Sticking the Landing

Writing a good ending is hard. Damn hard.

Last night I put another dent in my backlog of unfinished video games by completing Red Dead Redemption. The game was one of the more entertaining titles I’ve played in a while, sort of like Grand Theft Auto in a Wild West setting, and it actually had a pretty strong story, one that I was interested in seeing the end of. The game weaves an solid story about John Marston–a reformed outlaw strong-armed by the government into hunting down his former gang associates in order to protect his wife and son, who are in custody. It questions whether people can change, whether people do evil by nature or by choice, whether we can change the world around us for the better, and whether people who have done wrong deserve a second chance. Admittedly, the story is sometimes ham-fisted when it comes to addressing these issues, but it’s effective nevertheless, and I found myself interested in this world and its characters, and I wanted to see how their story ended.

Unfortunately, my thirty-odd hours spent in the territory of New Austin as an avenging cowboy ended on a decidedly sour note.

Please note that, though RDR has been out for about 3 years now, this post will contain some major spoilers. So, if you haven’t played it and you want to avoid having the ending ruined for you, now’s your chance to leave.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, on with the show.

At the end of the story, John Marston, his mission completed, returns home to his farm to find his family waiting for him. He begins to build his farm back up and carve out a better life for his family, one where his son won’t have to make the terrible choices he and his wife did. It seems as if Marston found a happy ending at last, until the government agent who had been acting as his handler, Ross, decides that there’s one last outlaw who needs to die: Marston himself. Marston gets his family to safety, but is gunned down by Federal agents outside his own barn.

Up until now, the ending is fine. Throughout the endgame, the player is given a feeling that the other shoe has yet to drop, and John Marston’s death is foreshadowed rather well at various points in the game. But it is at this point in the narrative where things start to fall apart.

Cut to years later; the player is now in control of John’s son, Jack. Jack is a grown man, and his mother, Abigail, has died off-screen in the intervening time. As Jack, the player can continue to travel the world and complete any optional objectives not completed as John. However, there is still one last story objective remaining. As Jack, the player can hunt down Ross and avenge his father’s death. Jack confronts Ross, Ross dismisses his betrayal of John, and the two have a gun duel. When the player wins, Ross dies, Jack holsters his gun and turns toward the screen. Freeze frame, end title card, end credits.

And that’s it. We get no resolution to any of the questions posed by the game. We don’t find out if John ever achieved any kind of redemption. We don’t find out if, through his deeds and sacrifices, he made life better for his family. We don’t find out if Jack became a better man than his father and managed to avoid the pitfalls of his father’s life, which was John’s main goal during the events of the game! 

What. The. Hell.

All of this brings me back to my main point; ending a story well is very difficult. It may well be the most difficult aspect of storytelling; it’s certainly one that I’ve struggled with as a writer. But in many ways, the ending is the most essential part of a story, and if the ending fails, it can utterly ruin everything you’ve worked for up to that point. A flubbed ending leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth, and they’ll walk away from your story dissatisfied.

Literary theory has long compared story structure to the act of sex. Scholars have even gone so far as to use the word “climax” to describe the high point of both experiences. But if a story follows the structure of sex, then a bad ending is the equivalent of only one partner finishing, wordlessly getting dressed and going into the living room to watch reruns. Regardless of how amazing the experience was up to that point, the bad ending puts a damper on the entire thing.

At the heart of any story, there is a tacit contract between the storyteller and the audience: in exchange for the audience investing their time and energy into following the story, the storyteller will deliver a return on the audience’s investment. But a bad ending doesn’t deliver on that contract. A bad ending is one that either fails to answer the questions the story had posed, or answers them in an unsatisfactory way, such as killing off the key cast members in a “rocks fall, everyone dies” fashion. Either way, the audience comes away with the distinct sense that the storyteller has wasted their time, and this is just unacceptable.

Now, that’s not to say that an ending has to be happy, just that it has to provide answers to the key questions of the story; the ending of The Prestige is utterly soul-crushing, but the audience members come away with all the answers they could want. And an ending can be intentionally vague in some respects, provided the audience gets enough answers to walk away satisfied; films like Blade Runner and Inception have developed cult followings in large part because of questions they didn’t answer (Is Deckard a Replicant? Is Cobb still dreaming?). And just because a story has a good ending isn’t an indicator of its overall quality; as much as I’ve bashed Twilight, the endings of both the books and the movies do provide answers to all the pertinent questions raised during the course of those stories. And Stephen King, an author whose work was a major influence on me, is notorious for writing unsatisfying endings to otherwise great books, so the reverse is true as well.

So, fellow storytellers, take note–give your audience a satisfying ending. It doesn’t have to be happy, or answer every question, or detail the fate of every minor character, but it needs to give your audience enough resolution so they can walk away feeling like your story was worth the time and effort it took to get through it.

If your story is full of questions that you don’t have the answers to, edit your story. Or at the very least, don’t reference the unanswered question in your title.

Print Overload

This weekend, I went to the opening of a new store in the Tulsa area, The Bookerie. It’s a locally-owned shop where the owner and artist sells a variety of goods, including jewelry, journals, stationary and other products, all made of old books that have either seen use to the point of falling apart or, in many cases, were being thrown away or destroyed by libraries and bookstores.

The latter is becoming an increasingly prevalent practice in the business of print media, even though it’s considered by many to be a dirty secret. After all, destroying books is one of the hallmarks of the ignorant and the barbaric. If you want to compare somebody to an oppressive fascist, accuse them of trying to suppress thought and intelligence, or paint them as ideological extremist, referencing book burning is one of the go-to insults for such a task. Hell, Ray Bradbury devoted an entire novel to the subject. So how could institutions devoted to the preservation and sale of books not only condone their destruction, but actively participate in them?

