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On Writing: Commentary on ‘On Bad Endings’ by Joan Acocella

Yesterday, I read a commentary at newyorker.com by Joan Acocella in the Page-Turner section. It was titled ‘On Bad Endings’ and it delved into the disappointment one feels when an exciting, enthralling, utterly heart-stopping work of fiction (or non-fiction) falls into the uninteresting dregs of ennui. She goes on to explain that she’s not talking about novels “that … end sadly, or on a back-to-work, all-is-forgiven note (e.g. ‘War and Peace,’ ‘The Red and the Black,’ ‘A Suitable Boy’), but that the ending is actually inartistic—a betrayal of what came before.” Novels by greats–like Dickens, Brontë and Twain–were referenced where the characters and plots become tedious and boring or disingenuous rather than engaging and true like the rest of the story…and I have to admit, she has a point.

I just finished writing my second novel, The Prince’s Trap,  and have begun to delve into the third of four planned novels in The Chronicles of Landon Wicker series, and I must admit that the exact subject of this article deals with something I’ve feared for my own work. What is the appropriate ending? What is true to the story but still pleases readers? Do readers want a happily ever after? Or do they want drama to the last page? Cliffhanger? Complete closure? What about sending the story off into a whole new direction? How do I satisfy the readers to the point that in reading the last page of the series, they are as satisfied as they were with the first page? It’s a dilemma that has haunted me since I began writing The Chronicles of Landon Wicker, and I don’t know if there is an easy answer (unfortunately).

I believe that we write fiction because we want to help people escape to an interesting place where intriguing characters experience wondrous circumstances, because we have an entire world living–breathing–in our heads and we want people to see that world. It can be as real as non-fiction or take us to places in far off galaxies with technology well beyond our current understanding. Me, I have spent my life living in, and writing, a world where people have extraordinary abilities and where government conspiracies, genetic experimentation, espionage, betrayal and revenge are everyday matters. … They are things that excite me and compel me to write the next page in the story. But what do I do when this tale reaches its end? How do I resolve everything that’s coursing through me? When the plot and characters have run their course, how do I conclude the epic events that have transpired in a way that is true to the story I want to tell and satisfies those people who have stuck with me through the journey and (presumably) love and cherish my characters?

I think Acocella described this dilemma best when she was concluding her commentary. She said, “Again and again, the last chapters are hasty and dull. … [And] I think the tiredness may not be personal, but something about the universe in general: biology, physics. Art, whether fiction or not, is a challenge to entropy, a bumping up of something that must be flattened down again. … Most of us want extraordinary things, after a while, to quit being extraordinary—to end. The stone fell in the water. The ripples ran. Now they should stop. The surface should be smooth again.”

I believe she is right … All stories must eventually come to an end. Even in our lives, our hear beats in our chest, steady when we’re at peace, racing when excited, skipping when loved, and pounding when enraged, but inevitably our hearts will stop and we will flat-line just as the water stills. But at least for my story, I wonder how big of a stone must to drop in the water to make the journey as rough and exhilarating as possible so that when the waves subside, readers are pleased to be back in still waters?

Read the entire The New Yorker article by Joan Acocella at: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/11/on-great-novels-with-bad-endings.html#ixzz2DdhPIHup

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