The writer has to decide whether the ending of a story will be happy, sad, or neither. Sad endings are the stuff of tragedy; everyone dies. Happy endings are for comedies; everyone gets married. Sex and death–that’s all that’s important, really. We have permutations of the happy/sad outcomes; in modern work, maybe only one person dies, or maybe the hero doesn’t get married, but triumphs over evil. The mystery is story is like this. The detective/cop (forces of order) catch the murderer (force of disorder), and thereby mend the tear in the fabric of society that the murderer created. A happy ending, except that one or more people did end up dead.
In another category entirely is the unresolved, or “nowhere” ending, where most of what goes on in the narrative is left partially or completely unresolved.
Some people only want happy endings. Life is depressing enough without seeking more unhappiness in our reading and viewing. On the other hand, there is public appetite for the tear-jerker. The sad ending can bring catharsis, and a different sort of triumph–facing loss with dignity and courage. Many people dislike the nowhere ending, where people just go on much as they have, because there is little triumph or catharsis to be found there. I have a particular affection for the nowhere ending, though, because it is the ending that stares me most squarely in the face.
Happy endings are ephemeral. The wedding is over, and you have to get on with married life, which turns out to be one day after the other of plain old living, albeit punctuated with happy and sad events. The most happily-ever-afters end eventually with the death of one partner. And, whatever sad events happen to us, we end up going on as well, going on to more happy and sad events; that is, unless we kill ourselves. And when we die, we are either at the end of everything, or at the beginning of an afterlife. Either way, our own death mostly affects our friends and family. Our own end has very little to do with us, really. I love the nowhere ending, because it is the most true.
The most important decision regarding a proposed ending has less to do with what the writer likes, than whether or not it is appropriate. Put another way, what sort of ending has the story earned? Sometimes the writer needs to try out several. The io9 link below tells about that process, and gives us an example of that in Dr. Strangelove. The initial ending apparently called for a pie fight in the war room, rather than nuclear annihilation.
That would have been quite a different movie and not nearly as good.
I’ve gone on before about my shift in reading. At one time, I read close to a 50/50 mix between lit-fic and SF, with a bit of mystery and political intrigue thrown in. Oh, and a non-fiction or two. In recent years, I have given up so-called “realistic” fiction in favor of genre work, almost completely.
Today, though, I find myself in the middle of two books, neither of which are genre, and both of which are non-fiction. One is Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The other is the Bob Spitz biography of Julia Child, Dearie.
The Julia Child bio was given to me for Christmas, and it was a good pick, because I adore Julia Child. The second I downloaded after seeing the movie by the same name, because (and this will also be familiar to readers of previous posts) I wanted to see if the movie stuck to the facts as given in Northup’s work. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and so far, it does.)
These books are wildly different from one another in some respects. One is about a twentieth century woman who transformed our nation’s approach to home cooking. The other is about a nineteenth century man kidnapped from his life as a free man, and sold into slavery. They are also quite different in quality. The Northup memoir is elegant, full of nineteenth century wordiness and flourish, but clear and brilliant in his descriptions of people, places, and events. The Spitz effort is full of cliches and clumsy wordiness…a nervous, twitchy sort of style. I stumble over his sentences the way I would stumble through a cluttered room. He also seems to have San Diego and Los Angeles counties mixed up with each other. Palomar Observatory is not atop Mt. Wilson. I put up with the writer, because what he depicts is of interest to me.
And now, the great similarity. Both Twelve Years a Slave and Dearie work on me the same way genre fiction does. They are each set in a time different from my own, and in a place so different, it might as well be a different planet. Julia’s childhood of privilege in Pasadena, her career in the OSS, and her transformation into an expert on the art of French Cooking is a grand saga of exploration and reinvention. Solomon Northup’s ordeal is a kidnap and survival story of the first order.
There is a deeper genre connection as well. I love SF because it asks the big questions about who we are, what we could be, what we might become, and where we came from. Julia Child reinvented herself at different times in her life, and Solomon Northup had himself reinvented by others, against his will. Because Julia’s invention was a matter of her own choices, her triumphs were true and solid, and carried her through a long and healthy life. Solomon Northup didn’t fare nearly as well, apparently. He was rescued from slavery, and restored to his true life in 1853, but after a few years, apparently disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. They didn’t have the phrase, “post-traumatic stress” then, but I imagine this is what he experienced. Plucked from his life, given a new name and sub-human status, and then suddenly restored to become a spokesman for abolition…who he was in his own soul couldn’t keep up with external events.