The short answer is that there isn’t enough room.

Cracked ran an excellent article on the situation a few years back, and I don’t want to steal their thunder, so I’ll just sum up the facts briefly. Bookstores are going out of business en masse (and have been doing so for a few years now) and libraries are feeling the pressure of a down economy as well. As you can imagine, libraries don’t rank always terribly high on a city’s list of budget priorities, and in a time when major American cities are filing for bankruptcy, when cities are looking to save some money in the budget, libraries are among the first institutions to get the axe.

This means that libraries have to find a way to make do with much less money in their budget. Shelf space is a limited resource, new books are being released all the time and need to be purchased to keep the library’s catalog current, and storing the books offsite costs money, as does expanding the libraries themselves. So, in order to make room for new books, libraries have to get rid of old ones. Makes sense, right? But how does this lead to books being discarded or destroyed? Why can’t they be donated or sold instead?

Well, again, money is the key issue here. It takes time and costs money to remove books from circulation. A library has to devote lots of man-hours to pulling books from the shelves, removing their security tags and other markings (otherwise these books may end up being mistakenly returned to the library later), and then either putting them up for sale or donating them (and therefore finding a donor and transporting them off-site). It costs much less money to simply discard the books, and when it’s a matter of keeping your doors open or closing them for good, libraries choose the lesser of two evils and trash old, unused volumes.

And simply discarding these books isn’t an option; if libraries or bookstores throw them away intact, then that encourages dumpster-diving, which leads to its own slew of problems. Therefore, if a book has to be thrown out, it usually has entire chapters ripped from its bindings, or has detergent poured on it to render it illegible. Some more forward-thinking libraries have also been selling old books to recycling facilities for a modest fee, which at least has the benefit of putting some money back in the pockets of these struggling facilities.

Honestly, this situation is one of the reasons that I’ve opted to publish my book digitally, rather than pursuing print publication (though I have given some thought to on-demand printing). The simple fact of the matter is that, much like the glut of periodicals that prompted libraries to move to microfiche, there are just too many books out there and not enough space for them. As much as I love physical books, digital books and e-readers offer convenience, massive amounts of storage and are better for the environment. In addition, they’re a lot more economically feasible for struggling libraries, a fact that even my local library hasn’t overlooked.

Much as it saddens me, this destructive byproduct of the transition away from print is inevitable. But there is a silver lining, if stores like The Bookerie can rescue these books from destruction and make them into something good and worthwhile. There is comfort to be found in the notion that these great works can, even in their destruction, be viewed as art.

The Importance of Reviews

I’ve been buying products online for years; Amazon has been my main source for books, video games, movies, and a wide variety of other products. However, while I made dozens, if not hundreds, of purchases from the site, I rarely reviewed any of the things I bought. It just seemed like a lot of effort to follow the link and write out my thoughts on the product I had purchased, so more often than not, I simply didn’t bother. And it wasn’t because I disliked the product, more often than not I was quite happy with my purchase; my avoidance stemmed from pure laziness on my part.

Karma, as I’ve learned, has a way of biting people in the ass over infractions like this.

As you’re probably aware, I recently released my new book, The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship, on Amazon’s Kindle platform. And while publishing a book on Kindle has proven very easy to do, getting visibility on Amazon’s website has proven significantly harder, for the simple fact that many people, much as I did, simply don’t bother to write reviews.

As I’ve come to learn, for an independent author or anybody selling a product that doesn’t have a multi-million dollar ad campaign behind it, that apathy towards product reviews is the bane of one’s existence. The reason for this is simple; on Amazon, reviews make your book stand out. Hero Worship has a lot of competition for the attention of all those Kindle owners, and the more reviews you have and the more highly you’re rated, the more likely you are to catch a buyer’s attention and make a sale. Without reviews, however, you might as well be invisible.

And while there are professional and semi-professional book reviewers out there who will accept submissions and requests to review your work, most of your reviews come from ordinary readers; the folks who buy your book, love it, and post their thoughts online for others to see. Those reviews are what will help get your work out there to other readers. So in many ways, a review is just as important, if not more so, than the sale that precipitated it.

So if you’re like I was, reluctant to take a few minutes out of your day to review the book you just purchased, please reconsider. I, and indie authors everywhere, thank you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to continue plugging away at the backlog of reviews I’ve been neglecting all this time…

Reflections: Public Reading

A week ago, I had my first public reading of The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship at the Gypsy Coffee House. It’s only the third time I’ve ever done a public reading of my work, and the first time I’ve read something that was so personal to me (the other two instances were readings of short stories I had done for writing classes).

I read a poll once that said that the number one fear of the average American is public speaking (to put this in perspective, the number two fear was death). This had always kind of baffled me, as I’ve been acting on stage off and on since I was twelve years old. I’m a bit quiet and reserved in my personal life, except with people who know me fairly well, but I’ve never had an issue with stage fright before. So it surprised me when, stepping up to the microphone at the Gypsy, I found myself shaking.

It was at that point that I finally understood the results of that poll. Going onstage and pretending to be somebody you’re not, with words somebody else wrote, is pretty easy once you get used to it. But standing in front of a room full of people you don’t know and reading, as yourself, words that you wrote and that you are passionate about, is a whole other ballgame.

The reading went well (I think the crowd rather liked it), and I’m excited for my next one. But I definitely understand what people mean when they say they’re scared to speak in public…though death is still a bigger concern for me.