This post was first published in March 2010, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. As I wind up the first draft of a new project–I’m in that mad, almost love-drunk rush that comes with knowing the end is nigh–I keep drifting back to these three questions:
1. Can I wrap this up without leaving a tangled mess of loose ends?
2. Have I revealed enough for the end to work, or is it just a poorly fashioned deus ex machina?
3. Am I forcing my leads into roles they don’t want?
And these three, in turn keep bringing me back to the ultimate two: Will my book be satisfying? And is it engaging?
ETA: the original Catching Fire image was having issues, so I’ve replaced it with these German covers instead. I like this much better, anyway.
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See my follow-up, “What Makes a Book Satisfying?” here.
Reading is quite the investment. Not just in terms of monetary cost, but in terms of time spent reading the story, digesting the story, and, if it’s a very good book (or if you’re a deep reader), thinking about the story afterward. Some books are clearly worth the investment (Pride & Prejudice anyone? Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time?), while others are a win-some-lose-some deal. And then there are the books we give our hearts to freely, only to have the world’s most unsatisfying ending snatch them away.
So what makes a book satisfying? It’s hard to pin down, partially because it’s easier to work out what’s unsatisfying.
This month, I’ve read four books, two of which (Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire and Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey) had supremely unsatisfying endings. The latter hurt my heart/brain/squeeglesquawk so much that it kept me up the better part of last night.
Picking over the bones of these stories, and a few others I’ve found unsatisfying over the past year or two, I’ve found that the majority of unsatisfying books are those that don’t wrap up properly. At the end of the book, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about, why we loved/hated it because we don’t really know it. For me, these books are like a song I only kinda-sorta know–the chorus gets stuck in my head, but I can’t recall the singer/band, or resolve the melody without depending on an annoying Hey Jude like fade.
Although it may seem unfair to count Catching Fire as a book I found unsatisfying because it’s part of a series, I think a series book with a frustrating wrap-up is actually worse than a stand-alone book with a frustrating end. Series are all about trust. Trust that–
- the story is going somewhere
- the story is not just a dream, and will not end “and then I woke up”
- the author will reveal key facts as we need to know them, instead of hoarding the answers for a Columbo-esque reveal at the end
- the characters won’t be forced into a happily-ever-after/crappily-ever-after
- the storyline will resolve
Even with series books, there should be a resolution, because while a series has one long arc, the books have smaller arcs that feed into one another. In the first book of The Hunger Games, the main goal is for Katniss and Peeta to survive. Whether or not they achieve their goal doesn’t matter (well, it does, but we’re talking technical stuff here), as long as the issue is decided one way or another, and we have a clear answer–and a resolution of the smaller arc. And the cliffhanger ending? In the best series books, the cliffhanger opens a new arc, but doesn’t journey along too far, for three reasons:
the reader should be able to pick up the second book without re-reading the first one
a new reader should be able to pick up the second book and make sense of the story
if the new arc continues too far, the lack of resolution becomes frustrating rather than a reason to read the next book
Reasons a book may be unsatisfying after that very last page turn:
- Storyline doesn’t resolve
- Romantic entanglements don’t resolve
- Subplot(s) are forgotten about/don’t resolve (notice the trend, yet?)
- The characters are pulled out of the paper bag rather than finding their own way out (deus ex machina)
- In fantasy/science fiction, the world is never fully realized
- There’s a forced happily-ever-after/crappily-ever-after
Happily–or Crappily–Ever After
While I’m not against happily ever afters, books where the story wraps up too neatly and everyone gets kisses and cake are unsatisfying because they’re oh-so-sweet and unrealistic. One way to tell if a story’s happily ever after is too neat? Try imagining the characters’ lives after that last page turn. Can you see them continuing on, getting involved in new stories? Or are you stuck at the riding off into the sunset point?
But where neat, happy wrap ups are somewhat unsatisfying, forced unhappy wrap ups cross into pitch-the-book-across-the-room territory. This isn’t to say all stories need happy endings–they don’t. Some stories, like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, or, in YA, Wendy Mass’ A Mango-Shaped Space are better for their sad, tear-jerker endings. (To be fair, Mass’ book did make me cry in a couple of spots, but it does have a generally happy end.) Sometimes, though–particularly in fantasy and science fiction–an author’s need to make a point or echo their world’s bleakness results in a forced, overwrought crappily ever after. In these stories, the author piles on difficulties and throws obstacle into the characters’ paths in the last few chapters without giving them the chance to overcome. Sometimes, a technicality–one mentioned only in passing–prevents the happy ending; other times, a subplot comes to back to bite the reader, wrenching the happily-ever-after away for no real gain.
So what makes a book satisfying? I’m still working that out–but I’ll have a post about it on Tuesday.
What have you read lately? Was any of it unsatisfying? Why?