Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Which Ends to Tie?

We're talking about loose ends this week - which ones belong in a novel and which ones must be snipped, tied, and put into place.

No quick answers here. There is no clear template to apply (thank heavens!), which dictates which elements of a story must be tidied up, and which are allowed to flow on, drift toward a yet unwritten future.

But how can you decide?

It helps to understand how words work.

Words move us. The communication of ideas happens most effectively when multiple senses are employed in the reading of words. We read a phrase:

She washed berries by the handful.

And it sends a picture - no, not a picture, but a multitude of pictures nearly simultaneously - until a favorite picture takes precedence.

We picture "she"
Not any "she". Our "she". The best "she" for us. The one we want to picture.

We sift through our ideas, our notions of "she".

We settle on the one we want her to be.

We picture "berries"

Our favorite - red and perfect.

Or exotic and wild.

I see in my mind the ideal berry. I see what "berry" means to me. I imagine what it means to you.

. . .and "handful"

Two full hands, or one? Rough or smooth. Stained or wet.

. . .and "washed".

. . . from a garden hose or a kitchen sink.

We settle on one aspect of the image, then another, rapidly viewing, discarding and deciding on components of the scene until our mind forms a complete whole. The process takes milli-seconds.

This is why the question of loose threads is difficult. Because irresistible fiction becomes a nearly endless procession of deeply personal images in the minds of each reader.

We take the words on the page and recreate their meaning in our minds - and the images we form become the truth about the book. They become the book's meaning.

The author then, must think about the best possibilities the best collection of ideas to wrap up, complete and finish off in the book - and then must consider which threads to leave loose, which elements of the story to leave untamed in order to best serve the story and the reader.

It's not a crap shoot - it's not a guess. It is instead the writer's artful dancing with the reader she loves - they dance to the music of the story.

We do the same thing with a story - when we read, we begin to "own" the story. We recreate it in our minds. And we build expectations in our mind about what we need to know (to be told) and what we already know (want left latent in the story). What we want to have happen, and what we are willing to let go of.

Loose thread should never be an excuse for not finishing a story - rather they will, by the images they create, the feelings they evoke, reveal themselves to us - but only if we dance to the music long enough to learn all the steps.


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

The thread was a great visual. If you could see my sewing basket, you would think I loved the chaos of color and design and had no intention of using the contents. (My cats may be to blame) But when necessary, I choose the best color and use it to put something to rights. But it's not necessary or advisable to use them all at once. I agree that it's about selection and not using loose ends as an excuse to leave a story unfinished. After all, we don't want to be caught with sagging hemlines or sew shut the buttonholes that allow the reader to 'try on' the story again.

Nichole Osborn said...

I tend to agree about loose ends. What about stories that are in a series. I have read books that the author leaves you hanging until the next book.

Avily Jerome said...

I don't mind loose ends in a series as long as the last book ties everything up with a nice bow.

Sometimes, when I'm reading, the loose ends allow me to use my imagine and let that thread end where I want it to. Other times, I'm left annoyed because there are unanswered questions.

It really depends on the story and the loose end whether or not it is tied nicely or left annoyingly hanging. :)

Patti Hill said...

Not only have Bonnie's comments renewed my commitment to attend to my loose ends, she made me hungry with all those beautiful pictures of berries right in the middle of winter.

Nichole and Avily: My first three books were a series. I don't think a series involving the same characters should be any different than a stand-alone novel. The ending must be satisifying and hopeful. A reader should be able to pick up any three of the novels and find the reading experience complete. No cliffhangers!

PatriciaW said...

Made me think about loose ends but also about description. I know this is a topic for another day but how much description is too much?

I think you've put words to why I get annoyed by books wherein the author describes every color, texture, sound, etc. to the point where there's nothing left to the imagination. It's certainly why I like to read the book before seeing the movie, so I may craft my own pictures.

Okay, back to loose ends...

