Friday, August 22, 2008

Blowing it up; How Not to End Your Story

By Josi S. Kilpack

Over the years I've done several elementary school visits where I talk to the kids about writing. During these visits I have the class help me write a story. I start with characters, since no matter the plot, every story is about somebody who grows through the course of the story. We then move onto plot, since every story is about something that happens to that somebody, then causing the growth that is so essential. Once we have those two main points in place, we add the antagonist, the person that makes things hard for our main character, which leads to conflicts; ways in which the antagonist gets in the way of our main character getting what they want. Seeing as how I'm doing this with eight year olds, our stories usually go like this:

Kyra enters a jump rope competition that she wins every year. The new girl in school, Sasha, won the competition in her old school every year. Sasha cuts Kyra's jump rope, Sasha is better than Kyra, Sasha spreads mean rumors about Kyra to the school hoping Kyra will skip the competition. Kyra, however has grown through these challenges and she shows up to the competition despite everything Sasha has done to thwart her.

At this point we face the climax--critical mass for the story. What happens next? The climax needs to be intense and important and a worthy challenge for Kyra to overcome.

This is where the bombs come in.

Why bombs? Because the fact is that any story can end with an explosion that simply makes everything disappear--albeit dramatically. Take Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth doesn't need to admit she's in love with Mr. Darcy and has let her pride blind her for all this time. She doesn't need to suffer the embarrassment of her sister's marriage--everyone in the book can just blow up due to some cosmic thing that won't be figured out for another hundred years. Harry Potter--same thing. He doesn't have to fight Voldemort, he doesn't have to save the world from evil, they can all just explode via a spell gone horribly wrong. And Kyra doesn't have to face her nemesis at the jump rope competition, the boiler room can simply explode beneath the gym floor, obliterating all sign of character, plot, and conflict. Over. Done. The End.

Of course, none of us would read books if they all ended this way, but the point is they CAN end this way. It provides climax and conclusion in one felled swoop. However, it's rarely the right way to do it. The reason I use this example at my school visit is first, because all the boys that stopped paying attention when we mentioned jump rope, are now paying attention again, and second, because all writer's need the challenge to come up with something better--something satisfying, something fair, something more creative than explosives that fits their story, shows the character growth and allows the reader to put down the book without screaming obscenities at it.

While climax-conclusion is a very basic lesson in writing, as writers we too face dark days of our own that have nothing to do with elements of fiction. We are the main character in our story, the plot is laid out behind us more often than before us and we look back and marvel at how long it's taken to get here and the conflicts we've overcome.

And then we face a dark day. A day we thought was behind us, a day we didn't expect.

Your dark day might be a rejection, it might be a family member's snide remark about us choosing our writing over our children, it might be a negative review, a royalty check we expected to receive but didn't get because we had too many returns, it might be the story we just can't figure out an ending too. Wherever we are in our writing, there are dark days ahead and it's these days when we start thinking of the ultimate climactic conclusion to our writing days--a figurative explosion which is actually the opposite, an implosion of all we've worked for; where we throw our hands in the air and give up. This is especially tempting when the dark days have compiled. It's not just a rejection, it's the FIFTEENTH rejection. It's not just a snide comment, it's the NEXT snide comment after years of them. It's the SECOND bad review this week, and it was a royalty check we really needed because our book expense account is in the red.

It's hard to see the silver lining when the clouds get this thick and we find ourselves wondering what else we could do with our time, our talents, our passions; certainly we could redirect them to something else--something that would surely be more enjoyable than this.

This is the point that 80% of would-be-published-authors implode. They've had too many dark days and they can't see their way through anymore. They don't WANT this in their life anymore. And this isn't necessarily the wrong choice--for them. The question you have to ask yourself when you're the one facing the darkness, is it the right choice for you?

I will submit that there is not a single writer anywhere that does not consider the implosion on numerous occasions. I would submit that most published authors have faced weeks worth of bad weather, hoping and praying for sunshine without knowing if they'll see it again. I would submit that the fact you are facing dark days is similar to the conflicts you give to your characters. Will you press forward and be stronger for it in the end? Will you learn something here that will make the future easier to handle? Will you look for the joy of your writing even if it means digging in the dirt until your fingers bleed?

Each time I face a new dark day I have to go through this all over again--is it worth it? Do I want it? Can I keep going? So far, I can, but I know many people that are better writers than I am that finally determined they couldn't. I would like to offer an flashlight to anyone that feels suffocated by the darkness. If you've ever read by flashlight you know that it only illuminates a few words at a time, and you have to keep moving it as you go. If it all feels too big, if you're overwhelmed, and undernourished and questioning your efforts, just look at a few words at a time, and keep moving. Better days are ahead, imploding is not the only solution, and if writing is truly a part of who you are you won't be whole without it.

No matter the story, it's about somebody who grows through the course of the story. Be the hero in your own book and conquer.


Elaina said...

Thank you! Writing is a solitary occupation, but knowing we are not alone certainly helps. I am not the only one going through dark days, and thus we soldier on. And it is so true- without writing, I am not complete. I have no intention of imploding!!!

Kimberly said...

Oh Josi, you don't know how much I needed to read this today.

I nearly blew myself up last week, and while I stopped myself prior to that climax, I still feel like I'm putting the pieces back together.

Thanks so much for helping.

Sue said...

This is just wonderful, thanks for writing it.

Melanie J said...

It's not just eight year olds that do that. Five years of teaching creative writing yielded dozens of stories where eighth graders do it, too. Only they usually like to blow up famous people in the mix, for some reason. Sigh.

More seriously, thanks for the words of wisdom. I'm at a point where my first manuscript is shiny and nearly polished and ready to go out into the world, but when things don't go my way immediately, I'll be sure to return to this post as a reminder that I need to give things time before I assume they've blown up.

Heather B. Moore said...

I love the analogy of looking ahead just a few words at a time. Just what I needed to hear!

Celise said...

Great post. And I loved when you talked about the interactive school visit. I have yet to do a school visit and I've always wondered what to do if I'm offered the opportunity to visit with an age group that I don't write for (I write YA fiction). How would I keep their attention? How can I get them involved? Well,duh! Although this might work for the younger crowd, this probably wouldn't go over well with teens.

Josi said...

Celise--I write adult, so it's certainly not my age group to talk to kids, but I still get asked from time to time. You're right though, teens would roll their eyes. Next week I'll post about some things I do for different groups--thanks for the idea on a topic, I can always use the help :-)

RobisonWells said...

That version of Pride and Prejudice sounds like a vast improvement. :)

Josi said...

If I'd known Rob was going to read this I'd have used a different example, like Spiderman or something classic like that. I hate to make his day with such visuals as atomic estates. My bad.


Jennifer said...

I never realized I could just blow everyone up at the end instead of resolving everything and having my character grow and stuff. Thanks for the idea!!!

Oh, wait. You said /not/ to do that. Dang.

Stephen said...

"and allows the reader to put down the book without screaming obscenities at it"

I wish more writers had read that line.

Too bad the wrong people blow themselves up.

The Golfing Librarian said...

THIS is why I read your blog! I always seem to get encouragement with a dose of reality. Great post!

Jennifer said...

I just finished a book that had kind of the effect of "blowing it up" at the end and I thought of your post.

The main characters were up in the tree, it was on fire, cannons were being shot at them, and they were doing heroic things to get out of it alive, and then when all hope was lost, someone came and put out the fire for them.

It was a little anticlimactic, even though I knew it was the heroine's heroic efforts that made the end happen in a roundabout way.

I'll try to remember your advice, and this example I just read of how /not/ to do it, when I finish my book.