true.

      And you aren’t kidding. You really are going back into the past. It is nice to know that the old writing isn’t completely forgotten.

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