Tuesday, December 20, 2011

End with your Hook

I’m going to do something I’ve never done before—I’m going to give major spoilers about a book here.  If that bugs you, don’t read this beyond where I mark the spoilers. But I have to do this, because my point in writing this post is to illustrate why authors need to have good endings to their books.

So much of learning about writing focuses on “the hook.” You have to grab the reader in the first chapter. Oh, no—I mean the first couple of pages. No, wait, it’s the first paragraph. Uh-uh. The first sentence. There are even whole books about writing craft that focus specifically on the first five pages. It’s that important.

You may find a book or two, a blog post here and there, the occasional workshop, on “middles.” The middle of the book does have to keep the reader reading. Sure.

But what about endings?

I, personally, would rather have a book start slow. Give me good writing, yes. Give me a character I can connect with. But I don’t need to be “hooked” by some clever line, or some odd or intense action scene. I want to get to know my characters, and in some sense, I like to have stories sneak up on me. I would prefer a book to start slow, making me take time to warm up to it, and then grip me tighter and tighter throughout. I want the *ending* of a book to leave me begging for more.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld did that. The first several chapters were world building. I was getting to know the character of Tally. It was enough to hold my interest, but I can’t say I was blown away by the first chapters—but I could tell more was coming. I LIKE the anticipation of wondering what is going to be discovered LATER. You see, I have this assumption when I start a book: it’s a book because there is a story to tell. I don’t need that story to slam me like a freight train the moment I open the first page to know it’s there.

More recently, the book Tyger, Tyger by Kersten Hamilton won me over this way. Lots of character building. Yes, there was some conflict—Teagan’s friend Abby had a dream the goblins would be coming. But the story moves at a slow pace in the beginning as we get to know the cast and gain the information necessary to understand the major action to come. And come it did. By the end, I couldn’t get to the library website fast enough to put the next book on hold.

Think about theme park rides. Many of them start off as stories. Splash Mountain tells the tale of Brer Rabbit with animatronics lining a slow moving “river.” The end of the ride is the big splash. But who would want to ride it if it were the other way around? Or…what if the whole ride was thrilling, and then the end was a complete dud?

See? Anticipation is what counts in rides like that. Get the thrill part over with in the beginning and have nothing as good afterward and riders will complain. Or have a thrilling ride end in a dud, and most riders leave the ride with a sour taste despite all the fun they had in the beginning—because they didn’t have that “wow” to look forward to. There was nothing to anticipate.

*Now comes the spoilers, folks.*

I finished reading a book yesterday called Dark Eden, by Patrick Carman. The book starts off with this blurb by the main character, Will Besting, which is actually sort of part of the ending. No, that’s not right—you find out at the end that it’s a thought he had during his experience at Fort Eden.

Because I knew.
That’s what I’ll say when they ask.
I knew, and I was afraid.

It sounds all creepy and suspenseful at first, and then you get to the end and discover it’s really meaningless. Of course he’s afraid. He’s got anthrophobia (fear of people).

Will and six other kids his age are chosen to go to Fort Eden to receive a cure for various phobias. They are taken to a building deep in the woods. Will is too scared to go in, and you find out partway through it’s because he’s so afraid of people. He discovers a bomb shelter in the basement of the bunker next to the main building where he hides.

There are video monitors that show the various rooms inside the main building. How convenient. Will, of course, thinks he’s really lucky. It’s obviously a set-up. But, because we’re dealing with kids who have serious mental issues, it seems acceptable. You know something is coming as he watches each of the other kids get “cured” by being hooked up to this funky helmet with wires that connect to the ceiling and experience their moments of greatest fear. So it’s no surprise when Will is trapped in the bomb shelter and discovers that the headphones he’s wearing to listen in on what he sees on the monitors are actually a modified helmet.

Each kid is, as I said, cured by experiencing their biggest fears. Those fears show up on the monitors as well, as though the images in their heads being displayed. If this was ever explained, it must have been in the last couple of pages which I couldn’t bear to read. At that point I was so mad at the book’s ending I could barely see straight, much less read. So we have psychotherapy, complete with mad scientists. The main doctor, who goes simply by Rainsford. Will’s doc, Dr. Stevens. And the groundskeeper, a codgy old woman named Mrs. Groning.

