Sunday, December 30, 2007

Do Writers Need to Give Stories Endings?

Before I get to my topic, let me post that I will be attending ConFusion in Troy, Michigan, Jan. 18th-20th. Here is a link to the convention. The programming is not up yet, but I will be on fiction panels and running some Call of Cthulhu games.

This has been a topic debated for centuries, so why not continue it. The basic stances on the argument is that writers need to give satisfying endings to stories -- this doesn't mean "happy," but a conclusion that the reader enjoys. And the opposite side of the debate is that writers cannot end stories (even if they try), as the ending is derived by the reader. In other words, when writers produce "form fitting" endings, they are attempting to force the reader down a particular path.

As I said, this isn't something new, but it is worth mentioning. Personally, I stand on both sides of the fence. I often write endings that I think will "lead" the reader to some conclusion -- hopefully without using a heavy hand. And other times, I leave the ending for the reader to put together. Often I find the conclusions very illuminating.

Some of this has to do with the term catharsis. Today, as readers and viewers of film and video, we have come to expect the formula of catharsis. And what I mean by catharsis is something akin to what Aristotle meant: The purging of emotion. What emotion? Namely the emotion created by the work itself. But catharsis goes beyond that simple definition. Today there is a satisfaction to be found by the reader, and often a recognition by the antagonist that the protagonist (hero) was right. I recently caught the ending of the last X-Men film (#3), and the viewers are treated to this very moment when the arch-villain, Magneto, asks with horror, "What have I done?"

That line perhaps captures the recognition we have come to expect today. Sometimes the antagonist must die, and the only words they can utter before a painful death is "Noooo!" This is recognition of Fate (implying that the protagonist was right and the "winner"). As a result, many readers (and viewers) are dissatisfied if books and films don't have this strong sense of catharsis. As I've mentioned, I don't take a strong stance one way or the other. I've found there is sometimes a need for this catharsis, and other times it can come from the reader.

As an editor, I'm always dealing with this problem. Asking writers to add catharsis or remove it. I'm certain I've pushed a few writers to the edge with my seemingly strange requests. And that is the problem with being an editor (or a film director), the temptation to re-write the work in your own style. Now I could end this post with a catharitic, formulaic line like: How much is too much? But that wouldn't do. So I'll simply state that the debate rages. I can say that in the recently released Frontier Cthulhu, there are a number of stories that do not have cathartic endings (as we've come to know them today). One in particularly, "They Who Dwell Below," deals with this very topic.

12 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Your story in High Seas Cthulhu illustrated this. But I liked that ending, which wasn't nice and tidy, of course. I think it depends on the demands of the story. Some stories come to a nice neat ending. Others don't lend themselves that way.

William Jones said...

Good point. Without giving anything away, I did want conclusion, but I also wanted to avoid a checklist. A number of people wanted more out of the relationship between the two main characters. That is something I suppose I could had ventured into. As it stands, the last paragraph alludes to Charles Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS -- which he ends alluding to Milton's PARADISE LOST. Pheew.... Quite a few allusions to allusions to secretly add depth to an ending (which I don't expect anyone to notice).

And I think you're right. The ending depends greatly upon the story and perhaps the purpose of the story. However, I'm sure we could construct an argument for the other side as well.

William

Jeff Conolly said...

I think a big piece of this debate has less to do with what is right for the story or author, and more often what is right for the wallet. Book publishers tend to only buy things they think audiences will like, so are very hesitant to allow the ambiguous ending. Stephen King's Cell ended with a "lady or the tiger" archetype, but he's Stephen King. I think at this point he could write the lords prayer on a ream of toilet paper with a crayon and someone would buy it. The rest of us have to make sure what we write is publishable.

William Jones said...

Jeff,

That is an important part of fiction today -- market and sales. I think I mentioned in my post that I'm often torturing writers about endings, and what you mentioned sometimes is a part of it. Besides creating "art," we sometimes need to create what "sells" and keeps "selling." The example I use for Stephen King is a story titled: All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.

