Showing posts with label happy endings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label happy endings. Show all posts

23 February 2019

ENDINGS: You Must Satisfy the Reader!

“Your first page sells the book.  Your last page sells the next book.” — Mickey Spillane

In all my classes and workshops, we talk about satisfying the reader.  As authors we make a ‘promise to the reader’.  We establish this promise in the first few pages and chapters.  Who will this story be about?  What genre?  Is it romance, mystery, thriller, western or one of the others?  Readers are attached to different genres, whether we authors like it or not.  We have to be aware that when we promise something, we need to fulfill it.

As an example: a thing that drives me crazy is when books are promoted as mysteries, and they are really thrillers.  I like murder mysteries; my favourite book is an intelligent whodunit, with diabolically clever plotting.  In a thriller, the plot usually centres on a character in jeopardy.  Not the same. 

As authors, we want to satisfy the reader, and that is exactly what Mickey Spillane was getting at in the quote above.  To do this, we need to know what the reader expects.  Here’s the handout I use in class to explain the different expectations in the main genres of fiction.  (Note: there are always exceptions.)


ROMANCE:  The man and woman will come together to have a HEA (happy ever after) after surmounting great obstacles. 

MYSTERY/Suspense:  In a whodunit, the ending will reveal the killer.  In a thriller, the protagonist will escape the danger.  All loose ends will be tied up.  Justice will be seen to be done in some manner.  (This does not mean that the law will be satisfied.  We’re all about justice here, and the most interesting stories often have characters acting outside the law to achieve justice.  In mystery/suspense books you probably have the most opportunity for gray.)

FANTASY/Sci-Fi:  The battle will be won for now, but the war may continue in future books.  You should give your characters a HFN (happy for now) – at least a short amount of time to enjoy their

WESTERN:  The good guy will win.  Simple as that.

ACTION-ADVENTURE:  The Bond-clone will survive and triumph.  Sometimes the bad guy will get away to allow for a future story.

HORROR:  Usually, the protagonist will survive.  If not, he will usually die heroically saving others. Hope is key.  If readers have lost hope, they will stop reading.

LITERARY:  Again, the reader must be satisfied by the end of the story.  The protagonist will grow from the challenge.  He/she will probably be faced with difficult choices, and by the end of the story, the choice will be made.  In other stories, it may be that by the end of the story the protagonist discovers something she has been seeking: i.e. The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

ENDINGS – The argument against using real life for your plot. (Why things that really happened to you don’t make good novels.)

       “I am always telling my writing students that the anecdotes that make up their own lives, no matter how heart-wrenching they may have been for their subjects, are not in themselves stories.  Stories have endings.  Endings are contrived.  In order to come up with a great ending, you’re probably going to have to make something up, something that didn’t actually happen.  Autobiographical fiction can never do these things, because our lives contain few endings or even resolutions of any kind.”   Russell Smith

Remember what we do: Fiction authors write about things that never happened and people who don’t exist.  Remember what fiction writers must provide:  The ending must satisfy the reader.

So:  Don’t tell a publisher that your book/short story is based on real life.  The publisher doesn’t care. They are only looking for a good story.

Melodie Campbell is the author of the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series.  Book 6, The Goddaughter Does Vegas, is now available at all the usual suspects.


09 January 2018

Rest In Peace, Major Crimes

by Barb Goffman

SPOILER ALERT. If you watch the TV show Major Crimes and haven't seen the episodes that aired on December 19th, stop reading and go watch. Then come back.

For nearly thirteen years, I have been invested in the Major Crimes squad of the Los Angeles Police Department--the fictional one, as depicted in two series on TNT: The Closer, which ran from 2005 - 2012, and its spin-off, Major Crimes, which began in 2012 and which will air its final episode tonight. I have loved these two shows because of the writing and the acting, because the audience was allowed to become invested in the characters as well as the cases, and because the people behind the show--until recently--were able to give the audience a good balance of episodes, some serious, other lighthearted. Put simply, these shows made me happy.

But with the final episode just hours away from being aired, I must confess I'm not happy anymore. I'm not happy that the powers behind the cable network apparently put pressure in the last year on the people behind Major Crimes to make the show darker and edgier and to come up with story lines that wouldn't be resolved in a single episode but instead dragged on and on and on. While I'm okay with overarching character issues that continue throughout a series--seeing Sharon and Andy, for instance, grow from friends to husband and wife--and while I'm okay with larger plot issues that reoccur from time to time (such as the ongoing case involving serial killer Philip Stroh), I didn't like that Major Crimes changed its format recently from having a murder that was solved each week to a murder case that would take several weeks to be solved. Those multiple-episode cases became too hard to follow, and they were all so so dark and serious.

