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?
Good morning, book people! After yesterday’s mini freakout and fiction-related writerly indecision, I’m feeling much calmer (in great part due to the excellent comment-love). For those who asked, yesterday’s interview went well, I think. It was definitely kind of fun, and I spent a lot of time in my writer’s garb, chatting about voice (one of my favorite topics).
And I have some most-excellent news this morning!
Back home, in the great (though often cold) state of Victoria, the library system has launched a YA type Goodreads, Inside A Dog. The name comes from a Groucho Marx quote, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” I’ll have more on Inside A Dog next week, but definitely head on over now–they have guest posts by some great YA authors coming up! (Brian Falkner, Gayle Forman…)
Field Trip Friday over at YA Highway has some excellent links around the writing webs this week, including this LA Times piece on Little Red Riding Hood getting a makeover. I love the cover, but it’s so Cinderella to me that I’m not sure I love it for Riding Hood. What do you think?
It’s been a big week for e-publishing in the blogosphere. Eric at Pimp My Novel has a nice, grounding list of 5 Things You Should Know About the eRevolution. Nathan Bransford has a few insights into pricing and ebooks vs. hardcovers (a nice follow up to Mike Shatzkin’s post on pricing models earlier this week). He also some really useful–again grounding–on Amanda Hocking and the 99c Kindle millionaires. (If you have to choose just one of these posts to read, go with the last on Hocking.)
An internet oldie but a goodie – my critique partner and friend, Livia, has a post on writing realistic male characters, and the jerkyness that is Guyhood. Love, love, love this!
Debbie Ridpath Ohi over at MiG writers has a follow up to her first post on writers and voice this week. The new post draws from Stephen Pressfield, and asks a couple of questions all writers should be thinking about. Both are well worth reading, and very quick!Read More
Animal stories are everywhere. Many classic tales are animal stories, from Aesop’s Fables through Charlotte’s Web. Yet there’s an idea in kids’ publishing, out there on blogs, in classes and speeches, that animal fiction is no longer marketable, and has gone the way of the cute little bunnies in Watership Down.
Despite the naysaying, though, animal stories continue to show up in bookstores–Erin Hunter’s Seekers and Warriors, Kathy Appelt’s The Underneath, and Brian Jacques’ latest Insert-Redwall-Clone-Title-Here are jockeying for shelf space alongside more so-called middle grade popular fiction. So what is it about animal fiction that sets industry folk on edge?
Many classic animal tales, particularly Victorian stories, follow what I think of as the Beatrix Potter/Peter Rabbit paradigm: they blend the cuteness of anthropomorphic animals (usually woodland creatures) with starker realities, as if the fact that Peter wears a smart robin’s egg waistcoat makes it more palatable for his father to have ended up in Mr. McGregor’s stew pot. In the original Redwall , the war-like tendencies of the sparrows (sparra), the snake, Asmodeus, eating characters, and the concepts each represent are balanced by the fuzzy-wuzziness of the mice, badgers, et. al and their Arthurian style honor code.
In some cases, anthropomorphic animals serve a particular purpose. Jane Yolen’s picture book series How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight/Go to the Dentist/Go to School/&c? (illustrated by Mark Teague) puts dinosaurs in place of children, giving parents and children a way to discuss everyday activities and rules and express frustration. They also play to a child’s desire to be like a favorite character–Let’s brush our teeth like Stegosaurus!–in a way a book about another “every kid” may not.
Other times, animal characters acting like people provide more fun, accessible illustrations and stories. This isn’t to say stories have to have animal characters to be fun and relatable, but animal characters can certainly add an appreciable layer to an already strong story. In Edel Rodriguez’ Sergio Saves The Game, Sergio, a penguin, dreams of becoming a soccer star, but is woefully inept on the field. Taking on the keeper’s role, he works through his frustrations and practices until he ultimately saves the day, keeping the big bad seagulls from scoring a critical goal. Another penguin story, Tacky the Penguin (Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger), follows the aptly named Hawaiian-shirted Tacky, who is disliked by the other penguins for his loud habits and garish dress sense. But when hunters come, it’s Tacky who scares them off, and the other, stuffier penguins come to recognize the value of being an individual, and appreciating each other quirks and all.
