Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Day 23: Denouement

Although I still have eight thousand words to go before I hit the end of my So-Called Novel, I've been thinking a lot about literary endings. Even after nearly a month and over 40,000 words worth of writing, I still don't know where my story is going...so I'm understandably wondering how I'm going to tie everything up.

As a literary scholar, I'm in the business of tracing narrative arcs. When lit critics talk about the classics, we make it sound as if their authors intended every single detail and nuance. "By placing the moral climax of Huckleberry Finn more than fifty pages before the novel's actual end, Twain suggests the difficulty of reintegration after spiritual awakening," blah blah blah. It's easy to notice and comment upon narrative patterns after a writer has made them...but how many of these patterns were premeditated and how many were cobbled together after-the-fact?

I've actually been thinking a lot about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn these days. Now, I know Mark Twain...and I am no Mark Twain. Still, I've been deriving an odd amount of comfort from the fact that Twain took eight years to write Huck Finn in dribs and drabs, spending large chunks of time away from the manuscript and at one time threatening to burn it, its composition troubled him so.

From what I understand of Twain's life and writing habits, Huck Finn started easily enough, but it presented various narrative challenges along the way. If Twain wanted to grapple with the delicate subject of slavery, how should he balance that weighty issue with the playful boyhood pranks that readers loved in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? And if Twain wanted to write the sort of colorful anecdotes his years as a Mississippi riverboat pilot had so amply blessed him with, how could he get around the fact that Jim's flight from slavery should have pointed him up rather than down the Big Muddy?

Although Huck Finn is a classic, it isn't flawless. As a lit scholar, I've always seen the text's seams: the places where Twain stitched together a slapdash "fix" to his narrative problems. At the very point when Huck and Jim should turn around and head north on the Mississippi, their raft gets "hijacked" by two characters--the King and the Duke--who otherwise don't belong in the story, thereby giving Twain an excuse to keep the raft floating south. And in an ending that causes lit critics to call out interpretive fightin' words, Twain chose to bring Huck's otherwise subversive story back to a conventional ending that nicely ties up some otherwise unruly loose ends. After a moral climax where Huck in effect tells society to go to Hell, in the end Huck returns to that same society...and seems to backpedal on some of his most profound moral insights.

As a lit scholar, I can explain away these flaws by making vague conclusions about Twain's "intent." As a writer of a So-Called Novel, though, I understand exactly what Twain must have felt six or seven years into the composition of a Book That Wouldn't Die. At a certain point, you realize that the story you originally envisioned is All But Unwritable, having wriggled into innumerable sub-plots and narrative complications. At a certain point, you decide to cut your losses, kill off (if necessary) a character and/or subplot or two, and make a mad dash toward "The End."

Someday, perhaps, lit scholars will peruse your tome and ponder its denouement. But those of us who write know the truth: after growing sick of writing the damn thing, you just wanted to end it, somehow. And if that takes an invading spaceship of death-ray wielding aliens to arrive and vaporize all your main characters, so be it. As an action hero might say, "Bring it on!" Or as Huck Finn himself said, "if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it."

So what drastic measures have you pondered (or actually deployed) to end a Never-Ending Narrative? Do you feel cheated when a book you're reading ends abruptly, its characters suddenly dying, acting entirely out-of-character, or being abducted by death-ray wielding aliens? Or are you willing to cut an otherwise likeable author some slack if she or he pulls off a deus ex machina ending?
Word count: 42,044

Last line: And with a significant glance, Alexa knew
exactly what she and Paul would next explore: the attic of her own
house.

5 Comments:

At 11/23/2005 4:45 PM, Blogger Diana said...

I have to admit that I have often wondered how many of the attributes - symbolism, allegory, etc. - assigned to literature were intentional on the part of the author. It is very interesting to experience this from the other side. I would suggest that everyone who has ever read a novel should try to write one just for this altered perspective alone.

 
At 11/25/2005 12:42 PM, Blogger Rebecca Clayton said...

I've long assumed that many of a text's layers of meaning are not conciously planned. Some of the best stuff that happens in literature happens between the author's unconcious and the reader's. This is the very stuff I've spent years stamping out of scientific writing--my own and others'. You don't want to leave anything to the reader's imagination when describing a replicatable experiment. Words are slippery, slippery things!

 
At 11/25/2005 3:41 PM, Blogger Lorianne said...

I don't know what happens with other writers...but in my own writing, I'm beginning to believe that the first draft is for *accident* and the second & subsequent drafts are for *intention.*

By that I mean I'm often surprised by what pops up when I'm writing a sloppy first draft...but the second & subsequent drafts are where I go back, seek the patterns & themes that happened "by accident," & then make those accidents look like they happened "on purpose." ;-)

If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is showing me that *anyone* with plain old perseverance can write a novel's first draft. I think what distinguishes "great" writers from mediocre ones is the ability to go back & make things look masterful, not accidental.

 
At 1/28/2006 4:05 AM, Blogger Udge said...

are you willing to cut an otherwise likeable author some slack if she or he pulls off a deus ex machina ending?

Thanks for writing this, I realized that I have recently read just such an "oh God let me get it finished" novel: Paul Auster's "The Music of Chance". I won't give away the ending, but I found it infuriating. No, I cut him no slack at all.

Found you via Ruth, as I hadn't noticed this site on your "usual" blog.

 
At 12/07/2010 3:41 AM, Anonymous Nancy said...

If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is showing me that *anyone* with plain old perseverance can write a novel's first draft. I think what distinguishes "great" writers from mediocre ones is the ability to go back & make things look masterful, not accidental.

 

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