They think it’s all over …

Zoë Sharp

When I first started to write, I always knew the end before the beginning. Each book was a journey towards a clear destination. It was the route there that was the challenge – one that usually took some unexpected turns along the way.

But more recently I’ve realised that I’m setting out with less of a definite destination in mind. In fact, even when I was quite close to the end of the current Charlie Fox novel, I didn’t really know exactly how it was going to end. And when I say ‘quite close’ I actually mean as I was entering the final few chapters.

Of course, while this might horrify the plotter and planner authors (of which I’ve always been one), those who write by the seat of their pants will consider this a normal state of affairs.

I’m not sure I do.

Far too often when I’m reading, the ending to a book is the most disappointing part. The story has gripped and engaged me right up to the point where it became clear that the author hadn’t really thought about how to finish things off. Then the ending becomes too pat, too hurried, too … unsatisfying, somehow, for the effort and commitment I’ve put into it as a reader.

But finding the right ending is hard.

When I wrote THIRD STRIKE I was faced with a choice of endings. Not for the main story itself – I had a good idea about that, but for Charlie’s personal journey. And it’s interesting to note here that the main story involved one of the major characters discovering, under extreme pressure, the very worst about themselves. It’s about people moving into the light while others move into the dark.

But Charlie’s own story could have had three possible outcomes – if you include the ‘don’t know’ option. My original intention was to write all three as separate epilogues and throw it open to my agent and editor to decide on the outcome they thought worked best.

The closer I got to the end, however, the less this idea appealed to me. By the time I was actually writing the epilogue, I knew there was only one way it was going to go.

As the author, I don’t regret the decision I made. I think it was right for the character at that point in her life. And – so far, touch wood – I haven’t had objections from readers to tell me different. I know I have had emails from readers who have become so wrapped up in Charlie’s character and her ongoing story that they occasionally berate me for choices she’s made. I think it’s a huge compliment that they see her as a real person in this way.

But I’m left wondering how much control readers actually want over their favourite characters. In some ways it’s a little like the difference between watching a movie and taking part in a video game, but in other ways I can appreciate it’s not the same at all. After all, in a movie the camera is usually an observer, an omnipotent narrator. In a video game, you are one of the participants. (And I freely admit I’m guessing here, because I don’t play them!)

So, do you want to watch a movie where you can alter the outcome at the press of a few buttons, or do you want to let the action unfold as the screenwriters and the director intended – to surprise you and carry you along to their choice of ending?

Equally, the multiple-choice books I remember from years ago all relied on YOU being the main character, either in order to find the warlock’s treasure or solve the crime. I don’t recall any of them where you were given the option to step in and alter the other characters’ lives without playing some active part in the story yourself.

Would you want that or would it completely spoil or alter the experience for you?

I only read a few of those multiple-choice books and my impression has been that they were an experiment that didn’t last long. (Another admission – I could easily be WAY wrong about that.) Besides anything else, they always seemed very clunky getting from one section to the next. Part of the joy of reading, for me, is to immerse myself in another world where the only thing that matters is turning the page. I want to be transported there wholeheartedly, not necessarily take part and help move the scenery. If I go to watch a stage show, I don’t want to be yanked out of the audience to participate – I want to sit back and be entertained.

With the advent of e-books, however, the ability to jump from one storyline to another has become a much smoother process. You no longer have to leaf through from one section to the next, but simply click on a link and you’re there. The possibilities are endless, not just for allowing the reader to control the story, but to include alternative endings.

But is this providing the reader with more choice, or taking it away from the author?

This week’s Word of the Week is krewe, which is any of several groups whose members are involved in the annual Mardi Gras carnival in New Orleans and take part in events leading up to the event itself, such as electing Rex, the king of the carnival. Many NOLA families have belonged to krewes for generations, and although the word is just a different slant on crew it now has particular significance in relation to Mardi Gras.

As an aside, can I mention a couple of upcoming events? I will be appearing with the Brewhouse Writers in Kendal on Wednesday, February 29th, for an evening of readings at Burgundy’s Wine Bar on Lowther Street, starting at 7pm.