These are two remarkable life stories, both of which get to the essence of who and what we are.
I finish another draft of my book. I sit down to read it through. I expect rough spots, and there’s a ton of setup information I need to drop in. I have character discontinuity; I need to match up some of the second tier cast from the beginning, with the end, and vice versa. There are motivations to clarify, logistics, technical stuff, and science, all needing to be figured out.
But here’s something I did not expect. Chapter three, which I had previously liked, which I thought performed a function in the story, appears to have absolutely no reason to exist. It is pretty horrible. It needs to be tossed. The only good news is that I know what needs to go in its place. But I have to start over, completely.
Chapters four and five are a kick in the gut. Here, characters basically walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other. Worse, it’s prissy, stilted nonsense. I thought I was setting a scene here, and setting actions in motion. I was doing no such thing. This is just awful, and I have to start over.
Chapter six is a relief. There is meaningful action, and there is relationship between the characters. Whew. But those awful patches make me very sad. I knew the draft was rough, but I thought I was in the ballpark. Turns out I was five miles down the freeway from the offramp leading to the parking lot of the ballpark.
I cannot stay in this disheartened state, so I have a talk with myself. When your characters walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other, it only means you don’t quite know yet what needs to go there. It is placeholder material. It doesn’t make sense yet, but it will. Those characters, in that setting, will matter. Look at it again in coming days, and you will know what goes there. Your characters will talk sense. They will become interesting. You will feel something. You will no longer feel like throwing the chapter on the floor for your cockatiels to chew and poop on.
In the meantime, focus on what’s good in the draft. Focus on how much you’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and how they all play together to make a story, or even a part of one.
I wish it weren’t so much work, and at the same time, I’m glad it is. Easy things are forgotten. Difficult things have sticking power.
I rarely go back to read my own published work, the short stories, the blog posts, anything. Sometimes, on the occasions I do, I cringe. But more often I am filled with a quiet satisfaction. Hey, I think, that’s not too bad. That doesn’t suck. I like that. And I’m glad I stuck it out.
Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.
Many, many years ago, a man in the office where I worked suddenly became concerned about my writing hobby. “You draw your characters from real life, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure. That’s the only place they could possibly come from.”
Now he was worried. “That means that any of us could end up in your story.”
“Yes, it does,” I said, “but whether you turn out to be a hero or a villain is entirely up to you.” I smiled sweetly.
He needn’t have been so concerned, because he was not much of a character. He was not, shall we say, the most interesting man in the world. In appearance, temperament, and personality, he was something of an Everyman.
But the Everyperson is in fact, a staple character, particularly as a protagonist. The Everyman or Everywoman can be a tough to crack. Building an Everyperson can feel like building a house out of oatmeal.
When plot comes into the creation, we encounter a chicken and egg question. Plot is a series of actions taken by characters. For my character to be plausible, her actions come out of character. To discover character requires observing action. Character and plot are inextricably intertwined. Or they ought to be. But which comes first?
We have to begin somewhere. We have to decide something about our character before she ever takes a step. We have to know something about what happens, and what’s being done, before we know who’s doing it. Ideally, we have an idea about both initially, enough to get ourselves going.
If we take our Everyman, and try to make him do a bunch of stuff before we know who he is, his actions will seem forced. We’ve all had this experience as readers or viewers: the sudden disheartening feeling that this fictional piece we were enjoying a few moments before has taken a Very Bad Turn. We become painfully aware the plot was made up by somebody. Somebody wanted the plot to go a certain way, and the characters are now speaking from a script.
The best characters appear realer than real. They appear inevitable.
We cannot force our Everyperson into action, but it is also difficult to draw a character before he or she has opened her mouth or taken a step. I always dislike those character templates where you go through and answer a bunch of questions, like, what is the character’s favorite color? What is he wearing? Or, heaven help us, what are her quirks? I don’t do well on those; I am too bored, and I don’t give interesting answers. I end up with no character.
In the end, I rely on inspiration. I suddenly realize my character looks like Andrew Jackson, or stands with feet precisely placed, like a professional dancer. At some point, I must have some idea what my character’s childhood was like, what pivotal events occurred, whether or not that information ever makes it into the story itself. Gradually, the character becomes more full-color, and more three-dimensional.
