Monday, February 18, 2013

Making A Story Work All The Way to The End

Did you ever finish a book and wonder why you just spent the time reading it or been so unsatisfied that the writer has earned a spot on the "Do Not Read" list? I recently have.

For obvious reasons, I'm not going to mention the title of the book or its writer. I don't tend to put a story down once I start it. So, I will occasionally finish a book I hate. While I was interested enough to keep listening to the audio tape of this book, the ending destroyed the story for me. Because of who I am, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why. The short answer I came up with was that the ending was just so unsatisfying it left me with a negative impression of the story.

Here are the main things that I think went wrong with the story:

1. The title character was the least used Point of View (POV).

When you name your book after a particular character, you signal to your reader that that character is the most important one in the book. So in a story called "Rachel's Revenge", I should be spending most of my time with Rachel. In this novel, there were 5 POV characters. The title character didn't come on stage until the fourth chapter, and is the character that for most of the story things happened to. She was the most interesting character, but she was almost never the POV even for scenes she was in.

2. The two characters with character development arcs were the least explored.

The title character and the only other female POV were the two least used POVs. However, they are the characters that changed the most. The women were foils for each other and each wrestled with the question of "who am I" and "who am a loyal to." While we got to see the resolution of these conflicts very little time was spend allowing us to feel the internal fight. The lack of POV penetration hindered my ability to care about the characters or the resolution of their issues.

3. Too little back story.

The issue of how much back story to put in is always a tricky question. I'm going to suggest that in any of the genres where the world the characters live in is not our own, you need to infuse those early chapters with back story. You still need a light tough so the history doesn't come out as an info dump, but if your characters are referring to the "Event", than the reader needs to know what happened to make the incident deserve a capital "E" almost as soon as it's referenced.

In this story, I spent too much time wondering about the post-apocalyptic world the characters were in while trying to intuit the cultural mores of a future Thailand. Mott of the POV characters came from different cultures so I had to navigate not only Thai culture, but Japanese, Chinese, American and "clone" cultural nuances.

I was more than halfway into the book before I started to understand the important differences between these cultures and how their histories affected the POV accounts.

4.  There as no clear protagonist.

I should be able to identify who the main character is in any story. But I struggled here. And the most likely choices lead to greater unhappiness with the ending.

I assumed that the title character would be the main protagonist, but she doesn't fit in that role. She's far too passive until far too late in the story. She has no try/fail cycles.

The most likely main character is the American. He's the one mentioned in the book blurb before the title character. He does have try/fail cycles, and he's one of the primary actors in the story. But there's no character growth. He's not changed by his journey. If he's my protagonist, the ending is even more disappointing.

Then there's a character I tend to think of as an antagonist, the Chinese. While helping the American, the Chinese is also working at crossed-purposes. He has a try fail cycle, and he has a character journey. But if he's the protagonist, the ending is a huge failure.

Okay, those first four problems all technique issues. And even then, I may have gotten over the complaints if the ending had worked for me. So, what happened in Act III that made feel like I'd wasted my time with this story? Read on.  . . .

4.    POV arcs were left open.

While a writer may not tie up all lose ends to preserve the ability to have a sequel, there still needs to be a conclusion that is appropriate for the story for each arc. Two of the POV characters made life-altering decisions and I was denied the ability to see how those choices played out.

The Chinese character I mentioned above finally decides to rush back into the doomed city to save another character. He does this knowing that the choice might mean that he perishes. The last "chapter" of the book ends with his decision to go back, but there's no resolution. The reader never knows if he succeeds and saves himself and the girl, or fails.

One of the Thai characters also makes a life-threatening choice, and while we are told about the explosions she orders and sets, we don't know if she survives the act of domestic terrorism,

5. The final chapter is called an "epilogue" even though there had been no clear climax.

I'm not sure why the writer made the choice to title his final chapter as an "epilogue" but it made for an abrupt ending. As I said above, the previous two chapter ended with two POV characters making decisions that would put them in peril. So, hearing "epilogue" after the Chinese man ran off to save the girl had me cursing a blue streak. If  I'd had a paper copy of the book, it would have sailed across the room.

