Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How Do You Know?
Patti Callahan Henry

The Scene: I’m at a book festival and it is Q&A time: my favorite part. Then this earnest man asks this, “How do you know when you’re finished with a novel? How do you know when it’s The End?”
I answer. “I just know. It’s over when it’s over.”
He does not, in any way whatsoever, like this answer. Which, being the sensitive girl I am, wanting everyone to like me and not be mad at me, I suddenly don’t like the answer either. I want a BETTER answer. I more firm answer. A scholarly answer.
He wants something more….substantial than a vague gut reaction, an ephemeral feeling.
Now so do I.

So of course I began to obsess (this can be a writer’s specialty: obsessing).
The End?
How do you know when it’s The End of your story?
How do you know when it’s the end of anything? A relationship? Or a conflict? Or a living situation? Or a job? Or…you get it, my obsession went wild.

I asked other authors (I always begin there). And the answers ranged from “When it’s due.” To “When I hate it.”

There is a story – I can’t verify it’s truth, but I’m a fiction writer so I really don’t care if it’s fully true – that someone once asked Margaret Mitchell about her writing process and she stated that she knew THE LAST line of Gone With the Wind, and then wrote toward that LAST LINE. That, unfortunately, has never happened to me.

I write in the same way I live – to see what happens next. I don’t want to write toward a particular ending (although sometimes I write toward a vague, foggy, misty ending), because I imagine all the situations and people and scenes and conflict I would miss if I were so set on just one ending. So to compare this to life: How do I know when there is “Nothing” that needs to happen next? That this particular story or life lesson or relationship or circumstance or living situation is over? Kaput? The End?

So I tried to dig past and through my “knowing feeling” into something with words. Isn’t that what we, as writers, are supposed to do anyway – dig into the feeling and find the words to wrap around it? I tried. I did.
I really, really did try.

I believe that answering this question is somehow important to not just my writing, but also to my life. How much more gracefully would we live or write if we knew when something was really over, and then we just let it go at that? It’s awful to read a book that goes on and on and on until you just don’t care anymore. It’s awful dragging around a dead relationship or dream or cause past its time.
How do we know when it’s over? The End?

So, if you read this far and hoped for an academic answer, sorry I don’t have one (yet).
I just know.
I don’t always want to know, but I do know.

So tell me, how do you know when you’ve reached The End? (of anything really)
Please tell me so I can answer the next question at the next book festival without infuriating the earnest seeker.
Seriously, tell me. I want to know!

Patti Callahan Henry is the NYT Bestselling author of six novels with Penguin/NAL.


Anonymous said...

It is a good question. While I know what the resolution to the conflict will be I'm never certain about where the story will end until I get there. Usually I write a bit beyond and then realise that nothing I"ve written in the last couple of hundred words has added anything meaningful to the story or the characters and I trim it back until I find that last meaningful part. Usually I then need to rework it so it sounds more final but at least I then know where the end it. Mostly it is a gut feeling that the story is done.
Thanks for sharing this post - it was really good to hear how other people think about the end.

Randolph said...

After giving birth to two indie franchises that gained small followings, 2010 has become the year of endings for me. I'm writing a one shot fantasy novel as well, so even that has to come to a real, satisfying ending!

I was secretly indulging myself by reading your blog post, looking for some sort of stated philosophy about endings, maybe to inform my own, or perhaps to even try exactly as prescribed once.

Sadly, that answer isn't here, but I don't feel cheated! Instead, I'm reassured that I'm not the only one who isn't exactly sure what the end looks like as I begin a work. That's something.

It doesn't lighten the burden of having to tie up all those long and short plot lines, or resist the temptation to infer that there could be another book following close behind my 'one shot' fantasy novel, but it's certainly something!

Thank you for an entertaining, and reassuring, blog post!

Jo said...

I don't think it's really a good question, but yours was a good answer. Asking "How do you know when it's over?" implies that the story can be over on its own, and only at one point -- and the writer has to guess when that is. In fact it can only be over when the writer decides it's over. You got it right.
Maybe my own answer would be that the story's over on page 320, which sounds nutty but if I'm aiming for 320 throughout the writing of the novel, I'm always aware of where I am in the unfolding of events and revelations, and some kind of subconscious shaping is always taking place. So I'm likely to be winding down around page 300 or so...

Nicki Salcedo said...

I like this question and discussion. Maybe because I don't know the answer. Maybe because I don't want to know the answer. When a read a great book, no matter how sad or beautiful or uplifting, I never believe the last word is the end. It's an echo.

Next time someone asks you about the end, ask them about the middle! How do we know where that is? That is where the struggle-- writing and reading-- is. That is where the meat is. :)

A Good Blog Is Hard to Find said...

These are such fantastic answers! Thanks so much for taking the time to think about it.

Cassandra, I don't usually write past the ending like you, but sometimes I drag it waaayyy out because I don't want to know it's time to end.

Randolph, Ouch on the Indies. Of course I love my indies (my last book was set in one). Those are the endings I DON"T like!
Sorry I didn't offer some great philosophical ending, but maybe our own conclusions are the best ones?

Jo -- Fantastic way of looking at it. But for me that would be like saying, "i'm going to wake up without an alarm clock." :)

NIcki -- Sigh. What a great answer. "The last word is an echo." Perfect.

Levi Montgomery said...

I must be more like Margaret Mitchell. There are three points that I always know before I start to write: the beginning, the end, and something I call the middle, although as time goes on and the story grows, it may well end up pretty far off-center. These three points allow me to triangulate the course of the plot as it evolves, so that I know more or less where I'm going as I travel.

One thing I would like to point out, though, is that if you've done your job, then when you write "The End" you should feel as if you could just as properly write "The Beginning." Every good end is a good beginning.

Kerry Madden said...

Pattie, this is a tiny excerpt from a great piece by By Mary Beth Caschetta, a former student of Grace Paley at Vasser. A student had posed the same question to Paley...This is what she said:

"How do you know you've finished a story?" one of my classmates asked the visiting author. In response, Paley picked up a page of her own writing and pointed to the first word. "Is this word true?" She looked at us, then pointed to the next. "Is this word true?" I can hear her even now, snapping her gum. "What about this one? And this one? Is this word true?" I suddenly saw the flaw in my premise: There were no steps leading the way. Each writer had to forge out into the field alone, cutting through the tangles of story and doubt.

the link for the whole story: