September 26, 2023Details and Happy Endings

Writers can occasionally write themselves into inescapable holes ...

Many decades ago, pre-television, weekly magazines would publish "serial" stories, which were running stories told in installments in each issue. Like modern soap operas, each installment would leave the readers hanging at the end, so that readers would eagerly anticipate the next issue to see what happened next.

One particular installment ended with the villain throwing the hero into a deep, deep pit with no obvious way to climb out. Was this the end? How would our hero escape? Readers awaited the next installment with bated breath, only to open it up and read, "He looked up, took a deep breath, and leapt out of the pit!"

That only works if it has already been established earlier in the story that our guy is some kind of superhero with special abilities. Or if there's another character or available force or entity in the story that could give the hero the ability or assistance to escape this way. If he's just an ordinary guy, this won't work at all. Readers won't put up with this kind of nonsense.

Fiction and fantasy stories can be as far-out as you'd like them to be, but even these will follow their own brand of logic and rules that need to be adhered to. Especially when it comes to the abilities and characteristics of the characters.

Have you ever watched a movie and maybe there was a scene where the main character got a bucket of water dumped on him. Then, in the very next scene, his hair and clothes are all bone dry?

Or maybe he smashed up his car in a terrible wreck while chasing the bad guy. Then at the end of the movie, he rides off into the sunset, in the same car, perfectly intact! Did the movie ever tell you, Oh, yeah, he got his car repaired!

If stuff like this drives us crazy as adults, rest assured that it will drive kids crazy, too! Especially with picture books, because, after it gets read, they will go back through and re-read the parts they liked and examine every detail of the pictures. I know this, because I did exactly that as a kid. A lot of times, kids are less forgiving than adults, so make those illustrations match up with the narrative.

We have to pay close attention to the details. Subtle details that a reader might deem insignificant can pull everything together in the end. In picture books, subtly show some element or character that the narrative doesn’t mention. Then, at the very end, surprise! We find out why it was there and how it helps pull the ending of the story together.

Too many irrelevant details can bog down a story. Don’t waste a couple of pages explaining how your main character is a science and space nerd and really, really loves studying astronomy, unless later in the story he and his friends are lost in the wilderness and he’s the only one who can navigate by the stars to get them back home. It helps a reader understand the character’s personality to simply tell them he’s a star-loving science nerd. But it’s probably irrelevant to tell all the details of his trip last summer to stay with his uncle who happens to be an astrophysicist and works in a mountain-top observatory in Utah. That’s interesting maybe, but your reader is more interested in how he and his friends got lost in the wilderness to begin with.

Learn how to edit a story to make it work like it’s supposed to. Let another writer or friend read it cold and give you their gut reaction. It’s about impossible to be objective about your own work, especially after having lived with it for months and months. You’ll read it over and over and over, and you’ll know what you meant, but did you express yourself well enough that someone else will know what you meant? Do all of the little details come together in the end? Are there passages where you just ramble and don’t move the story forward?

The whole point is to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion ... savoring that delicious, satisfied feeling we have when we're closing the book, and the storyteller has wrapped it all up nice and neat, made it all work out in the end, and justice was served, and the good guys came out on top. Because we love happy endings.

One morning, my mom, who is an avid reader herself, was telling me about the main character in the book she was reading who wasn't a nice person herself. Something very unpleasant happened to this character, and mom said, Well, she got what she deserved! Then we looked at each other and laughed, because we were both thinking the same thing ... it's FICTION!

Readers will tolerate things not turning out so well for a character.

What they won't tolerate is loose ends and unanswered questions ... Whatever became of the girl and the dog on Page 56?! Don't leave me hanging!!

In real life, the bad guys don't always get what they deserve. So, although we love happy endings, don't be afraid to occasionally have a bittersweet ending.


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  • Patricia Jaeger says:
    2023-10-07, 05:55:19
    Great stuff!
    My favorite:
    “The whole point is to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion ... savoring that delicious, satisfied feeling we have when we're closing the book…”
    Storytelling 101.
    To be a great storyteller, be a reader and know what you like.
    Then give your reader the same great experience!
    - Sherry A Mitcham
  • Cooley Dixie says:
    2023-09-28, 12:16:13
    Good read. Thank you