I’m also appearing at East Boldon Library on Boker Lane in East Boldon, Tyne & Wear, as part of World Book Day, March 1st at 7:30pm. Would love to see you at either if you can make it.

32 thoughts on “They think it’s all over …

  1. Sarah W

    There's a new interactive eBook experiment going on right now, through Coliloquy.

    Looks like it's romance, erotica, and YA right now. Apparently, you plug in your preferences, from the level of spice you want to the physical attributes of the characters and some of their choices. So every book is 'personalized'—I think once you make a choice, the book locks it in so you can't go back until you've read the whole thing.

    There's an article about it here:

    Tawna Fenske is one of the authors in this debut line. I love her stuff, but I'm not sure I'm going to try this anytime soon.

  2. Richard Maguire

    "Far too often when I'm reading, the ending to a book is the most disappointing part."

    Zoe, strange that you're posting this today, because last night I finished reading a British crime novel which I'd been really enjoying. It lived up to the great blurbs and wonderful reviews. Then I reached the penultimate chapter and got a weird feeling. "Hold on now. Just how is this story going to end?" And I read on to the last sentence…and was so disappointed.

    Then I thought: "No, this has to be my problem. This is a wonderful writer."

    So why did I feel let down? Why do endings often disappoint me? Is it because of choices earlier in the story the writer has made? And in telling the story this way no other ending is possible? I don't know. But I hate the idea of alternative enings. IMHO the writer should always be in control of the story he/she has chosen to tell.

    BTW one reason I love the Charlie books is because the endings are satisfying, and we know that all she's gone through in this adventure, and how it's changed her psychologically, will be relevant the next time we meet her.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Thanks for the link, although the vid clip didn’t play – maybe it’s a country thing?

    It sounds like an intriguing idea. Kinda makes me think … if I wanted that level of control over the characters and the story, I’d just write my own. In fact, it’s probably why I *did* write my own 🙂

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Richard
    I have to confess my heart was sinking because I thought you were finding a very polite way of telling my my endings sucked! Thank you for the BTW at the end.

    People rave about classics like 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD, but although I remember reading and enjoying the books when I first encountered them, when I go back to them now I actually find the endings disappointing. They were both filled with brilliant original ideas that somehow … petered out at the end.

  5. Gar Haywood

    Great topic, Zoe.

    I can only echo what Richard said, word for word: "IMHO the writer should always be in control of the story he/she has chosen to tell." Exactly. Your ending won't always be the one readers wanted, but it will always be YOURS.

    I don't mind a story ending in a way I'd hoped it wouldn't. The endings that make me crazy are the ones that just peter out, making it crystal clear the author had no idea how to end his story and just flat out gave up trying. A perfect example of this was John Burdett's BANGKOK 8. (I can name names in this case because Burdett's fame is firmly established and there is absolutely nothing I can say or do to put a dent in his career.) I LOVED that book right up until it's last 20 or so pages, when it became painfully obvious that Burdett, writing in circles, didn't know how to put an end to his terrific story that was worthy of all that had come before. Sad.

  6. Bobby Mangahas

    I think it's up to the writer. Unless of course it's one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books.

    As a reader, if I don't like what a character does or how a story ends, so be it. I'm not the one who created the world.

    One of my pet peeves (okay, maybe it's because I'm a writer), is when people say "That character would NEVER do that." Really? They're not the one who made the characters. Even worse are those rabid fans who think that they know the character better than the author does. Okay, rant over.

  7. Sheri

    I too have been reading about Tawna Fenske's "choose your own adventure" novel with Colliloquy. I really enjoyed her debut novel (and LOVE her hilarious blog), but I have no interest in this one.

    Like Zoe, I don't really want to be asked to participate in creating the story. I read to experience another author's view of the world and learn about the characters she created.

    To me, it somehow weakens the story to think there could be alternate endings, or different paths for the character to take. I want to experience a fully-realized world.

    These choose your own adventure novels are like the grossest author intrusion to me, reminding me over and over this is just a story.