I can’t force it, but I keep asking who this person is. I wait for the turn of the head, the wince, or the laugh that seems to come from a wound. Eventually, character happens, but I am never quite sure how.
There are certain things I need to stay sane and healthy. These include:
- Proper sleep and diet
- Some minimal socializing
There are other things that are unnecessary for my health and sanity, although I do enjoy them, in small doses. Some of them are:
- Baking cookies
- Cooking Christmas dinner
- Holiday Decorating
- Gift Wrapping
- Parties and large social gatherings in general
- Sending Christmas cards
All of these holiday activities take time, and when time runs short, some activities are sacrificed–including items from the list of things I need to stay sane and healthy. Exercise suffers. I eat too many high-fat carbs. I don’t have enough alone time. Maybe I let the holidays mess with my writing schedule, or I read less. Let’s face it…I do all of the above in order to create the Christmas I want.
The first things to go from my sane ‘n’ healthy list are exercise and writing. Exercise…because it takes time, and I am lazy. Writing, because it takes time, and effort, and I’m lazy. Sleep, on the other hand, only requires lying down. Reading and listening to music are passive enjoyments.
Writing and exercise are the first to go, and I suffer from their lack.
I haven’t had much luck with the exercise, but I am determined to make a stand on the writing. It seems to me that there are certain things I can do. And here, I don’t need a bunch of numbers. I need only one rule: that my scheduled daily writing time be honored. This is it, and that is all there is to my Holiday Guide for Writers.
Taking the distractions of the season in reverse order: I am not sure I’ll get cards out this year. Fewer and fewer people send them. If I do send them, they may go out late. This is okay. This is a decision. As for parties, I keep them few and with people I want to spend precious time with. I am done with obligations, mostly. I will go with store gift wrap and bags with tissue paper whenever possible. Decorating? Yeah, that’s my favorite. I’ll spend a little extra time on that. For the rest of it, Christmas dinner will get served, my loved ones will have presents to open, and yes, the cookies will be baked. It will be fine, it will be enough. I will let the rest of the season take care of itself.
Writers: Do what you need to to stick to your writing schedule during this festive season, and stay sane and healthy.
The question mark is my favorite punctuation mark.
Days before my seventh birthday, I went to Santa Monica Hospital to have my tonsils out. Parts of the experience stand out clearly in memory. For instance, I remember being carried into the operating room by the doctor. I remember a mask being placed over my face. I remember being told to count backwards. And I remember a dream.
I’ve had general anesthetic a few times since, but don’t ever remember any dreams. This one time, though, I did.
I dreamed of question marks, dancing around me, and I dreamed of them jumping off a cliff. It wasn’t a nightmare exactly, but I found it disturbing. I have continued to find question marks menacing, somehow. What is it they want from me, exactly, and do they expect me to have answers?
Of course, I’m joking, a little bit. I experience no uneasiness at all at a question mark at the end of a sentence. Do you know where I left my keys? is not disturbing. Even Is there any meaning to life? ignites no particular emotion. It’s when the question mark stands out there all on its own that I get a bit twitchy.
There’s something about the wiggly insistence of the mark itself. It conjures uncertainty and instability. It suggests that there’s no end to possible questions, that no answer will ever be enough.
The recent flurry of Dr. Who programming reminded me of my uneasy relationship with question marks, where they appear on vests and shirt collars in the various incarnations of the Doctor. I also recall the music group from the sixties, ? and the Mysterians, how I never liked that name. I do not even like the way it alphabetizes in my iTunes library.
My research into the origins of the question mark was disappointing. I expected (hoped) I might find it had some occult origin, but in fact, its beginnings–while subject to debate–are mundane and practical. I was astonished to learn that, while used around the world in non-western languages such as Japanese and Chinese, some languages use other symbols to indicate an interrogative. Armenian uses something that looks like a backwards, flattened, cursive “a.” Arabic uses a question mark, but it’s turned around to accommodate right-to-left text. Three vertical dots indicate the interrogative in Ethiopic. Coptic uses a small square. None of these do it for me; they are thoroughly unsatisfying interrogatives.
This “backwards” version of the question mark has another use I was previously unaware of, that of a percontation mark, for a rhetorical question, or to denote irony or sarcasm. I would have thought the sarcasm and irony uses would be recent innovations, but no, they date from the 19th century, according to my online research.
