Monday, June 1, 2009

Epilogues and ambiguous or otherwise endings

There's a lively discussion going on in the comments for my epilogue post, and one inspired a long response from me, and I figured that I'd just put it upfront. Don't expect much. I just decided that because my response was so longwinded, not brilliant. :)

Gwen says:
I feel like epilogues provide the opportunity to tie up things that make a point but don't fit into the main plot. I can't very well stop the action after this character dies to find out what happens to him since it wouldn't interrupt the entire pace of the story. It sounds more like you're opposed to 'and they had 10 babies and lived happily ever after' types of epilogues, so I wonder what you think of this.

I don't know. All I can say is-- be analytical. You know what the pitfalls are. So be skeptical and examine this as a reader would-- and it has to be in the context of the whole story, not just by itself-- ESPECIALLY if your prose is pretty damned good... because that can be sort of seductive and disguise whether it's needed or not. You're talking about a 3-book story here, so there are lots and lots of plot threads. Why does this one need to have a finish AFTER the finish? (A bad guy defeated and dead... that's a finish. :)
So I can't tell, but I have to say that my question is-- why do you need to tell what happens to him?

Hollywood has this tendency to have two endings: "You have to kill the dragon twice." I've ended up against it because I think it's kind of corrupted the story by forcing this unnatural conflict, and in fact, now it's predictable, and in a theater, when the bad guy is killed or the good guy loses, viewers will whisper, "No, wait, there's still ten minutes left. He'll come back." It's as artificial as the encore in a concert-- you know if the band doesn't play its biggest hit, well, they'll come back for an encore and play it. Predictable.

So-- and I'm just using yours as an example, and I don't really know what you should do, but you know how good it is to be used as an example, right? :)-- What is served by showing that, I don't know, he's forgiven and he's in heaven now, or he isn't forgiven and he's in hell, or he's reincarnated as a worm, or... why isn't death enough of an ending? What is the reader going to get out of a final final finish to his story?

You might be absolutely right. I don't know, and can't know without reading the whole thing, but I'm naturally wary because epilogues, frankly, seldom work. (As I've said, I've written a couple, and I felt like I needed to write them for ME, not for the reader-- I needed to take the story one more step to assure myself that Jerry and Maisie were happy, or whatever. Now none of these epilogues made it into the printed version of the story-- either I or the editor decided against it-- so my batting average isn't very high.)

You know, this might have some connection to the tendency in genre and popular fiction to tie up all the ends in the end. I think that's in part in response to the tendency in literary fiction to make endings ambiguous. In popular fiction, we usually have finished endings, that is, we actually answer the story question: Yes, the murdered was identified and brought to justice. Yes, Jerry and Maisie end up happy together. Yes, the colonists reach the planet safely.

The closer a novel gets to lit fic, I notice, the more likely the ending is to be ambiguous, so, say, PD James's mysteries will seldom wrap everything up in the end (which sometimes annoys me :).

Now an epilogue can make an ending ambivalent (like the Indiana Jones one-- well, that was more ironic, but it was ambivalent in the sense that the all-important Ark is lost), but more often, it makes the ending very, very certain.

Now I tend not to love ambiguous endings, but you know, those are the ones that linger. The most famous: "Tomorrow is another day!" When Scarlett thinks that, it's leaving open a possibility that she'll manage to change things. And here it is, decades later, and there's even been an authorized sequel, but we still think about that ending, right?

Another that has occasioned enormous controversy (okay, among a small group, but trust me, this is HOTLY debated!) is the ending to the Lymond Chronicles (Dorothy Dunnett). Don't read this if you're halfway through the series, okay? But it ends with Lymond as the putative father of a little boy, and -- this is really complicated in the story, and I won't even try to summarize it-- this is probably a substitute for his actual son, who probably died years earlier. Now I say "probably" because some have argued that Kuzum is actually his son, presenting a lot of intricate evidence-- and Dunnett, I suspect, planted that evidence just to be difficult. :) Anyway, what's left ambiguous is whether Lymond will ever fully accept K as his son. We STILL debate that, and Lady Dunnett is long dead, and that book was released in 1975. If there were an epilogue that settled that issue... well, I don't know if the story would still have that much resonance.

