Saturday, January 11, 2014

Any Last Words?: Thoughts on Endings

(The second post slated for December was cancelled due to a rash of visiting relatives and friends, followed by a rather harrowing bout of the flu, which I am still getting over. However, from now on we should be back on schedule with regular monthly posts, starting with today's.)

Recently I read through all of Meredith Ann Pierce's Darkangel trilogy, and it got me thinking about how stories end -- or, more precisely, where authors decide stories should end. (Because, of course, no real story ever truly ends.) And also, where a storyteller's responsibilities lie with regards to that ending.

Despite the infinite possibilities of storytelling, in truth there are only two ways a story can end: satisfactorily, or unsatisfactorily. Satisfying endings are the deep breath after the storm has passed; all major questions are answered (or are rendered irrelevant), central conflicts are resolved, and the tension, like a fever, is finally broken. That is all that really needs to be said about them; satisfying endings tend to speak for themselves.

Unsatisfying endings, on the other hand, come in two flavors: intentional, and unintentional. Cliffhangers, for example, are obviously intentional; in such cases, the ending is meant to leave the audience in a state of suspense intense enough to compel them to read, watch, listen to or play the next part of the narrative. TV series use this type of ending especially often (though usually the final episode switches back to the satisfying ending), as do books in a series (again, the final book is an exception). More rarely, a story may end on an extremely ambiguous, open, or even frustrating note, averting the usual catharsis of a satisfying ending, because it is more suited to the story's plot or themes. (In such cases, the ending is unsatisfying in that it leaves us wanting more, but still fitting and therefore not objectionable.) Waiting for Godot is probably the most famous example of this.

Then, of course, there are the unintentionally unsatisfying endings, the finales that mean well but fall far short of expectation. Unless, of course, you were expecting a terrible ending (Twilight: Breaking Dawn, here's lookin' at you, kid). Movies like Swing Vote and The Forgotten go under this category for me, and let's not even talk about what the writers did to Dexter. Many people would argue the finale of Lost goes here as well, but I am not those people. It's abysmally disappointing when a good story goes sour in its final moments, either because the "twist" is terrible or because the ending doesn't really end anything.

Which brings me back to the Darkangel trilogy. (Beware of spoilers if you haven't read it yet.) While Pearl of the Soul of the World hardly ended the way I thought I wanted it to because I am a sucker for happy endings, it's not a bad conclusion, and I definitely respect Pierce for taking the path less walked, considering how young adult fantasy novels usually end. However, it is not by any means a satisfying conclusion, especially after three books' worth of suspense.

Whether this was intentional or not, however, is a bit complicated. Pierce herself is quoted as having said this about the finale (though I have yet to find the original interview this is from -- if you find it please share):

"Anybody who considers that a satisfying ending is nuts. Take heart! I intend to shift focus to Irrylath and show him as a very human character coming to grips with a life of duty, devoid of personal satisfaction or love. No longer overshadowed by Aerial, Irrylath must forgive himself for his crimes as a darkangel, regain his wings and discover the secret that will set both him and Aerial free. Aerial will learn the high personal cost of surrendering herself, however nobly, to Ravenna's planetary rescue plan." 

Pearl was also (supposedly) meant to end with the lines, "Here end for a time the adventures of Aerial. The adventures of Irrylath have only begun." 

Now, had those adventures followed as promised, the conclusion of the third Darkangel book would be perfectly fine as an intentionally unsatisfying break between Aerial's journey and Irrylath's. In fact, if those books had been published, this entire post would probably never have been written.

But here's the thing. The last book in the trilogy was published way back in 1990, over twenty years ago. If Pierce really is planning on writing sequels, she sure is taking her time. And if she never writes them -- or, indeed, if that quote is false and she never meant to in the first place -- then I revert to my initial reaction to the ending, which was, simply, "This can't be how it ends."

The problem isn't that it ended on a tragic note, or that the union which the entire trilogy seemed to be leading up to only lasted a single night (hence the tragic note). The problem is that while Aerial's narrative does feel complete, if heartbreaking, Irrylath's really has only just begun, and ending the story with such a central character in an emotional shambles, having been literally brought down to his knees in a fit of sobs, just feels -- wrong.

