In last week's post, I talked about how the ending — indeed, every part — must serve the story. It may not be obvious, but we writers may actually have several forces tugging at us, and they often don’t agree in either intent or methodology. We have the story, of course. The story is what drives us; it’s what inhabits us until we get it down. In most cases, I would say that the story is outside of us, even though it’s inside of us. What I mean is that it’s not ours — it doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the characters; it belongs to the theme. All we are doing is writing it down.
But then there’s another force to be reckoned with, and that is ours; it’s the ideas we come up with consciously that may or may not fit the story. As I said in my earlier post, what sparked this whole discussion was J. K. Rowling’s confession that it was her idea for Hermoine to end up with Ron instead of Harry Potter, and her feeling was that the story did not dictate that. In this particular case, her own idea was at odds with the story, and her inclusion of that idea felt out of place. (There was quite a discussion about whether or not the Hermoine-Ron pairing worked for readers, but that’s another topic.)
In that earlier post of mine, I talked about how I struggled with the ending of the book Stone’s Ghost, because I had an end in mind that I liked, yet when I got to the end of the book, my ending didn’t fit. I really tried to shoehorn it in, but after several failed attempts I finally had to give it up and let the story tell me how it should end. And it did.
Enter my latest. I was coming down to the last scene, the major climax, the final resolution. And I didn’t have a clue how it was going to end. Now like many of us, I’m a pantser, not a plotter. I have a broad idea of how things are going to go, but I let the details take care of themselves as I write. Usually, though, I have a pretty good idea of what the ending is going to be like. With this new one, I realized I was writing my way into the final scene and had no frikkin’ idea how it was going to go.
That’s a little scary.
I had three half-baked ideas about how the story could resolve itself. I had favored Ending #1 way back when I started; the closer I got, the more I leaned toward Ending #2. Ending #3 was kind of lurking in the shadows, but I’d never gotten terribly excited about that one, so it was just barely in the running. On top of that, I also had about three or four different ways in which each one of those ideas could develop toward the conclusion, so in all I had about twelve different directions I could go.
In the final scene, my Main Character #1 (MC1) is on a mission to confront Main Character #2 (MC2). Here’s where the dance begins. MC1 asks a question. (Is she polite, solicitous, gentle? Or is she confident, expectant?) MC2 answers. (Is he helpful, willing? Or cautious? Evasive?) MC1 asks another question, a more leading question. (Is she still polite? Or is she getting demanding?) MC2 hesitates, but answers. (Is he suspicious? Is he getting angry? Or just confused?)
As you can see, each statement invites a range of responses, and each one of those responses can elicit another range of responses. It’s like a tree growing, sending out branches in every direction, and each branch has its own branches that wind off here or there. There’s no end to the combinations. If you could figure it out mathematically, you’d probably have thousands of different directions you could go, depending on each character’s response to the last statement of the other. How the heck do you know which way to go?
Let the characters tell you. When I was writing this, I wrote MC1’s statement/question, then I considered all the ways MC2 might respond. I picked the one that seemed to fit best for him at that particular moment. Then, after his response, I did the same with MC1 — what possible responses might she have? Why? How was she feeling? Where was she going? I paid close attention to how the emotions were ramping up. The progression had to be logical. There’s nothing worse than having a character go from emotion A to emotion Z with no transition in between. I had to let the emotions grow throughout the exchange.
Finally after many starts and stops, much testing of the different directions, two steps forward and one step back, I realized that my progression was pointing toward Ending #1. I was a little disappointed; Ending #2 had much more drama to it, was much bigger, more exciting. But the characters demanded Ending #1. Trying to plug Ending #2 in there would have felt like taking a wrecking ball to the last chapter and punching a big hole in it. Surprised but somehow relieved — I also realized Ending #2 felt more like a popcorn movie ending — I finished up the scene.
It felt good; it felt logical. It flowed organically. It’s what the story and the characters called for.
On February 2, 2014 The Guardian ran a story about J. K. Rowling admitting she erred when she had Hermoine end up with Ron rather than Harry Potter. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “I wrote the Hermione-Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”
I imagine a ton of Harry Potter fans were extremely angry over this pairing, and to my mind, they were absolutely right. I don’t think betrayal would be too strong a word to use here. The chemistry between Hermoine and Ron was never of the type or the depth as that between her and Harry, so to toss in a curve ball like that is just dead wrong.
And I understand entirely why she did it.
In one of my latest books, Stone’s Ghost, I had the ending and the last line written before I had the first chapter done. The last line was a one-word text from the main character to his girlfriend, and it brought the story full circle and ended on an upbeat note. I really, really liked this ending.
Then I finished the rest of the book, guiding it down to those last few paragraphs, only to find that my ending didn’t fit.