Another example, from TV. Think of how Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended. Yes, some questions were answered-- the vampires were defeated, the apocalypse averted, Buffy survived. But the MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION was left open, that is, did Buffy love Spike? She said, "I love you," to him, but he said, "No, you don't, but thanks for saying it." So the question is left open-- was she right? Was she telling the truth? Was she just saying that because he was about to sacrifice himself to save the world? Did he know the truth better than she did? Or did he believe her but just wanted to get her to leave him so she'd be safe? The ambiguity of that ending has launched a thousand fan-fics. :)

So, anyway, ambiguous endings do have advantages. That's something to consider also, as an epilogue could potentially remove all doubt, and that might make for a LESS satisfying ending. Just a thought-- what do you think gives the reader the more satisfying experience?

Hmm. Now I'm thinking of that... let's say that you want an ambiguous ending for this bad guy, just let's say. How can we stage a bad-guy-death-scene that would leave a bit of ambiguity? But not an annoying amount of it. I can see, as he dies, he kind of looks up and smiles suddenly, like he saw something he liked. Then we'd all speculate, "What? Did he see heaven?"

When I was in parochial school, we were utterly convinced that if we said the Our Father as we died, we'd go to heaven no matter what evil we'd committed in our little 4th grade lives. So I can just imagine the bad guy muttering, as he bleeds out, "Our Father, who art in heaven...." The End.

So... Gwen... no good answer on epilogues. But thanks for the example!


Anonymous said...

Rereading the comments on epilogues, I remembered one kind of epilogue that I hate. You find it in horror fiction. The hero has defeated the Evil Entity, but the epilogue shows it's not a complete victory. The Evil Entity is still out there, waiting for the next innocent victim to come along.

I don't read romance, but I can easily see the Pregnant Heroine getting on my nerves.

It seems epilogues (and I think the same has become true of prologues) have become a cheap device to break up the structure of an A to Z story. It may look frightfully sophisticated, until you see how often the device is abused.

While I'm sure there are a few legit reasons for a prologue or an epilogue, it's probably best to try for a way around it because there's the danger of becoming cheap. At least, that's what I take from this discussion.

Anonymous said...

James Patterson did one of those Hollywood double endings in his "First to Die" series. Near the end, they catch the bad guy, but then discover he's not the only bad guy--there's a second one. For that book, it was a surprise, which was fine.

Problem was that in his next book in the series, he did exactly the same thing. I got to the last fifty pages when they caught the bad guy, and my first thought was that he was doing it again--which he did. It turned from surprise into predictable. I stopped reading at the second book and have never picked up anything else in the series.

The disappointing epilogue--and much talked about as I recall--was the one in the last Harry Potter book. It gave us too much information, and instead ruined the ending for this reader. The best books end in such a way that you just want to know more about what happened--but doesn't ruin the magic by telling us!

Wes said...

I suppose it depends. Some are effective and have a place, others are not.

Don't read this if you plan on seeing the movie Angels and Demons.

I saw it yesterday, and it had an epilogue of sorts. Maybe it was really a final scene, but I didn't take it that way because the pace and flavor were totally different from the rest of the film. The scene was very effective, in my opinion, in that it wrapped up the film with a feel-good feeling, even thought the bad guy(s) had been vanquished earlier in the climax.


Edittorrent said...

I haven't seen A&D. I think films often have a coda scene because they would otherwise end on the climax, a high-action sort of scene, and if they want to wrap up some other plot line, like the romantic plot, often they have to add what in a book would probably just be called the resolution scene. Usually it's a bit quieter, I guess so we don't leave the movie theater feeling all jangled! :)

John Harper said...

I don't have any feelings pro or con for epilogues. I don't write them, and agree with your points of it being unnecessary, but it might work for some people.

Looking at ambigous endings, I think they can be quite fun. Elizabeth Bear wrote a short story "And the deep blue sea" about a biker who has made some deal with the devil and in the end she goes against him to what must certainly be death, but she revs the bike and takes off, knowing in her mind she is doing the right thing. Thats the end. I think that works quite well, because it leaves it up to the reader to decide if she makes it or not.