I'm also unhappy because Major Crimes killed off the star of the show, Sharon Raydor, a few episodes ago. It was shocking and heartbreaking and completely unnecessary. When a canceled show goes off the air, I like to think that the fictional characters are still out there, doing their jobs, living their lives. I might not get to check in with them anymore, but in my mind, they are riding off happily into the sunset. But when the main character of a TV show is killed off, there is no happily ever after. There is no joy any longer.

I read a Variety article a few weeks ago in which the amazing Mary McDonnell, who played Major Crimes's star, Sharon Raydor, talked about the decision by the show's executive producer and creator, James Duff, to kill off Sharon. The death wasn't done for shock value or as an F.U. to the network. It appears the decision was made thoughtfully and with the audience in mind. Duff wanted to allow the audience to grieve, and he thought this would be a good-send off for the character. Maybe there are viewers out there who enjoyed this closure. But for me and for every person I've talked to about this, it was a kick in the gut--a major miscalculation. I didn't want grief forced on me. I wanted to believe Sharon and Andy would live happily ever after. I wanted Sharon to continue leading her squad. If I had to put up with the show being canceled, I at least should have been given the ability to believe that everything would continue to be well with all my favorite fictional police detectives. That would have left me satisfied.

All of this agita leads to an interesting question. When a series is ending, be it a TV show or a mystery novel series or any other type of series, how much does the author/showrunner owe to the readers/audience? After nearly thirteen years as a viewer of these two TV shows, I feel ownership of the characters and want them to have a happy ending, as I expect most loyal viewers do. But if I put on my author hat, I realize that my reaction is quite presumptuous. I might be a loyal viewer, but these are not my characters, not my story lines, not my shows. I don't own the copyright. I didn't dream up these dramas. I didn't bring the characters to life. As an author, I own the stories I write, and while I keep my readers in mind as I write, I choose the twists and the endings, and I would be aggravated if readers started telling me that I should craft my stories differently. My stories are mine. So from this perspective, I can understand Duff's desire to end the show on his terms. I just wish his terms weren't so different from mine.

Major Crimes certainly isn't the only series (TV or books) to end on a note that readers didn't like. (And I should add that while I'm unhappy with Duff's choice to kill off Sharon, the episodes since then have been wonderful, and I expect the final episode tonight too will be good.) The final episodes of other shows and books have not been so well received either. The last episode of Seinfeld, for instance, was terrible. Viewers wanted to imagine Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer living out their lives in New York, going about their days where nothing happens in an amusing manner. No one wanted to imagine those characters in prison. And when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, readers were so unhappy, thousands apparently canceled their subscriptions to The Strand magazine, in which the offending story appeared. I read that Conan Doyle wanted to send Holmes off with a bang. But what about what the readers wanted?

It's a hard line for writers to walk, wanting to keep strong to your artistic vision as you wind up a series, yet give your readers/viewers the payoff they want. It must be especially hard when the decisions are made with care, yet they aren't received as expected, at least by some.

So it will be with a heavy heart that I watch the last episode of Major Crimes tonight. I expect that the serial killer Stroh will finally be caught. I expect that justice will prevail. I expect that no other characters in the squad will die. And I expect that no matter what happens in the episode, I will be in mourning as the final credits roll, because these are characters whom I've grown to love, and I'll miss them. And that is something Duff and McDonnell and everyone involved in Major Crimes and The Closer before it can be proud of. It's no small thing to create a world that brings others joy, even if some readers/viewers don't love every aspect of the way the story comes to an end.

18 November 2011

Happy Endings

by Dixon Hill

It's been a long week.

My wife is actually much prettier than she appears in this photograph. However, she graciously consented to letting me post it, and we had a lot of fun taking it -- largely because she has a great sense of humor.

How she can manage to smile, though, I'm not quite sure.

What I do know is that she's not only pretty. She's also pretty tough--after all, this is a woman who drove a fuel truck at the front of the invasion body, during the first Gulf War, so that the tanks could catch up to her to refuel after fighting their way through the front lines.

A few weeks ago, my wife learned she had Basal Cell skin cancer on one side of her nose, up near the bridge. This week she went in and had it removed. The next day, she went back under the knife to have them take a skin graft from her eyelid, which they grafted to the area they'd removed from her nose.