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, a gorgeous, scrumptious presentation for what is, to me, kind of a difficult subject. Some loose ends are ones that obviously need tending to -- when there are questions raised in the story they should be answered or at least addressed by the time the final page is written. Maybe not the way every reader would like, but in a way that is true to the story.

But what about those ends you don't tidy up, where one reader happily uses her imagination to fill in the blanks, and another reader throws the book down in disgust? Because there will be a wide range of responses to our loose ends. I prefer some loose ends, in books I read and write, where the threads fly aloft in the wind like colorful kite tails.

Deliver what's promised, but no happily-ever-afters for me.

Bonnie Grove said...

I'm so glad you said "no cliffhangers" Patti.

'We' loved them in the 1950's - but our sensiblilites have changed. There is a sense of being "cheated" when a book doesn't end well.

But - there is another issue here too. That of the ending that is all too well tied up. The one that allows for no further dreaming that pronounces with the falling of a club 'the end'!

These too leave a reader unsatisfied. A too tidy a bow can feel schmaltzy, heavy handed, preachy, or false. We think "life isn't like that!"

The tension between these too facts of fiction is what the dance is all about - learning the rhythms of a story even as it is being created, then going back and re-creating the story as you read.

No easy answers.

Bonnie Grove said...

Patricia: I love your point! And it fits well, I think, with the post, because I wanted people to have a deeper understanding of how personal fiction is, and how each of us has a taste for only so much overt description before we, as Sharon mentioned, throw the book down in disgust.

The same can be said for loose ends. We each have a taste for how tightly the package should be tied. And in some cases genre dictates how tightly the string is tied (we all have an expectation of what will happen in a romance story, or a detective novel – in those cases the books much more about the journey than it is the destination – we all know where it’s going), other times it is our preferences that dictate how much we want finished off for us. Obviously major plot points need to be securely fastened by the end (without PREACHING!), but there are other aspects – characterizations, themes, inklings, that can, in good conscious be left to tantalize the read to think more deeply about a subject, or ask questions of herself, or daydream for a few minutes.

An aside:
Pardon me for being so bold, but let me just say: I LOVE THIS BLOG. I’m truly having so much fun will all of you. Thank you so much for being such amazing readers. 

Nichole Osborn said...

Patti and Bonnie, is the "no cliffhanger" preference your personal preference or the publishing industry's preference or both?
The reason I ask, is the book I just finished writing is book 1 in a "cliffhanger" series. Just wondering if I should make the sereis just one book, or tie up the ending of the first book.

Bonnie Grove said...

Nichole: I'll go out on a limb and say it's an industry preference - there may be exceptions, but I honestly can't think of one.

A series of books should be thought of as a collection that each tell a specific story about the same character, or group of characters. But each book in the series must be able to stand alone. It needs to be complete, yet hinting that there is something more - a different adventure awaiting. Again, I don't pretend this is easy to accomplish.

Readers are savvy, and if they feel they are being manipulated into a series by a cliffhanger, they will likely drop the series. However, if they are drawn into a series because the characters are engaging and they truly love to spend time with them, then they will be delighted to see another book that takes them into another story

Take a look at Francine Rivers' Mark of the Lion Series. They follow each other perfectly, but they cold each stand alone - you don't HAVE to have read all of them in order to enjoy any one of them. Book Three didn't even include the main characters from books One and Two.

Francine Rivers managed to finish book one on a note that deftly completed the story, but we (the readers) knew, we just KNEW the story wasn't over - even though it seemed all hope was lost (the girl was dead, after all).

She didn't resort to cliffhangers, instead she employed great skill to tie the right ends up and leave threads (ghost threads, one could call them - they weren't so much about the plot as they were about the feelings that the book induced) not just loose, but flying in the wind.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie is right. Series are not like the old serialization of a story, which is the form in which many novels were published. A series should be stand-alone with "a different adventure awaiting" in each subsequent book. The ends of chapters are the best places for cliff hangers.

Jan Karon too did a masterful job with her Mitford series books. She developed rich, engaging and entertaining characters, plopped them down in a place I loved visiting, and kept me coming back--and wishing--for more.