Of course, this is as much a matter of taste as anything else. Many online reviews express a deep satisfaction with the ending, praising Pierce for not giving in to cliche and taking what always seemed to be a star-crossed love to its inevitable conclusion. But I repeat: Irrylath's journey feels incomplete to me, and leaving him in such a state at the end of the tale left me with an incredibly uncomfortable squirmy sensation in the pit of my stomach.

As I considered the ending (trying, and so far failing, to come to terms with it), I got to thinking about the responsibilities of storytelling. When crafting a tale, who is all that work really for? One of the first things almost any given writing resource will tell new authors is to consider the audience, to keep in mind who will be experiencing the story and what they will be expecting from it. Is the story, then, an author's gift to the audience, something mined from the teller's heart that then must be refined into a gem worthy of the recipients? Yet time and again, the masters of the craft tell beginners to write for themselves. "I will not reason and compare; my business is to create," one of my favorite quotes, comes straight from a William Blake poem. On her official website, Anne Rice dispenses similar advice, "Write the book you would like to read." Does this mean the work should be primarily tailored to the author's tastes, and external approval comes only secondary?

I have a slightly odder view on the subject. When I'm in the process of making up stories, I'll readily admit that I don't give a flying Frisbee what anyone else might think of my ideas. Exactly as Rice put it, I'm coming up with all the things I wish someone else had already come up with, so that I didn't have to do all the work myself. That's often how I get story ideas, actually; I'll be reading or watching something and think, "Hmmm, but what if they'd done this? Wouldn't this have been cool?" And it evolves from there. I don't start second-guessing myself and worrying about how others will perceive it until later, when I'm actually writing it.

However, I think my ultimate responsibility, as far as telling the story well and finishing it properly, isn't really to myself, nor is it to my (potential) audience, though of course a lot depends on them and a lot of gratitude is owed to them for any success, however small. In the end, I believe a storyteller's ultimate responsibility should be to the story itself. Whether it pleases the masses is secondary; whether it pleases the teller is slightly more important, but still secondary. Whether the story works within its own confinements, and whether it is crafted to the best of the teller's abilities and with the best possible result, transcends both wish fulfillment and popularity. Stories are sacred; treat them as such.

Now, I understand all too well that sometimes the story just won't come out right, and of course no sequel is generally better than a terrible one. Not to mention two decades is a long time to spend outside of a story; I can only imagine how difficult it might be to return to a narrative so long set aside. But here's another odd thought. If you absolutely can't bring yourself to give a story its proper due, whatever the reason, maybe it's time to let someone else do it for you. I realize many an author probably cringed at that; in a world of copyright infringement and the banning of fanfiction, most writers probably feel very uncomfortable with (if not downright insulted by) the thought of some bumbling stranger getting their grimy hands on a precious work of art, particularly with the aim of professional publication. But that story isn't going to write itself, and if you won't, why not let someone else have a go?

It's not really that radical an idea. Even ignoring the reams of unsanctioned classic sequels one can find on any given bookstore's shelves, there are always the shared universes to point to as prime examples of the benefits of passing a story along. Think about comic books; if Stan Lee never let anyone else play in his sandbox, there wouldn't a million and three issues of the Avengers (not to mention each character's separate series). And, quite frankly, I prefer Kieron Gillen's take on Thor and Loki to their original 1960's incarnations. Dragonlance is another example; instead of Laura and Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis keeping that wonderful world to themselves, over 190 novels set in Krynn have been published with the help of a myriad of guest authors. A story doesn't necessarily have to end with the author's interest in it or their ability to continue it.

So while, as a member of Pierce's audience, I am frustrated with the ending of Pearl of the Soul of the World on my own account, far more egregious is the failing I perceive in her duty to the story. The Darkangel trilogy is a beautifully crafted narrative, and Irrylath is a complex and intriguing character -- and they both deserve a better conclusion. So, Ms. Pierce, if you happen to be reading this, please, please, please write those sequels. Or, if you can't bring yourself to bridge that twenty-three year gap, pass the torch on to some lucky, willing artist you deem worthy of handling your story. It'll be okay, I promise.