In a similar vein to Yolen’s Dinosaur series, the animal character helps set up a distance between the reader’s life and the protagonist’s life. This sort of distance can be very important in issues books–it allows kids and parents to read and discuss problems, like belonging and bullying, without the frustration, or setting up possible feelings of inadequacy and the like.
Sometimes, though, the Beatrix Potter Complex goes a little far–animals in people clothing, eating people food, and acting cutesy merely for the sake of cuteness can be a warning sign of other problems in a manuscript, picture book and middle grade alike. In a long lost piece by a kids’ editor, the described a particularly frightening anthropomorphic chicken manuscript she’d received, handwritten on hot pink paper. The story? A little fried chicken drumstick is lonely and only wants to be eaten and loved, eventually finding home and happiness at a local KFC. Peculiar, slightly morbid stories aside, though, there are other, more tangible–and fixable–problems in many animal stories, such as:
- Cuteness carrying the story
- Two dimensional characters/stereotypical characters–fat, hoarding pigs, empty-headed sheep etc.
- No real story, merely walking through a jungle/farm/zoo setting or characters comparing notes
- Characters with no flaws/relatability
- Characters are too adult
- Stories are preachy or moralizing
Animals With Human Traits? Or Humans With Animal Traits?
As anyone who’s ever picked up a mythology book knows, history is rife with stories of half-animal, half-human creatures, from centaurs and minotaurs through Anansi, the West African/Carribean spider-god. In these stories, the lines are often blurred between animal and human characteristics, and the characters are usually imperfect or have a not-quite-fatal flaw. Stories are rarely cute, yet rarely moral in a religious or morality play style way. Interestingly–perhaps because of the sense of “other” or “not-like-me”–animal/human characters are often deeper, and more fascinating, than a reader might expect. Unlike other animal related stories, these books are not relegated to the picture book and middle grade set; most are YA or adult lit.
Examples of Human/Animal/Mythical characters in fiction
- Anansi in Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys
- Coyote & Raven in Charles DeLint’s Newford series
- Mermaids in Kathryn Lasky’s Hannah: Daughters of the Sea
Do you write animal fiction? Do you read animal stories? Or do you find them irritating? Can you think of any good examples?
We’ve all done it — bought a book based on a good review, passed over another because of a bad review. But why do reviews affect us? And how do they do it?
Once upon a time, only professional reviewers wrote book reviews. The greater the number of publishing credits and letters after your name, the greater your chances of being taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree to work out if you like a book (though in the case of Edward Bloor’s Storytime, you might need an MFA to work out why). And a good review is still a good review—whether it’s over at your friend’s blog, or in the Books section of The New York Times.Read More
Over the weekend, I read Sarah Mlynowski’s Magic in Manhattan series. Although technically not on the lookout for more books–the stack by my bed is about four feet high–I’m a sucker for remainder shelves the way some people (okay, me) are suckers for lost puppies. Every book deserves a home, and books 1 & 3 looked so funky yet so lost and forlorn among old cookbooks and craft sets that I just had to bring them home.
Here’s the Booklist blurb for Bras & Broomsticks:
When 14-year-old Rachel learns that Miri, her “vegetarian, socially inept little sister” and her divorced mother are witches, her reactions run the gamut from incredulity and annoyance that she isn’t similarly gifted to shrewdness as she plans how her sister’s abilities can be marshaled to solve a passel of problems. Can magic move Rachel to the popularity A list? Revive a fading friendship? Prevent her father from remarrying? Guarantee a date for the Spring Fling? Yes, . . . but not before Rachel and Miri learn the hard way that all spells have consequences. Despite the provocative title and Chick Lit-ish cover, this isn’t just another breezy teen read. Mlynowski has a real ear for dialogue, and she displays a keen understanding of teen mores as she pokes fun at high-school cliques. Several lovely scenes break up the comedy, including one in which klutzy Rachel revels in her newfound coordination and the pleasure of dancing. Rachel is sassy, self-absorbed, shy and insecure, and her concerns will be comfortably familiar to readers.–Chris Sherman
Where Did My Sabrina Go?