When I brought her home, the old lady across the street gave me a look that said, "We'll get you one of these days, you wife beater!" I wasn't surprised. The same woman once knocked on my door -- magazine in hand -- to tell me: "I read your story in Ellery Queen." Then she gave me a look that clearly said, "And we're not about to tolerate any of your murderous shenanigans in this neighborhood– so mind your P's and Q's!" After which, she marched home, where I strongly suspect she added the magazine to an evidence file she's compiling about me.

Seeing my wife undergo such trauma ...
. . . actually has me thinking about happy endings.

And I don't mean, just the "Thank God he lived!" sort of happy ending. I'm talking about overall all-around happy endings -- the good guys not only win; they live happily ever after.

I once read an essay by the great Dean Koontz, in which he said he often got zinged by literary writers because his stories usually have happy endings. He went on to wonder why so many literary stories have unhappy conclusions.

For some reason, I tend to read quite a bit of what's termed "literary" writing myself, and I have to agree; happy endings seem to be pretty scarce in that crowd. I'm not exactly sure why.

What I do know is that happy endings -- of the believable sort -- seem very challenging to write. Koontz also mentioned this. And, judging from essays written by many contemporary literary writers, the idea of a happy ending not being believable may actually be at the root of their scarcity. There seems to be a belief that happy endings just aren't believable.

I think they're wrong.

I've read things with very believable happy endings. So, to my way of thinking: While believable happy endings are tough to pull off; they're not always impossible to accomplish. (Sometimes, however, I think the best bet is to aim for what I've come to think of as a Positive Ending. But, more on that some other time, perhaps.)

I tried to figure out a better way to illustrate what I'm talking about, but somehow keep coming back to the idea of comparing and contrasting my view of the difference between early Stephen King novels and a Dean Koontz novel.

I'm not trying to denigrate anyone, here. King is a great writer; there's no question about that. And, there's nothing wrong with what he writes. The reason I chose him is because: (a) he's a writer that is fairly well accepted by the 'literary' crowd and (b) both King and Koontz write scary stories, which makes it easier to highlight the differences I want to discuss.

To me, reading a King novel is like being led by a scary, freakazoid, guy down rickety cellar steps, into a pitch-black basement. The steps wobble and creak as you descend, while other things slither and bump down below. Cob webs stick your face, and unseen fingers seem to take glancing grasps at your clothing. You reach the bottom, and he leads you on, deeper into the darkness, something cold and wet wrapping itself around your ankle as you walk. And then, he leaves you there!

Again: I'm not saying there's anything wrong with King's writing. The guy knows what he's doing. It's really scary stuff, and he couches it in visceral terms that seem to reach out off the pages and tear at your soul. And, he uses a lot of literary mechanisms while he does it. In fact, he's so good at it, I sometimes find myself sucked down into a two-week depression after reading one of his novels. Whether you think that's good or bad, I don't think you can help but admit--that's damn good writing!

But . . .

. . . it's hardly a happy ending.

Now, contrast this to the way I perceive Koontz's writing. You start out being led down the same cellar steps by the same scary, freakazoid guy. The stairs still creak and groan, the icy fingers grasp at your clothes, and when you get to the bottom something cold wraps itself around your ankle. And still, the freakazoid leads you on, deeper into the darkness. But, when he reaches the point where the other guy abandoned you, this guy makes you keep walking.

One step in the darkness. Two steps in the darkness. WHAM! Storm cellar doors you didn't know were there suddenly burst open in front of you! A shaft of sunlight stabs your eyes. And, now, he leads you up the steps and out those storm doors into a beautiful garden--golden sunlight bathing the grass and leaves, butterflies darting among the bushes. And suddenly you realize: You know this garden. Because it's your backyard!

You've walked in your backyard a hundred times, but it's never looked like this before. The grass is greener, trees seem stronger; the soil seems to be bursting with fertility! You've never seen it like this before, because, you had to make that trip through the dark cellar first. Only after making that trek trough the terror, could you come upon your garden from the vantage point which would reveal its full beauty to you.


It seems to me, the best Happy Endings aren't the ones where we just sigh and giggle because the two lovers have finally found each other, or the ones where we wipe a hand across our brow and say, "WHEW! He made it!" I think the best Happy Endings are when we can see that a character or characters have been changed in a positive way by their experiences in the storyline. (And that often means traumatizing them -- sometimes more than just a little.) And, that change in themselves is what now gives them the chance to live Happily Ever After. Or at least, more happily than they used to. And -- guess what? -- it can even be believable.

Which is why my wife's recent operations have me thinking of happy endings.

You see: Because of the trauma she's had to endure this week, she's now cancer-free. And, this means, She and I have the chance to continue our own little "Happily Ever After . . ." right along with our kids.

See you in two weeks!