This is what his character in the SHINING typed endlessly, and I suspect there would be a limited market for the same line, filling a manuscript, and published (limited edition).

I suppose what I was getting at with the post is what do we expect as readers (or writers)? Are we writing our stories for the readers or are they really for the editors? After all, it is the editor who must select the story before it gets to the reader. (Another decades old question).

Stewart Sternberg said...

I don't think the issue of catharsis is stand alone. By that, I mean that an ending should be organic. An ending should come as a resolution of character or theme.

In a one act play, Chuck Zaglanis banged his head at the lack of catharsis provided by the action. The theme of domestic violence is made more powerful by the lack of catharsis, by the feeling of helplessness. By letting my main character lapse back into her original situation, I am illustrating her sense of hopelessness and also addressing a real life condition. I could have had her kill her abusive husband, but that would have been a cheap ending that betrayed too many women caught in a similar situation.

Slice of life is often without resolution. It's a snapshot.

However, when I have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into a character, I confess, I want a sense of reward. Either through the character, or to gloat on my own.

I remember sitting through the ending of Hitchcock's "VERTIGO". It ends with the death of a major character and almost immediately cuts to black. There's no time to process what we've just seen and we're left without Jimmy Stewart giving us some sort of satisfactory emotional response.

I've never heard anyone else complain about this ending, but it drives me crazy.

William Jones said...

Stewart Sternberg said...
An ending should come as a resolution of character or theme.

I agree, Stewart. But let me play the devil's advocate. Shouldn't catharsis bring resolution of character and theme? In other words, closure to the story and reader? I suppose, it could be argued that a story that didn't resolve these things, doesn't have catharsis. (I know what you mean; I'm just trying to carry the conversation into new areas).

Quoting:
By letting my main character lapse back into her original situation, I am illustrating her sense of hopelessness and also addressing a real life condition.

When I avoid catharsis (or closure) in a story, is usually in hopes of moving the reader to some thought about the situation. However, many readers are not moved. They simply walk away from the story disliking it. Do we owe it to them to make the fiction world a better place -- because reality often has its problems that cannot be resolved.

Charles pointed out the above in my tale "Depth of Darkness." The story was about the human condition, a life of indentured servitude, and how it may or may not be escape. I used monsters to cover up all of those social elements. But, I did not provide full catharsis in the story because it didn't seem to fit. No one has complained about being frustrated by the ending. But many people wanted to see more between the two ending characters. In other words, they were looking for catharsis. As Jeff pointed out, we are writing for a market. So perhaps we need to take the needs of the market into consideration?

Stewart Sternberg said...

William, you wrote...

When I avoid catharsis (or closure) in a story, is usually in hopes of moving the reader to some thought about the situation. However, many readers are not moved. They simply walk away from the story disliking it. Do we owe it to them to make the fiction world a better place -- because reality often has its problems that cannot be resolved.

I think catharsis in fiction in the situation you describe is probably more tied into marketability. You have to satisfy your audience and give them what they want.

However, there are some of us who do not need catharsis. Some people will even see it as a cop out. I think those are mostly people who focus on slice-of-life writing.

Jeff Edwards said...

William, about your question, "Are we writing our stories for the readers or are they really for the editors?" Here's a comment from someone who is in the process of opening a small press: "Does that mean you're writing to an editor specifically or to that editor's readership? Well, both. The editor is making decisions based on what he or she feels the market would appreciate reading." He goes on to say that sales can result from tailoring, or at least pitching, stories to an editor's specific tastes.

http://www.sfreader.com/article013.asp

-Jeff

Jeff Edwards said...

William, one more comment from me about your question, "Are we writing our stories for the readers or are they really for the editors?" I think you neglected someone in that question -- the writer. As in, are we writing for the readers, the editors, or ourselves?

Another comment you made ["Quite a few allusions to allusions to secretly add depth to an ending (which I don't expect anyone to notice)"] indicates that you expect your clues and subtext to be missed by most readers, therefore you seem to be playing with the story in a way that amuses you first, then hopefully an editor or reader after publication.

