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.