Will is never “caught,” of course. They know where he is the whole time. Although he does sneak in a few times and speak with a couple of the other kids. All the character interaction and relationship building though is for nothing. It has not a stinking thing to do with the ending.

Each kid also ends up with some side effect from the treatment. Joint pain, vertigo, fatigue, headaches, hearing loss, etc.

OK, following so far? It really does sound like a story with serious potential.

And then the kids all get to leave at the end. No attempt by anyone to keep them there. You’re cured. Sorry about the side effects. Go home to your families and live out your lives. None of them remembers anything about their cure experience, but they are all happy just to be cured.

Will, however, is given something by Mrs. Groning as he leaves. He’d entered Fort Eden with a digital recorder, and she ‘d added some audio files. It was her, telling the story of who Rainsford and Dr. Stevens are, and who she is herself.

Rainsford was her husband, and Dr. Stevens is her daughter. And the children’s “cure” was a side effect of Rainsford stealing their blood. Yep, he’s a vampire, and he hooks himself up to the kids to exchange blood with them, ridding himself of his old, contaminated blood—which is why they all end up with “old people” symptoms (rolls eyes)—and taking in their blood flooded with chemicals produced by intense fear, which is what he feeds on, what makes him turn young again.

ALL of the explanation is given in the last several pages, with Mrs. Groning telling Will via the digital recorder.

Made. Me. Want. To. Scream.

A vampire? Really? Not a HINT of anything supernatural in the whole rest of the book. And if Groning actually cared about the kids, why was she so mean to them? Spitting in their food—which Will saw her do and still ate it. Ew. And why even bother telling Will? I mean, he’s not going to do anything about it. It was just a way for the author to tell the reader what was “really” going on, rather than integrating it into the story and letting the reader discover it. 

Actually, there were mini versions of that technique throughout, that bugged me each time, but were mixed in with enough suspense to make me forgive them. But really? Will makes some rather hefty jumps to conclusions, or statements of the obvious and it was obviously the author not wanting to lead the reader. Instead, he’d have something happen, then Will would state specifically what is going on “The headphones were really a helmet!” Duh.

Lazy, lazy author. Ugh.

I’ve read other books that do this. Page-turning plot and a complete dud of an ending. Ted Dekker is a big one. Yes, go ahead, throw the tomatoes. I’ve liked a few of his books, but they mostly make me want to throw them across the room when I get to the end, so I’ve quit reading his stuff. Another book that did this was The Maze Runner by James Dashner. This one, Dark Eden by Patrick Carman, has been the worst by far, though.

I beg of you, dear writers. Think about the endings of your books. A twist is fine! But is it really a twist if you are telling one story and then turn it into something else? To me, this kind of ending is like having the main character wake up and discover everything is a dream.

Endings, even twist ones, need to come organically. You can’t tell one story, and then tack on a big explanation at the end saying that it was all really something else, haha! Yes, maybe a good portion of information can be saved for the last part of the story—we’re all familiar with the villain monologue. But make it integrated, not what is essentially an appendix at the end.

So, sorry if I’ve spoiled a book for you. But it had to be done. This kind of writing atrocity makes my blood boil. I’ve been told a few times that Finding Angel is a little slower in the beginning than some people like. BUT every reader I’ve had so far has agreed that the ending completely sucked them in. I can totally live with that. I’d rather create a story that builds from good to better to best, than a story that starts with a bang and ends with a dud. A hook at the beginning is fine, but if it lets loose during the story, even three pages from the end of the book, the reader isn’t going to stick with that author. But if in the end the hook is still firmly in place…


Kessie said...

If the ending sucks, I won't read any more of the author's works. That ending you described does sound like a huge cop-out. Like they changed their mind there at the end. I always wonder if those kind ever saw an editor.

After reading Green, I was finished with Ted Dekker. I wrote a whole diatribe in my blog here: http://carrollsallyear.blogspot.com/2010/06/christians-opinion-of-dekkers-circle.html

I enjoyed this rant. I hope you rant some more soon!

Ren Black said...

I totally agree. I love twists, but when it's the end and the basis for the whole story, whipping one out from nothing is just a cheap trick and leaves the reader feeling cheated and unsatisfied.