-Jeff

William Jones said...

Stewart,

I think you're correct. What market would be "slice of life" tales now-a-days? I only ask because genre tales tend to have a structure (to put it one way). I read quite a bit of mainstream fiction, and as of late it has been giving me the tragic ending (which still has catharsis), and the happy ending (catharsis as well).

I wonder, have you seen the film 3:10 to Yuma? What do you think of that ending?

William Jones said...

Jeff,

You have some clever points there. And I agree with them. Being on both sides of the fence, as a writer/editor, means I jump from one side to the other.

Also, your catch about the allusions I place in a story, and yet I don't expect anyone to get them. It certainly isn't because they are witty or clever allusions. Rather, they are vague. I do put them in for "the writer," but also on the off chance the story might be re-read. I like to re-read tales and see if I can catch things I missed the first time. I do it with films as well. So, maybe I'd call them "easter-eggs" for the reader? Maybe a second or third pass of the story produces a different reading. At least, that is what I like to play with. A 1st reading and it is one story. A 2nd reading, and "new stuff comes to light," and the reading changes -- not the entire story, but a different way of looking at the tale appears.

Hopefully some of that makes sense. (And your re-reading? of my post produced some very interesting insights). :)

MKeaton said...

Some of this comes down to definitions. When you say 'catharsis', what do you really mean? An ending, a 'happy' ending, a resolved ending?

Should a story have an ending or at least some clearly definable point of resolution? I would say yes. (Yes, I the reader want it. Yes, I the editor want it. Yes, the market wants it. etc with many broad generalizations.) Should that ending resolve all the issues of the story? No. Does it need to be happy? No. But, by and large, a story without some form of 'end' is not going to work for the market and the reader. (I am not saying that the ending needs to be neat, tidy, or anything else trite like that.)

In psychiatry, cathatsis is the resolution of conflicts via expression--to combat fear by making it real. It's an interesting stance because it assumes that the fear is imaginary. If the source of the fear is real, I suppose a psychiatrist would argue that catharsis is still possible since, once it's expressed, it comes out from under the bed and eats you. Fear is resolved. That's kind of where I stand on the issue: most stories (especially genre) should have a catharsis but what most people think of as catharsis is not necessarily the same as what it is--and what the writer should deliver at the end of the story is the actuality. "Vertigo" did have a catharsis (he's dead; his problem is solved) but not one that satisfied the anticipations of the viewer. When do you deliberately "hurt" your reader is a different debate but, like William said, it's about pushing the reader to take the story home in his head and wrestling with it. Sometimes I get hate mail. I like hate mail almost as much as fan mail because it means something hooked in a reader hard enough that they had to manufacture their own response and release (and because angry people tend to misspell curse words in amusing ways). Better hate than apathy.

It could also be argued, that in horror, the presentation of the story itself, the reader's actualization of the feared, is intrensically a catharsis and that a more traditional literary resolution is not required. I don't know; I'll have to think on that one.

Regarding allusions (the inside jokes of the literary world), I think you have to be very careful. My initial drafts typically have one or two things in them which most of my first readers don't get until I explain it after the fact. Now I have to decide if I leave that in or take it out. For me, that decision occurs on two levels. First, as an author, I have to determine if it distracts from the story. If the reader just doesn't key into it and keeps on reading without a pause, it can stay. If it jars the reader or hurts their flow in any way, then no matter how good a reference it is, I have to cut it. Then I have to make those decisions all over again with my potential editor in mind. It annoys me and I rage around yelling that I have to cut out the best parts but, in the end, it's the right thing to do. And then when it comes back from my editor and they ask me to cut out even more of my neat things, then I grit my teeth and do it. Because my job is to tell the story, the editor's job is to see the story as a totality. (I'm not a complete jellyfish, I'll argue with an editor but 90% of the time, they are right. Authors need editors. Different jobs, different skills, better final product.)

Or I could be completely wrong about everything.

MKeaton