Ending your novel on a sad note

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kke
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Ending your novel on a sad note

Post by kke » March 25th, 2012, 4:27 pm

I just finished writing a novel. The ending is sad, but true to the characters. I kicked around ending it on a hopeful note but I just couldn't. It would have been contrived. Trite. False.

Feedback for my novel has been extremely positive, except. . .yep. Nobody liked the ending. No, it's not that they didn't like it. . .

Here are some of the comments:

So, what happened, did he die or didn't he?
I don't want him to die.
Tell me what happened to him.
It's so sad.
It's the right ending for your book, I just don't like it.

I take it back. I guess they didn't like it.

Apparently, my readers want me to tell them what happened to the character. No, they want me to tell them that everything ends wonderfully.

So, my question to you is this: In my effort to be true to my beloved characters and trusting my readers to make of it what they will, am I ripping them off? Maybe I'm wrong. What do you think?

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Hillsy
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Re: Ending your novel on a sad note

Post by Hillsy » March 26th, 2012, 6:44 am

Well, I'm going to quote Patrick Rothfuss and then mildly insult a lot of people....=0)

Firstly - Rothfuss said on a podcast (writing excuses - I can't recommend this enough) that there are much worse things for a character than dying. It's a brilliant quote and explains why some books, despite the peril a page plotting, fall a little flat: if all a character fears is his own death, then something is missing. The default position for a hero (hell, its the default position for a fireman) is to be prepared to risk his life in service to the story. You need something more (personal emotional investment is probably highest on the list - kids/spouse/friends etc)

Now for the insult...

Most people, including myself, don't see or 'get' the second layer. We just miss it, certainly first time round, or we have to round off shades of grey to the nearest black or white. Namely they'll see the fact the protagonist has succeeded/failed and lived/died and then decide there if they are happy about that. They will not weigh up the other implications costs in making that general gut judgement (well maybe they will but it'll be in a minor capacity). And it's those costs that make an ending both happy and sad. If you feel your readers want the character to live, then fine. But there's a hell of a lot of nasty stuff you can still throw at him - and the main reaction will be "That's not great - but he lived through it. He's still a hero."

For example: when ending my current novel I'm shopping I had the same "do I kill him or not" dilemma. (Wow, 2 posts in a row referencing my own work - I feel slightly soiled, like a need several showers in a row....ick!). So after some cogitation I came up with a sort of maxim: in reality, good soldiers don't go out in a blaze of glory, their endeavours remain while they are forgotten and left to fade away. So I let him live, and appear happy and content, but with injuries that will effectively kill him in an broad period of time, 1-10 years. The initial reaction to that is: "Hey, but at least he lived". Whereas the truth is he's just got a very prolonged death sentence, but he's got potentially a decade still to do some good/live a rich life, but he'll never know exactly how long he's got, but he's risking his life anyway, so he might be killed by something else, but.....and so on. On the page you have cast iron success, off the page are a whole raft of problems and issues which (hopefully) tinge the success with a sense of cost and loss.

Course it doesn't have to be blood and guts. ~~~~SPOILER ALERT!!!!!~~~~ The ender of the Farseer trilogy (robin hobb. AMAZING!!) the protagonist succeeds, lives, but has to watch his lifelong love and their child, become a family with another man out of necessity for both of them and knowing he can't ever see them again, for their own safety. He's happy they'll be taken care of, he's upset it isn't by him, but he approves of the man, but it means he'll have to build a new life other than the perfect one he already had......and so on.

Anyway - i've gone on for waaaaaaay too long - hope that fires up some ideas. In short - give them what they want, but at a cost that initially appears worth it.

kke
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Re: Ending your novel on a sad note

Post by kke » March 26th, 2012, 8:32 am

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and suggestion. I can't do it. My character, my sweet, clueless character, has been preparing for his own departure for years. He's got this idea in his head and throughout the book, he remains steadfast and unshaken. To have him suddenly change his mind wouldn't ring true.

You know the adage: You're only as good as your last (whatever). Maybe that goes for books, too. Do readers (do I!)judge a book by its ending--I mean, how they feel after they read the ending? That's what they'll remember, that feeling, and that's what they'll use to gauge whether or not they liked the book.

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Hillsy
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Re: Ending your novel on a sad note

Post by Hillsy » March 26th, 2012, 11:02 am

In that case, 2 points.

1) Is there anyway to do it the other way round? To happily have him shuffle off this mortal coil, but leave a feeling of accomplishment and a "price worth paying" to it? That might temper the reality of it all. I'm thinking of something like the end of the (~~~~SPOILER ALERT~~~~) Mistborn trilogy where you feel the cost of their sacrifice worth it AND that somehow they are content with both their deaths, the manner in which they came about, and that they believe in an afterlife that they'll share. Tempering a happy ending with a feeling of future melancholy is largely using the same plot methods as tinging an unhappy ending with an air of hope.

