Showing posts with label Nathaniel Hawthorne. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nathaniel Hawthorne. Show all posts

12 February 2018

Is That All There Is?

by Steve Liskow

Why did over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl last week? Certainly, many of them were rooting for the Eagles or the Patriots, but many of them just wanted to watch the last football game of the season, featuring two good teams, to see who won.

That's it, isn't it? The final score. As writers and readers, that's what we care about, too. How the story ends.

How often have you heard someone say, "Well, the story was pretty good, but I hated the ending." Mickey Spillane said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. It's hard to argue with that. If you don't like a book by an author, how likely are you to pick up another one?

The punchline of a joke should make us laugh. If we don't laugh, it's not a good punchline or ending. Simple, huh?

Obviously, if you go to a production of King Lear or Romeo and Juliet expecting lots of pretty girls doing a kick line at the end, you're going to be disappointed, but most people have a clear idea of what to expect. You set up the expectations, so you should meet them.

There are only a few kinds of bad endings.

The first is the Letdown, which I see more often in short stories than novels. The story, usually quasi-literary, doesn't really go anywhere, and it finally stops completely as though the writer has reached the word count he was aiming for. Sometimes, the ending is ambiguous, bit it's usually more indecisive than anything else. "The Lady or The Tiger"

fails because you can support (or NOT support) either choice equally badly. When my students tried this nonsense and I called them out on it, they always told me, "I left it this way because I wanted to make the reader think." I always asked, "What do you want him to think ABOUT, and what do you want him to think ABOUT IT?"

Several excellent writers end their books with something left unsaid, but they give enough information so we can figure out what happens offstage or after the curtain falls. My recent novel Before You Accuse Me ends with Woody Guthrie and Megan Traine discussing the consequences of the crime they've solved. We don't know exactly where the fallout will land, but we can make several solid guesses, none of which involve those pretty girls and kick lines.

Another bad ending involves a deus ex machina, the information that comes out of nowhere at the very end to tie things together (Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne got away with this constantly--or maybe not: we don't know about the after-life yet). In mysteries, this may be the missing piece of information we didn't even know was missing. One Ellery Queen novel has a solution built on our not knowing that the murder victim wasn't really a twin: he was a triplet. That's cheating. If you can't even give the reader a hint, look more carefully at your plotting.

Does anyone remember the TV show Burke's Law? One episode ran long, so they cut another minute to fit in the last commercial...and accidentally deleted the clue Gene Barry cited in the final solution. I understand the TV network's switchboard lit up like a nuclear blast that night.

Another ending is the one built on inductive reasoning instead of deductive reasoning. The detective (Rex Stout used to do this with Nero Wolfe all the time) starts by positing that a particular person is guilty, then looks for information to confirm that theory. It's too much like the police deciding person A did it and overlooking exculpating evidence. At Crime Conn several years ago, a detective who worked cold cases told us, "A cold case always happens because someone made a mistake." More often than not, some piece of evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted. Call it art imitating life if you want, but I disagree.

The opposite, which I see less often is the Perfect ending. The writer gives us intricate subplots and tons of detail, and none of it is extraneous. Every single miniscule thing fits together to create the main denouement. It's impressive and very difficult, and at some point I see the author's hand turning the characters into puzzle pieces instead of people and the thread suspending my disbelief starts to unravel. If it fits together more tightly than a Wagnerian crescendo, it's too much.

OK, so what does an ending need? That's pretty simple.

Your opening should make the reader ask questions about the plot and characters. Your ending answers those questions. It resolves the issues, just like a song should end on the beat and on the tonic chord. It will feel complete.

Remember "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from the Beatles LP Abbey Road? It repeats the last melodic figure over and over and over, but instead of fading out, it ends suddenly...NOT on the beat or the tonic note or chord. It's a jarring musical joke. You're not the Beatles, though, so you can't get away with it.


If you're writing a mystery, you need a logical solution. If you're writing a romance, the two protagoni should be together at the end, or you need a clear reason why they aren't.
Death works, or jail. Time travel might work, too, but that gets into sci-fi, and that's a different union.

If you write comedy, the reader should laugh. Especially at the end.

Even if you write a series and you're planning the next book, this one should have a definite end to the current issue. Some issues can continue, but win this battle and carry on the war next time. Don't make me buy the next book to figure out how this one ended. I'll be ticked enough not to buy it.

Or maybe by the time that next book comes out, I won't even remember that I cared. That's one of the perks of getting old.

04 January 2018

Cultivating Hysteria with Pleasure and Terror

by Eve Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, right before Christmas, I read "A Passion for Paris:  Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light" by David Downie, and learned a great deal about Parisian geography, architecture, and the Romantics.  I already knew most of the who was sleeping with whoms - as an historian, I've kept up with all kinds of gossip across the ages - but what fascinated me was the literary exchanges.

               "I have cultivated my hysteria with pleasure and terror." - Charles Baudelaire

For example, Charles Baudelaire (considered by many to be the modern French poet, and the French poet of modernity) was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. 

Charles Baudelaire in 1848,
portrait by Courbet
"In...1847, I came upon a few fragments of Edgar Allan Poe, and felt a strange sort of shock...[.] I discovered, believe me if you will, poems and stories that I had already thought of, but of which I had only a vague, confused and disorganised idea, and which Poe had managed to pull together and perfect...."  (Source

And Baudelaire promptly dropped (almost) everything, and spent his most productive years (1856-1865) translating Poe’s works into French.  Now he wasn't the first to do translate Poe, but he was the one who made Poe's work sing in French.  (Baudelaire's Translations at Gutenberg Press for free.)  And his translations became the standard throughout Europe.