In the introductory chapters of B&B (and the ensuing books) the narrator, Rachel, uses familiar witch characters to drive her point home: Glinda (The Wizard of Oz), Hermione (Harry Potter), and Sabrina (Archie comics, the television show). To me, this is a little like playing “spot the odd character,” because Glinda and Hermione are both out to do good and defeat evil in some (loose) sense. Sabrina, on the other hand, is a teen witch living life, having fun, and trying to adjust to her powers.
Sabrina-style stories were popular as early as the fifties–Bewitched was a huge hit (and is still fun to watch, if you’re a Hulu user) because it used Sam’s witchcraft to create a small amount of chaos and wish-fulfillment viewers, particularly women, could relate to.
Expectations, Stereotypes, & Rules Oh My!
Although I read–and appreciate–a lot of fantasy and paranormal YA, B&B was a surprise. The writing is simple and chick-litish, and the story a relatively simple (insofar as teen life is ever simple) take on divorced parents and highschool popularity contests. But B&B, for all its fun and shininess, seems to break a cardinal rule of contemporary paranormal and fantasy YA: there’s no real villain.
Villains are a widely recognized standard in fantasy and, to some extent, paranormal novels. The hero/heroine needs someone to fight, someone to turn those newly minted magical powers or what-have-you on. The Lord of the Rings has Sauron, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has the White Queen, Jadis. Newer books, like Harry Potter, and even those books with a strong romantic focus have a villain. Graceling (Kristin Cashore), The Mortal Instruments (Cassandra Clare) series, Lament, Shiver (Maggie Stiefvater), and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), despite their very disparate settings, use the villain as the impetus for change in a very similar way.
But fantasy and paranormal villains are not all created equal. While they’re expected as part of these genres, there isn’t one overriding stereotype (outside of the David and Leigh Eddings/Terry Goodkind style novels, anyway) for villains. But the expectation of a villain, a plot to take over the world/country/school/mysterious land, and a couple of yay-we-did-it kisses between the friends-who-want-something-more heroes has become so common it’s rare to see a YA novel without at least two of the above.
Common elements in YA fantasy & paranormal novels:
- Evil villain
- Redemption for villain
- Good v. Evil talk
- Magical powers
- Non-human characters (elves, goblins, ferrets)
- Fighting/action scenes
- Romance between best friends
- Romance between main character and annoying-forced-to-work-with character
- Hot Guy/Hot Girl who is secretly evil
- Hot Guy/Hot Girl who provides distraction/fuel for jealousy
- Love scenes
- World building, new world
- A skeptical character
A large part of the reason hero vs. villain stories have become so popular is television. Television, especially teen television, feeds on the book industry, magnifying (and often distorting) popular stories and styles. Teens with power, from secrets, money, or both (Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, Privileged etc) are everywhere; vampire spin-offs (True Blood, The Vampire Diaries) fill in the gaps. And villains, as any Buffy watcher can testify, make good tv.
Sabrina, Come Back!
Are villains in books bad? Well, yes, by definition (sorry, had to do it, sometimes I kill me). Generally speaking, villains–well crafted, three dimensional villains–are the stuff of excellent storytelling. But the current crop of good vs. evil books, while good reading, are also exhausting reading. Much as I love the moral dilemmas and grey areas such books often explore, I suspect the reason I read the Magic in Manhattan series in one weekend is because it was a relief, a return to light, fun fantasy I could read without a thinking cap.
Should we ditch thinking cap books altogether? Of course not (and not just because if we did, I’d be out of blog material). But Sabrina-style books have their own thought-provoking magic (pun fully intended). Sabrina-style novels are sort of like problem novels for reasonably well-adjusted kids, offering another look at common issues, issues as difficult as divorce, as marvelous as first love, as awful as first breakups in a safe, comfortable space. And while non-fantasy, non-paranormal novels can and do do the same thing, there’s something innately fun about magic and wishing and broomstick riding. I wish I could read more about it.
Do you have any favorite, lighter fantasy and/or paranormal books? Have you read the Magic in Manhattan series?