I hadn't experienced a story climax yet so to be thrust into the wrap up felt like a violation of trust. There had been lots of small climaxes and resolutions, but rather than wrap up, the writer pushed into another conflict and then cheated to resolve the conflict in the space he had left.

6.  The American's death was off stage and pointless.

Remember how I said the American was the most likely protagonist? Well, I thought that he was until the epilogue. Then I'm told that he died between chapters. ACK! I had the same feeling about this as I did when JK Rawlings killed two characters off stage during the final battle. It was a cheat. The characters didn't have to die to make the story work, and by having their deaths off stage, the writer trivialized those characters' parts in the stories.

Now, there's an argument here that the American had to die for the title character to reach her potential. The American filled a mentor/protector role. But mentors tend to die in stories near the beginning of the journey, and not in a foot note at the end. Just like in Harry Potter, the title character had changed before the death. It struck me, both times, as author intrusion rather than a story imperative.

7.  The title character abandons the motivation that had caused her to act for no apparent reason.

During the story, the title character decided that she needed to seek out her people, who were rumored to live free somewhere in the north. She kills when she believes she cannot achieve this goal. Then, finally, when no one can prevent her from achieving this goal -- she gives it up. Instead, she stays in the now abandoned city. This was a huge let down. I wanted to see at least one POV character achieve her goal.

8.  A minor character comes to the forefront in the epilogue resulting in a new story and not an ending.

So, in the epilogue, the title character is living alone in a drowned city. She happens to bump into a minor character from much earlier in the story. He offers her a new dream. She gives up her hard-won independence to this stranger and his implausible promises.

Again, the ending felt like a trick. If this was the point the writer had been building toward, the moment should have been foreshadowed. Instead, of coming to a satisfying conclusion, this section felt tacked on to set up a sequel.

What I want when I finish a story is closure. I don't always need "happily ever after" but I do want to feel like my time was well spent and that the characters got what they deserved.

How does dissecting this book help me write a better ending?

It's always easier to see flaws in a story structure when the story's not ours. What dissecting this story taught me is that if I want a happy reader, I need to:

1. Make sure she can tell who my protagonist is. If I have a title character, she needs to be a prominent POV,
2. Have the right amount of back story at the right time;
3. Develop character arcs and sink into POV to give the reader a reason to care what happens next;
4. Bring each character arc to some resolution so the reader feels like that character has completed his journey for now.
5. Have the character deaths make sense and have the necessary prominence. A minor character can die off stage. A main character should almost never die in a footnote.
6. Have a story twist or ending needs to be well foreshadowed.

These threads run all the way through the story. So, while the list won't save me from picking up another disappointing book, it will help me keep my stories from disappointing readers. I hope it helps you too.


Rich Miller said...

I have a funny feeling I know what story this is. Won a pretty significant award a year or so back, right?

Totally agreed with your analysis. I too found it a very unsatisfying book, if I've read correctly between the lines.


Nancy DiMauro said...

It did, and the writer has a number of other award winning books. Goes to show you how subjective reading is.

There were a lot of brillant things about the story, including the cultural interplay, but the ending really wrecked it for me. It happens sometimes.

We just had a story over at Flash Fiction that was amazing, until the ending. Changed the story from a "we must publish" to a "no thanks." It's amazingly easy to hit a sour note.

Eleni Konstantine said...

Thanks, Nancy. It's always interesting to see the breakdown of why something didn't work for a person.

Don Hodge said...

Thanks for the analysis. Good summary of DOs. Very helpful.

Comments answered my nagging question as to how succh a story could be published. Too bad such poor quality was put out. Perhaps a deadline. If it continues, Bad Things for the long-term career.

Vonnie said...

Yes Don. I was thinking the same thing.

Nancy DiMauro said...

I think the reason it was published and did well enough to win an award is that the cultural interplay was fantastic. The imagery was also lovely. I might call the book a literary or message offering rather than the post-apoc. fantasy story it is. The problem for me was that too much of what I consider good story telling was lost to the message.
Obviously some people liked it though.