Patti Hill said...

Nichole: Good question! My series represented a woman's journey from raw widowhood to dating to remarriage. It was always my intent that people read all three books as a unified work of fiction, but realistically, I knew that wouldn't happen. But I left a dangling thread or two to woo readers to find out what happens next. Nothing big, just a gentle nudge. This all goes back to what Debbie and Bonnie have said. It takes practice to know what to tie up and what to leave to the wind. Sometimes, it's another pair of eyes that's needed to find the balance, but I'll be writing more about that Friday.

Bonnie Grove said...

So true, Patti! I agree with you! Looking forward to your post about another pair of eyes. . .

Hey! Wait a minute......

Did you just leave loose ....

Tricky, Patti, very tricky.

Nichole Osborn said...

Thank you all for your input. I can't wait to read Friday's post. Bonnie, The Mark of the Lion series is my fav. series. I even got my husband to read book 1. That was a miracle in itself.(he is not the reader I am) He wants to read the others, but right now doesn't have the time.

Unknown said...

Ah, you see, I leave NovelMatters unattended to spend a day at the dentist and optometrist and our overachiever Bonnie posts a column with pictures. Thanks a lot, Bonnie. I had enough trouble uploading my own profile picture!

Loose ends. I'm sorry, I love them. That's what keeps me on the treadmill for 42 minutes a day -- watching Jack Bauer get out of trouble on my DVDs of 24.

And even unfinished cliffhangers have always fascinated me. When I get to heaven, I intend to greet Jesus and Rahab and Priscila (in that order) and then I'm going to find Charles Dickens and ask him how he meant to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

I saw a review in the NY TImes of a new novel with an unusual structure: It chronicles the beginnings and then the decline of a marriage via the auction descriptions (and photographs) of the possessions of a divorcing couple. Leanne Shapton is the author and the title is “Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry,” It sounds fascinating to me. And it's a cliffhanger -- at the end, the man is no longer involved with a new girlfriend.

That's the kind of cliffhanger, I guess, the kind of loose ends, that entice me. They're the ones where all seems lost, but there's this tiny ray of hope. . .

To me, that pictures my own life -- and indeed the redemption story for any Christian. Far from being stray strands that need to be snipped or tied up, they are the warp and woof of hope.

Unknown said...

In the NYTimes article, there was a great quote from novelist John O'Hara:

“For the sake of verisimilitude and realism, you cannot positively give the impression of an ending: you must let something hang. A cheap interpretation of that would be to say that you must always leave a chance for a sequel.”

I never thought of personal hope as a sequel, but, I like it--

Anonymous said...

" must always leave a chance for a sequel." That's a great way of putting it. And the novel you talked about, Latayne, sounds fascinating.

And, wow, are you a woman after my own heart! Can I be in on the discussion with dear Charles about Edwin Drood? As I sit here working I have 6 framed photos hanging on my wall of the original covers to 6of Dickens' books, signed by his great-great-and maybe even another great-grandson. They were a gift from my husband, who knows what a huge Dickens fan I am, at a time we could ill afford them. One of the best gifts I ever received.

Years ago Rick bought me a biography of Dickens and I waited and waited and waited to read it because I was afraid I'd read things that would disappoint me about my favorite author. But I was even more delighted with him by the time I finished reading it.

Anyone else been surprised -- positively or negatively -- by an author they love to read?

Kathleen Popa said...

Latayne, Artifacts sounds like a great novel!

Personal hope as a sequel. I like that too.

Patti Hill said...

I had this thought last The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the children blunder into the wardrobe along with the reader, and then, they tumble out. The characters and the readers both long to return to Narnia. That's how we should feel at the end of a novel. I want to go back there! Whatever crumb you must leave to do that--all's fair in storytelling.

Nichole Osborn said...

speaking of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, My son Erick found an interesting little tid bit about the story. Right after it was published in the 40's(I think) a boy wanted so badly to find Narnia that he took a hatchet and chopped the back of the family wardrobe to pieces.