Thursday, February 26, 2009

Happy Endings

A tractor-trailer arrived at a fairground with a police escort. On the side of the truck, five foot red lettering declared the promise, “We Rock Your World!” Around the slogan brilliantly painted images of explosions against night skies illuminated upturned faces with open mouths.

Police formed a parameter, asking people to please move back. The back doors on the truck burst open and eight huge men in sweat-stained jumpsuits hauled out a long black draped shape, moving it like a coffin. A great hydraulic power-lift lowered the men and their mystery to the dirt. A crowd gathered and children sat on the shoulders of parents.

Using a heavy metal litter with reinforced wheels, the team in jumpsuits ushered their ominous charge to a great earthen mound outlined in circles of red and white paint. Blinding high-intensity arc lamps flooded the prepared field with white light as the last of the sun’s rays faded from the summer sky. Reaching the mound, an electric motor whined, massive gears clanked and the great behemoth beneath the drape tilted up. The drape fell. The crowd gasped.

A rocket fifteen feet in height stood majestically upon the red and white painted target. Torpedo shaped and thick as an oak tree it gleamed with a blue metallic shine. Three yellow, razor-sharp fins circled the base. A matching yellow cone capped the summit. And along its sleek length ran the legend: Starmaker.

The men in jumpsuits retreated with their litter and a new team took the field. Three men in silver foil suits with full hoods. They took a moment to check the seals on their asbestos gloves then attached the long fuse. They wheeled out a propane tank and assembled a torch at the end of a literal ten-foot-pole.

“Please stand back!” a muffled voice from within a hood shouted. The police pressed the line condensing the viewers.

The torch ignited with a pop. As his associates watched from a safer distance, one of the men in silver stepped toward the fuse—toward the rocket that waited in ghostly silence. Carefully, tentatively, he reached out the torch and lit the fuse. Immediately all three ran behind a concrete blind as the fifty-yard fuse sputtered and popped, a hissing, sparking serpent that raced across the field, rushing, charging madly and irrevocably at its target.

The crowd quieted—a silence broken only by the cry of a baby whose mother threatened to smother the child in her haste to muffle it. All eyes focused on the fuse and on the shining rocket, whose metallic skin reflected the sparks of the nearing fuse end. Above, the heavens filled with stars, below no one breathed. The fuse ran true. It reached the base and in that moment brilliantly flared. There was a brief pause, just half a beat of total silence.

Then it happened.

The cone at the top of the rocket popped off and a flag popped out displaying the word “boom.”

So my question here is—have you ever read a book like that? Have you ever read a novel that begins with a killer premise, and a great mystery that grows deeper rather than shallower, and builds suspense and tension with each page only to fizzle at the end?

I have too.

In the middle of reading my first novel, a woman made the comment that I was a contender for replacing her favorite author—so long as I didn’t screw up the ending. I wasn’t concerned, but I knew exactly what she meant. This got me thinking how many books I read that let me down.

Authors who are exceptionally good writers, people who can titillate and form massive expectations, often compound the problem. They raise their own bar so high, no prose athlete can vault it. You can sometimes see it coming. They offer a stunning situation with only a few possible explanations, the first few you dismiss as too dull and pedestrian to be the answer and you are left with three exciting possibilities. Then one—the one you most expected—is eliminated and the excitement rises. Two left—which is it? You wonder, you debate, and then in a shocking revelation, both possibilities are declared false. As a reader, you sit with your mouth open, consuming pages in desperation to see what truly marvelous explanation the author is going to reveal. What magic trick did he pull that you were so completely taken in? Then you reach the end and discover there is no trick, no magic. The conclusion is one of those dull, expected answers. The cone pops off and the flag flies—boom.

In a way it is like buying a product that doesn’t do what it adversities. Some are very long books that can consume days or weeks of reading, always holding out that promise of a bang. Sometimes the writing of the body of the novel is so strong I don’t even mind if the end fizzles, but most of the time I do. I hate bad endings and wonder how they happen. Maybe it is merely a perception thing. Maybe because I am a writer I’m more critical, maybe I plot ahead as I read, finding what I think is a better solution and feel disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Or maybe it is that the writer didn’t know how to end it? It often feels that way.

Sometimes novelists begin stories without any idea where the story is going. They plow ahead going where the words take them and hope inspiration will strike in the end. It is an often-debated approach—to outline or not. I never used to. When I started writing, much of the allure came from discovering as I went along where the story would lead. In a way, I was as much reading as writing. Sometimes I didn’t find an ending and lost interest, wasting months of work. All too often, I found myself in a proverbial locked room trapped by my own logic walls. The only way out being to take an axe to hundreds of pages of beautiful stuff—again months of work lost. This gets old fast.

I discovered, with just a little forethought, I could avoid such train wrecks. More importantly, by knowing where I was going, I could gauge the approach. Like landing an airplane, you don’t want to come in too steep or too shallow, and when writing a novel you don’t want the beginning and middle to overshadow the climax. If you don’t know how it will end, it is easy to keep shoveling it on, stoking that furnace of anticipation until it is white-hot, only to pour lukewarm water on it in the end, because you don’t have the nuclear fission you promised.

Even with outlining, I’ve gotten near the end and realized the punch wasn’t good enough. It makes sense, it stands up, it satisfies, but…and then I have to ask myself, if it didn’t matter how the logic works, how would I love to see this turn out. I purposely think of the most outlandish ideas, find one that makes my heart race and then check to see if there is any way to make it work. I’m actually pretty good at that and I can usually pull plot threads together to weave a logic strand strong enough to take the weight. Then I stand back and grin. That’s when I know the book will fly.

I try very hard to deliver with my endings, to make them live up to the promise, to make them the best part of the story, to have them make sense, but always a little surprising, a little unexpected. I just like gripping beginnings, enjoyable middles and happy endings.

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