I've just written my own short with a similar ending. The protag decides to stay and fight because its the right thing to do. He's outgunned and outmuscled and barely survived the last encounter with the baddies, but he stands calmly, cracks his shotgun, shoves two shells into the breech and waits. To me (and I hope to the reader) they will think that he makes it, but I want them to decide.

Is that wrong? I think it is cool, but I know some people hate it. I just hope they aren't the ones I am trying to sell the story to ;)

Edittorrent said...

I like the occasional ambiguous ending. I probably wouldn't like it in every book, but occasionally it's intriguing. I think if editors want it changed, they'll say, but a lot of people really like leaving it a bit open.

The important thing is-- does the ending give the reader something else? A very bad example: Let's say that a major plot question is whether he disables a bomb... that is, the question is not just "does he survive?" If the bomb question is answered, then it seems like you can leave the survival question open, because the ending does answer something.

Now you identify the main question as "will he stay and fight?" Again, let me resort to Buffy, but it does pose a similar question-- Will Spike the vampire stay and fight for the humans? In an earlier episode, well, actually, in a couple-- I've just discovered a new meme in Buffy, yay!-- Spike doesn't, because he refuses to feel any loyalty to humans. But in the end episode, he does stay and fight because of his love for Buffy. (Actually, I'm not sure that his loyalty is in doubt the whole last season, but they do keep playing with that throughout the series.)

So with that being answered affirmatively, the next question of whether Buffy really loves him can be left open (and the question of whether he survives seems to be answered No, but since he rather quickly turns up on a spin-off show, there's got to be the hint of ambiguity).

Anyway, do you think that the major plot question is answered? If so, I think you can leave his survival in doubt. What do you think?


Unknown said...

I do like it when I have to work things out on my own. When a writer leaves the last critical scene sort of open ended - I feel it's like the writer is saying: reader you're smart enough figure it out:).

Gwen said...

First, thank you for quoting my comment! I really appreciate the individual feedback. I think that after reading your post and the other comments that I agree with you that most of the time epilogues aren't necessary, or perhaps are more for the writer. The final word may then be "only if it's necessary" and of course that forces a writer to really think about what she's saying and if she can say it in another way. I agree that ambiguous endings can be frustrating, but also stick. If you look at a lot of Asian film or animation, the endings tend to be far more ambiguous, and leave the reader drawing their own conclusions. Good if you want them to think for themselves, not so good if you want to push an agenda. Which I guess I don't want to do, so maybe a little ambiguity could be good. In any case, your comments have given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

Edittorrent said...

Gwen, I once had a Japanese student (the best writer in English... much better than the native English speakers, go figure), and she was doing a study of "the hero in Japanese folk tales" and she mentioned that-- that the ending is often ambiguous, kind of because the hero was usually defeated BUT the order of the community was restored, so I guess it was sort of bittersweet.

I wonder if now we should start looking beyond the Western tradition. Asian film has been a big influence on American film... maybe Asian fiction will have an effect too?

Gwen said...

The exchange kids almost always write better in the classes I teach. I'm not sure why, maybe because they actually care, unlike most American kids. Go figure. That situation you mentioned makes sense, since Japan is so collectivist. I think there are definitely things to be learned from foreign (especially non-Western) styles of story telling. Some authors have drawn from the type of story telling (I am thinking Stephen King for one, but I can't remember anything specifically). I try to draw inspiration from all over, too, so I do like the idea of a more ambiguous ending. The next book I'm planning will probably end that way.

I think a lot of times epilogues play to our American "feed me the story" mentality, but maybe it could be used in a more ambiguous way too and would be less "the end, happily ever after." Of course that begs the question, do Americans like more definite endings, or does the media/publishing/etc just underestimate the population more than Japan? It's definitely something to think about.

Julie Harrington said...

One of my favorite ambiguous endings to a novel was Michael Crichton "Sphere." They gave you just enough to realize what happened, what didn't happen... and left you with that "OH @#$%^!" realization for the last line. I loved that book!


John Harper said...

Good point re the ambiguous ending.

The main question of the story is: Will he change his selfish ways thinking only of himself? THis question is being asked while he transport the cargo.

So we find out, yes he will stick and fight for something because it is the right thing to do.

Will he survive? will he get the cargo through? This is unanswered.

Thanks for your thoughts :)