But I liked that ending. I tried to shoehorn it in. I rewrote the last page over and over, changing the build-up, trying to twist the story to fit my image of the end. It was like trying to fit a piece of two-by-four into a long, elegant section of crown molding.
It just didn’t work.
I finally had to admit defeat. I finally had to own up to the fact that my ending was not right for the story. It ended the story on a cheap shot, a sharp left turn from nowhere, and it brought with it no sense of satisfaction, of completion, of resolution.
I knew I had to throw it out.
But it wasn’t easy. I let the book lie untouched for a couple of days, let the chatter in my head die down as I slowly got used to the idea of not using my prize ending. Then I went back, deleted the last two pages and started in again.
Only this time, I let the story dictate the ending.
I’ve blogged before about how writing is like building a wall, each sentence building on the one that came before, each sentence providing the foundation for the one to come. This time when I wrote, I let that happen. The direction of the story, the tone, the tilt, the emotion, all guided me to the ending that it needed to have. It was not something I would have envisioned before, but this time, when I wrote the end, it worked. I knew as soon as I typed the last period that this ending was it — the best, the only, the perfect fulfillment of a great story.
And of course at this point, I was perfectly happy to leave my original ending in the waste basket now that I had the one the story needed, but it was tough for a while. It’s funny how we can get so attached to one idea that it’s almost painful letting it go, but at some point we writers have to realize that we aren’t writing for ourselves. We’re writing for the story. That’s our lord and master, and our egos have to take a back seat to that. To do anything less is cheating the story, cheating the characters — and, ultimately, cheating our readers, as Rowling found out.
The only place for wishful thinking like that is in our private journals, written by flashlight in the dead of night, never to see the light of day.
In my reading, I often see questionable usage of a few related punctuation marks. I know (1) that grammar is not every writer’s strong suit and (2) the rules for grammar are more often gray rather than black and white, with lots of room for subjective variation, but a short primer on a few of the more confusing marks might be in order.
Many writers today seem to either hate or distrust the semi-colon, and that could be because they are not clear on the usage (and I won’t even go into the discussion about the spelling, with or without a space and/or dash). Cathy Speight did an IU piece on this persnickety punctuation mark a while back, but I want to talk about it along with some other marks that are sometimes confused, so I’ll recap the semi-colon here as well. Interestingly enough, in the mid-19th century there was an organization of writers in Cincinnati, Ohio called the Semi-Colon Club. Members included Harriet Beecher Stowe and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, among others. I would guess from their choice of name for their group that they were not afraid to use the much-maligned mark.
The semi-colon has two primary uses:
a) Between two closely related but independent clauses, usually complete sentences in and of themselves. The two clauses may also be contradictory.
John chose the yellow kitten; Samantha picked up the calico.
I thought the drizzly rain was uncomfortably chilly; my daughter found it to be invigorating.
b) In a series or list that includes other, internal punctuation that would make the use of commas confusing.
I’m going to have a sandwich of ham, which I got at Trader Joe’s; jalapenos, which came from my own garden; and bell peppers, which were given to me by my neighbor.
I’ve seen colons and semi-colons used interchangeably, but they are very different and denote different things. The main difference between the two is that the semi-colon is used to link two independent clauses, while a colon is used to introduce an explanation.
The colon has four main uses:
a) Before a list.
Hank packed everything he could think of: shirts, shoes, pants, socks, underwear, books, and his laptop.
b) Before a description.
She loved the look of the vase: its translucent glass caught the light and the yellow color seemed to glow.
c) Before a definition.
He said I was audacious: recklessly bold and extremely original.
d) Before an explanation.
Crossing the Atlantic was hell: the wind howled the entire time and the waves rolled ceaselessly beneath the ship.
There are two dashes, the en dash and the em dash. The en dash is a single, short dash (-) while the em dash is a longer dash or two en dashes put together (– or —). The en dash is primarily used to hyphenate words, like space-time. The em dash, however, can be used in much the same way as a colon or a set of parentheses as shown in the following four ways:
a) To denote an abrupt change of thought or feeling.
I was going to say—but, no, I don’t think I will now.
b) To set off a clause.
He was wearing the scarf I knitted for him—the purple one with the green spots—and I realized he was trying to please me.
c) To indicate an interruption, especially in dialog.
“But how do you—”
“Wait! Let me explain.”
d) As the inverse of a colon, i.e. after a list or description.
Black, red and yellow—these colors on insects often denote poisonous species.
There, is that all clear as mud? Just remember that we’re trying to get our ideas across to our readers in as clear a manner as possible, so giving them the right visual clues to follow our line of thought is essential. Happy punctuating!