    But I never liked watching deleted scenes or alternate endings on DVDs either, for the same reasons.

    As a reader/viewer – I want to go into the creator's world. Not have to help build it myself.

    Sure, you get the dud endings in a book sometimes — too rushed, too contrived or whatever. But that's a risk I'm willing to take.


  8. JJ

    I see 'Choose Your Own Adventure' or "choose the ending' stories as the ultimate writing prompt. And if you don't need a writing prompt, why bother? Part of the joy of reading a good story is seeing how the writer carries it out… to the end.

    Good writing and a well-told story begs the reader to finish the book, sit back and enjoy envisioning the characters as they move forward. What choices will they make? Where will they go? What's next in their lives? But that's *after* a satisfying conclusion.

    If I have to write the ending for the writer–or choose my own–I might as well write the darn thing myself.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I most definitely do not want to choose my own ending in books. Too much work! I want to be carried along on the author's vision. I AM writing a trilogy that does different endings for each book, but it's very much because of the subject matter and theme, it's a unique situation.

    However…. I am totally into the idea of choosing your level of eroticism in an erotic story. I always have to cut down my sex scenes for the paranormals I'm writing, and I'd be really happy if they were released in different versions with different levels of heat. That makes absolute sense to me.

  10. Allison Davis

    Blade Runner. One of my favorite movies. I own all of the endings. Each one has its merits and disappointments. But it was Ridley's decision so that's fine. If I wanted to "personalize" the book, I'd write it myself. Tell the story to me. I'd prefer that you not kill off my favorite protagonist but when it's your time…

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gar
    It’s always made me wary of books with an amazingly high-concept opener, because there is almost no way they can ever live up to the premise. Tough this writing lark, isn’t it?

  12. Lisa Alber

    No way, no how do I want to choose my endings either. Can you imagine traveling down the arduous yellow brick road with Dorothy, arriving at the end of her (our) journey, only to be faced with a choice? Dear reader, Dorothy can now go home OR become Glenda the Good Witch's apprentice OR marry the wizard's hot son. Blech.

    I believe that each story has its true and right ending. I also believe that due to publication deadlines and other factors authors may not always have time to let the true and right endings emerge.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Bobby
    There have been a lot of times in books when I’ve wanted to shake or slap the main character, but maybe that’s just me. Even if it was a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, I doubt cuffing the main protagonist repeatedly round the back of the head would be among the options.

    Sometimes you can see where the writer forced a character into a plot-device position, regardless of everything that came before. Sad, but it happens.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sheri
    “These choose your own adventure novels are like the grossest author intrusion to me, reminding me over and over this is just a story.”

    Very well put!

    Funnily enough, though, I *do* rather like watching the deleted scenes on movie DVDs, because often they were cut for reasons of time contraint rather than for story purposes. It’s far more often the case with a novel that the work as a whole would have benefited from having some scenes left on the cutting room floor …

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JJ
    I agree. For me, part of the joy of reading a well-crafted novel is to see the way the writer handles the story, not how many rabbits they can pull out of a hat, but it’s very interesting to see the reaction to this.

    And yes, unsatisfactory conclusions definitely inspired my own writing career 🙂

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    This trilogy sounds intriguing. Can’t wait until you’re ready to tell us more!

    I hadn’t thought about having different ratings – from PG to R, both for sex and violence – for a novel, but I can see where that would make sense.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison
    Interesting how many times the director is forced to modify the movie by the studio. I wonder if authors are asked to modify their books as often by their publishers…?

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa
    Hmm, can I pass on the Wizard of Oz multiple-choice? Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea 🙂

    Yes, deadlines and contracts bring their own pressures, but maybe part of the problem is that by the time you’ve finished writing a book, most authors have absolutely no level of judgement about their own work.

  19. David Corbett

    I think we're going to see more, not less, of reader as participant. Role playing games will become more sophisticated and more engaging, though I think we're a long way off from that.

    That doesn't mean I think it's a good thing. Certainly not as interactive narrative stands right now. But if things improve to where the software can provide, despite my interaction, an experience I find both intriguing and surprising, all bets are off.