I suppose there are other symbols that spur feelings, for instance, $, or perhaps @, if you’re into Twitter or email addresses. For me, it’s the question mark, all the way. Periods put me to sleep. Semicolons make me feel smug. Exclamation marks annoy. Only question marks make me want to know what’s up.
IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, PLAN TO SEE IT, AND DON’T WANT TO HAVE PLOT POINTS REVEALED TO YOU, STOP READING!
Based on a true story.
This is the most deadly phrase I can read or hear in a movie ad.
In fairness, Dallas Buyers’ Club, which I saw with my daughter, uses the words inspired by a true story in its ads and trailers. Inspired makes it sound a bit more as if it’s intended as fiction, although I suspect that distinction is lost on most moviegoers. Anyhow, this movie version of Ron Woodroof, the AIDS activist who founded the Dallas Buyers’ Club, follows him from his diagnosis, all the way to a court case against the FDA. Along the way, he battles doctors, customs agents, the FDA, and his own worsening state of health. It’s a moving story, and for someone my age, it effectively brought back memories of that time–the cluelessness of the experts, the rampant homophobia, and the ignorant, often hysterical, fear regarding the possibility of being infected. These larger points I recognized as truly depicted within the film, based on my memory of the history.
On the short drive home, my daughter and I discussed the film, and began speculating about its basis in truth. We both doubted that Dr. Eve Saks was a real person. My daughter was not a fan of the pseudo-romantic relationship between Ron and Eve, the going out to dinner and so forth. I wasn’t either. More importantly, we wondered whether or not the character of Rayon was a real person. We hoped so, but we had our doubts.
Rayon, depicted as Woodroof’s business partner, is portrayed by Jared Leto in a gut-wrenching performance that ought to win him many awards. This is one hell of a performance, and one hell of a character.
I looked it up as soon as I got home, and found these:
Alas, Rayon is not real. The Slate article states, “The real Woodroof didn’t have any particular Rayon in his life…”, and was created (quoting screenwriter Craig Borten), “…as a character to give Ron a dramatic challenge to his prejudices while facing his disease.”
In other words, she’s a standard-issue screen-written sidekick. Sorry. But I was not surprised.
Let me see if I can articulate why I am annoyed.
I remember the eighties and the onset of the AIDS epidemic, from the first news reports of an odd new cancer that seemed to strike mainly gay men. I recall an early report stating the mortality rate appeared to be about 33%. Soon, the true mortality rate emerged. No one, at first, knew what caused it, except that it was sexually transmitted. Then, the virus was found, but there was no cure.
I remember the homophobia, and the pronouncements from certain religious quarters that AIDS was a judgment from God against gays (while leaving lesbians, inexplicably, especially favored by heaven) and drug addicts. Then we were horrified to realize that blood transfusions were a common vector. This situation lasted throughout the eighties, until effective drug cocktails were developed, approved, and prescribed. But between the original diagnoses and the onset of effective treatments, was a decade of denial, bigotry, and fear. And yes, governmental and drug company intransigence both exacerbated that denial, bigotry, and fear, and was exacerbated by those attitudes.
Many people suffered and died, and many, like Ron Woodroof, did what they could outside the establishment–sometimes, outside the law–to buy themselves and their co-sufferers a bit more time, a bit more wellness. I’ve no objection to someone writing about a straight white guy caught up in the epidemic; his story is as valid and moving as anyone’s. But is an invented transexual addict with a heart of gold necessary here? Rayon is portrayed as pivotal, Ron’s supposed business partner. And she’s not real. She is, in the end, a redshirt, a casualty deemed necessary to the script. She is an invention used to show fictional evolution in Ron Woodroof’s purported character issues. What so-called truth am I supposed to glean from this?
Jared Leto’s performance makes all this even more of a problem for me, simply because he is so astonishing as Rayon. A beautiful performance that comes close to stealing the movie. And it is a beautifully acted, well-written movie. The problem for me is that those very screenwriting skills are what muddle the truth. In a today.com article, the movie is referred to as “…the real life story of…”, “…a true story, a triumph…”, when in fact, key points are completely made up. In addition, the characters of Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks are treated, in the article, as absolutely real. Check it out:
And this is why I have become a biopic cynic, fed up by all this inspired-by, based-on, bullshit. I love fiction, because fiction is true. It is true, precisely because I know it is made-up. With non-fiction, I can never be sure, but at least, I’d like you to try to tell the truth…