However, I admit that I think I've written some endings like that when I first started writing. These days I know better and get far more of a kick from weaving it all into the story from the get-go. I love hiding stuff in plain sight and slowly unraveling everything. I too am not the best at bang openings, but I do try and make it worth the ride.

Thanks for discussing this, Kat.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Kessie, I read your Dekker review. I didn't get past the FIRST Circle book. It felt like a ping pong game to me. This world, that world, this world, that world, back, forth, back, forth....and nothing progresses. Sure, a few points are scored here and there, but the whole thing had no real point, no movement forward.

I read Saint (I think that's the one) and didn't realize it was part of the series until I got into it, and it was one of the ones I wanted to throw across the room at the end.

Yes, his writing always feels rushed, and I have never once felt connected to a character.

Glad ya enjoyed the rant.

And, Ren, yeah, it felt like a cheat. That's the exact word I used when I reviewed it on Amazon. Bait and switch. Annoying.

Kessie said...

Kat: The first book of Dekker's I ever read was Blink, and it's wonderful. It was back in the days when he still wrote in drafts, I think, because it's well-written and the story is good. Starting with the Circle books, his writing really fell off. I see why you'd throw his books across the room, though. My Dad refuses to read his books for the same reason. He hates the bait and switch.

I wish I could point to some modern books that are good. Unfortunately I've been devouring a bunch of old stuff. Right now I'm laughing my way through hilarious Blacksheep! Blacksheep! by Meredith Nicholson. A hypochondriac who has never worked a day in his life falls in with a criminal mastermind and finds himself embroiled in the underworld, even though he's never committed a crime.

Kessie said...

On your original topic, what books have excellent ending sentences?

The best one I've ever seen is The Great and Terrible Quest, I forget the author. The entire punchline of the book comes down to that last sentence, and it's AWESOME.

Kat Heckenbach said...

I haven't read Blink--but I'm not adding it to my list right now :). I have a to-read list that is too long already. Eesh, I have GOT to stop buying books.

Best last line? I'll have to give that some thought...hmm...

Alan O said...

Truly spoken, Kat...

1) I'm with you: I don't need to be slammed by a freight train, either. In fact, I would *prefer* not to be, until I've learned at least a little about the characters. If you're shouting at me in your opening, I'll assume it's because you don't have anything more substantive to offer.

2) As a reader, the *only* hook I need in the first few pages is professional-quality prose. If the dialogue is stilted and phony, and the sentences sound lifted from a Dick & Jane Reader, then I can put the story down quickly, without wasting my time. And all the first-page explosions and gunfights in the world won't make up for it.

3) When a book "sticks with me" for some time after I finish the final pages, it's *because* of the beauty of those final pages...not because I'm fondly remembering the opening. It's the satisfactory conclusion that provides that "ahh" experience. "Ghost Story" by Peter Straub, for instance. Jane Eyre. Great Expectations.

A Merry Christmas to you & yours!

Kat Heckenbach said...

Well said, Alan. And to me, great writing can carry a story that isn't blockbuster amazing.

I've read a few books that were simply twists on classic story lines or weren't "really" original at all, but the writing made me *care* about the characters. I've read writing on which I've commented, "The characters could be doing nothing more than shopping at Walmart for 900 pages and I'd want more." Because the characterization was so strong and the writing so well-done.

And yes, I've never gotten to the end of a book and sighed over how well it *started.*

Kristen Stieffel said...

Kat -- just to give a plug to a friend of yours and mine -- I think Winter does a good job of starting with character and then building to a big ending that's really what the whole thing is about -- her calling.

I'm not sure where the fallacy came from that says you have to start with a big action scene. That only works in James Bond movies. I find it's almost always unsatisfying in a novel. Though not as unsatisfying as an ending that doesn't arise organically from the rest of the story.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Kristen, I think it came from the idea that the writing world is so competitive and you have to "wow" your audience within the first page. People are translating that to attention-grabbing action scenes. Maybe because we are so used to movies like that? You mentioned James Bond--I haven't read the books but I wonder if they start in the middle of an action scene the way the movies do?

And yes, I must agree about Winter :).