First note:  Despite his obsession with Poe, when Baudelaire named his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal -- Flowers of Evil in English -- it was in homage of Nathaniel Hawthorne's highly appropriate Rappaccini's Daughter.  (Link here to read on-line)

Second note:  In Memoirs of a Drudge, James Thurber reminisces about working at the Riviera edition of the Chicago Tribune in Southern France.  (And why didn't my guidance counselor ever tell me about this job?)  Anyway, there were regular printers' strikes, and after one of them, the whole press room, half-tanked, got on a train for Cannes.  Promptly another argument broke out, this time over which was better, the original or the French translation of Poe's The Raven?  And would a real raven be more likely to say, "Jamais plus" or "Nevermore"?  "He returned with the claim the claim that our fellow-passenger to a man were passionately on the side of Jamais plus."  Betcha the translation was Baudelaire's...

"Remarks are not literature" - Gertrude Stein

Another interesting connection was between Gertrude Stein and Gustave Flaubert.  Apparently, Stein set out to translate Flaubert's Three Tales into English to improve her French, but it turned into her own Three Lives, which is certainly nothing like Flaubert's subtle, supple prose.  (I have tried to read her work, but found everything other than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to be breathtakingly, redundantly boring...) 

On the other hand, praises be to Gertrude Stein, whose gatherings in the Rue de Fleurus brought together almost every artist and writer of the early 1900s, launching friendships, love affairs, movements, feuds, innumerable rumors, and most of what we consider modern art.

"Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." 
             - Gustave Flaubert

G. LEROUX.jpgSpeaking about original violence, meet Gaston Leroux (1868-1927), the author of  original Phantom of the Opera.  Maybe you haven't read the book, but I'm sure you've seen one of the 14 film versions and 4 stage versions...  (I remember seeing Lon Chaney Sr.'s version when I was a child - nightmare city!)  BTW - Some parts of Phantom are based on reality:  the "Paris Opera House" is based on the real Opera Garnier in Paris, which has underground tunnels and an underground lake. (To visit to the Opera Garnier, go Here.)  A chandelier did fall and kill someone.  There are a couple of stories about the Phantom himself:   one is that it's the ghost of a man whose skeleton was used (I don't know why or how) in a 1841 production at the Paris Opera of Der Freisch├╝tz.  The other is the sad story of Erik, one of the architects of the Opera Granier (who may or not have been disfigured - depends on the legend), but who ended up living underneath the Opera Garnier in his own apartment, with his own passages that led to his own "Box Number 5". 

          Phantom.jpg

Phantom alone should have ensured M. Leroux's fame, but he wrote more than that.  His 1907 super best-seller The Mystery of the Yellow Room has the singular honor of having spurred Agatha Christie to write mysteries.  She and her sister Madge were talking about various detective novels they liked, and The Mystery of the Yellow Room came up, which they both loved.  Christie said she'd like to write a detective novel herself, and Madge said “Well, I bet you couldn’t.” “From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story.” 
  • (A number of Leroux's works are available for free on Gutenberg here, some in French, some in English translation.)  
While I'm at it, a few more interesting bits about Agatha Christie:

Did you know that she was a surfer?  She and her first husband, Archibald Christie, went on a trip from South Africa to Hawaii in 1922, and along the way they learned how to surf.  It's speculated that they were the first English surfers to surf standing up.  Now if I could only find a picture of THAT.  

Studio publicity Gene Tierney.jpg
Did you know that The Mirror Cracked is based not just on Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott but on the actress Gene Tierney?  In 1942, she was volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen when a fan sneaked out of a rubella quarantine to meet her. Tierney was pregnant, and yes, she got rubella, and the result was that her daughter, Daria, was born deaf, partially blind, and severely mentally disabled. It broke her heart, and the child had to be institutionalized.  A couple of years later, Tierney was approached by the fan at a garden party who proudly told her what she'd done: "Everyone told me I shouldn't go," the starstruck woman told Tierney years later at a tennis match, not realizing what she was responsible for, "but I just had to go.  You were my favorite."  (Biography)  

Did you know that Agatha Christie qualified as a "dispenser" (a/k/a pharmacist) in 1917?  That's certainly one way to learn all you want to know about poisons...

Supposedly, she ‘saw’ Hercule Poirot twice in her life, once lunching in the Savoy and once on a boat in the Canary Islands.  And Miss Marple was based on her maternal grandmother who, just like Miss Marple, "always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and were, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right."  

Speaking of "seeing" a detective, how about "seeing" an author?  Look at the three portraits below. 


McKee Dagurreotype of Edgar Allan Poe  


These are all (supposedly) Edgar Allan Poe.  You tell me how Edgar Allan Poe's physical appearance went from the first daguerreotype (the McGee portrait, 1843 or earlier) to the middle portrait (an 1845 painting by Samuel Stillman Osgood) to the final, most famous, one (the "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype) taken in 1848.

And go a step further:  check out the various Poe portraits at the Edgar Allan Poe Organization website.  Frankly, most of them - except the last - look nothing like the image I've always had of Poe.  Who was this shape-shifter, anyway?  Was that why he was found delirious, in great distress, and in clothes that didn't belong to him?  Was there a possession of some kind?  I don't know.

“I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched.” ― 
Edgar Allan Poe

But he was always a master of cultivating terror with hysteria and pleasure...