    We've all become accustomed to the storyteller's tale, and it's an enjoyable experience, that surrender — until the storyteller makes an odd move, or can't wrap up his many threads as expertly as he's let them unfurl. Film producers always want to know the ending — for good reason. If it doesn't satisfy, the movie will die.

    And Robert McKee emphasizes that you can't truly build the proper dramatic effect if you're unclear on where you're going. There's a lot of room for debate on that, I believe, but what he's saying is that you have to work through your drafts until you get the one ending that's both inevitable and surprising, and once you have that, you know what to go back and cut, re-shape, etc.

    I must admit that multiple endings always remind me of the artificiality of the story, and again diminish the overall impact. I know, how unpostmodern of me.

    And yet if I'm at least partially in control of the story, what kind of surprise can I expect? The trick is always to give the reader what she wants in a way she doesn't expect. But if she's got at least one hand on the controls, how can that happen satisfactorily? Unless she's building it the way a writer does, over time with considerable effort, scenes selected then revised, re-conceived, discarded, etc., revised, how can the ending feel like anything except a preprogrammed conclusion? A way to stop, not end.

    Sorry to provide more questions than answers, but I think that's the nature of the beast right now. This is all in a transitional stage.

    And it speaks highly of your understanding of your story that, come the conclusion of your tale, you felt only one ending would do. I'd call that a good thing.

    Great post, Ms. Sharp. Fascinating topic.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    "Interesting how many times the director is forced to modify the movie by the studio. I wonder if authors are asked to modify their books as often by their publishers…?"

    I can answer that. Absolutely not. Not even in the same ballpark.

  21. PD Martin

    Like most of today's comments, I prefer the author/storyteller to provide a finished product rather than having multiple endings. However, I think Alex's point about choosing a level of eroticism is a great idea. And as Zoe said, then they could be rated, just like movies (PG, M, R). Certainly that would be easier to achieve with ebooks, because they're so cheap to produce. Maybe talk to your publishers about that one, Alex!

    In terms of the process, I often don't know how a novel will end until I start writing it or even get to the final chapters (like you did with this latest Charlie one).


  22. Bobby Mangahas

    Zoe, that's an interesting thought.
    "To slap the main character upside the head, turn to page 23." xD

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, David
    I think you’re right – we’ll see more of reader as participant and I’m not necessarily in favour. And when you say we enjoy the experience “until the storyteller makes an odd move, or can’t wrap up his many threads as expertly as he’s let them unfurl” who’s to say that someone who struggles to produce a relatively linear narrative will fare any better when asked to construct something with a multitude of different possible narrative threads and endings?

    I think if you are handed even partial control of someone else’s story, the temptation to take out-of-character twists, just to maintain any element of surprise, will not serve the story well.

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison
    I think children’s books are a-whole-nother ball game. Perhaps offering fledgling readers the opportunity to make decisions within the story might encourage their own storytelling instincts to take flight?

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    I can imagine so. Most I’ve been asked to do (so far!) was tone down a torture scene in one book. And I thought it was very lightly sketched to start with. In the end, I took out one small para and left the rest untouched. Like the shower scene in Psycho, you read more between the lines than was actually described on the page.

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Phillipa
    Good idea. Let us know how that turns out, Alex!

    The start of the latest book was easier than the end, but the new project is proving a devil to get into, although I have the ending very clear in my head. Ho hum.

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Bobby
    R version: “To repeatedly stamp on the villain’s fingers, turn to page 40”
    PG version: “To give the villain really quite a stern talking to, turn to page 62”

  28. Reine

    Hi Zoë, I taught two of our children how to read with interactive fiction on our first Mac. It was a fun game for all of us, but it never had the satisfaction of reading a traditional book. Neither went back to interactive fiction once they realized the mysteries of the old fashioned story.

    Love what you said about endings! Indeed!


  29. Zoë Sharp

    Thank, Reine
    That was my feeling about it – that it might turn kids onto reading in general, or spark their own creativity. Glad it had that effect on your two.

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