2) I may suggest that, if your plotting and tone are consistent and sound, then the people who complain about the ending, AND THEN will judge your book's quality negatively because of it, aren't your target audience. Therefore it;s ok to take their feelings over the ending far more lightly than otherwise. Case in point, Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy had an ending I felt was bleak to say the least, and I felt a little cheated by it. While I understand why he did it, the point he was trying to make and the clever plotting to make it palatable, I would have prefered a brighter finish. Still doesn't stop me thinking its a brilliant piece of work.

If someone can't abide a true, but unpleasent, ending but can't criticise it for anything other than that ending exists, ignore them. There'll be plenty of other readers who won't care. However, you have to make sure the tone of your work and the tone of your ending are in synch (i.e The Fox and the Hound doesn't end with the farmer shooting the Fox, because it doesn't match the tone. Compare that to American History X)

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Nathan Bransford
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Re: Ending your novel on a sad note

Post by Nathan Bransford » March 31st, 2012, 10:23 pm

Moving this to the writing forum because I think there are a lot of different possible approaches and other writers might be able to weigh in.

You have to write the book you want to write, but if you're hearing the same thing from multiple people there might be something to it. Yes, you have to be true to the characters but don't forget that you control them, not the other way around!

Doug Pardee
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Re: Ending your novel on a sad note

Post by Doug Pardee » April 1st, 2012, 1:23 pm

Two of the comments you'd gotten suggested that the ending was unclear. That's a different matter. I think that, by and large, short stories are given some latitude to finish ambiguously, but novels aren't. "I read 350 pages and I still don't find out what happened?" But you're the author, and it's your call.

On a crass note: today's readers of genre fiction (except for romances) tend to be very series-oriented. Readers want to get attached to your characters and to follow them through a (long) series of books. For romances, Happily Ever After is pretty much a mandatory part of the genre. Either way, readers of genre fiction usually are looking to be entertained, not depressed. If you're writing genre fiction, you have to deal with the question of whether you're writing for your readers or writing for yourself. Again, you're the author and it's your call.

But if your character really doesn't grow, doesn't learn anything, and doesn't change at all throughout the novel, it's probably best to kill that character off. Maybe long before the ending.

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dios4vida
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Re: Ending your novel on a sad note

Post by dios4vida » April 2nd, 2012, 12:23 pm

I agree with Doug, that perhaps the lack of clarity as to the protagonist's fate has left a sour taste in some reader's mouths. That would be a good place to look for issues.

I'm in the camp of "I want my books to have a HEA, or at least hope and happiness for the future". I just don't like sad endings. That being said, I agree with Hillsy about the end of the Mistborn trilogy. I didn't like what happened, per se, but it was a brilliantly executed story and the ending was satisfying, if not the way I wish it would have ended. It stayed true to the story and, while bittersweet, there was a tone, a hint, a note that life will go on and because of what happened it will be better than it was before.

Now then, in regards to your ending, kke - you say that you just couldn't bring yourself to have it end on a hopeful note. Good for you for knowing your characters enough that you can feel what would be true, and sticking to your guns about it. That shows a lot of strength in your vision of the story. If you can't have a HEA, then don't have one. But I'd suggest taking a look and seeing if there's a way that you could show a silver lining - perhaps have a secondary character smile and walk into the sunset, or show that whatever tragedy had to befall your protagonist, that the sacrifice was worth it? That because of this, someone, somewhere, will have more happiness than they would have otherwise? I think that's the key to having a sad ending that doesn't leave your reader blubbering in tears (though I've done that at sad, bittersweet, and happy endings) or throwing the book across the room. We have to know that the sacrifice was worth it - otherwise, what was the point of following this character?

I'll leave with an example, though it's from a video game rather than a book. My husband and I put many, many hours into the PS3 game Trinity: Souls of Zill'Oll. It was a fun, diversionary kind of game. The story had a lot of potential and intrigue (though it was very badly told), and I was excited to see what would happen. Halfway through the main character learns that in order to defeat Big Bad Guy, he must erase the monster, and himself, from history. Okay, I thought, let's see what happens now. We get to the end, and he beats BBG - and then poof, he's gone, no one remembers him. The other characters are confused and walk away, dispersing back the way they came. The world in general was the better for it, but no one we'd come to care about was changed. They didn't grow or learn or become better people. They just went back to the lives they'd lived before, and the hero was utterly forgotten. It was a very unsatisfying ending and one that made my husband so angry at the game that, though he enjoyed playing it, he never wants to see it again.

Was the world a better place? Yes. But we didn't care about the world. We cared about the people, and their emotional journeys. We suffered and watched them start to grow, to change, to overcome and learn to be better people. But when the ending came, none of it mattered. THAT was what killed that story for us. If the changes had stuck, if the secondary characters had some kind of growth/change/hope because of this, it would have been okay. As it was, though, I feel like it was sad and hopeless just for the sake of being so.
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

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Mira
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Re: Ending your novel on a sad note

Post by Mira » April 2nd, 2012, 11:26 pm

I like the above comments, and I support what Doug said about clarity.

I also really liked what dios4vida said: "If the changes had stuck, if the secondary characters had some kind of growth/change/hope because of this, it would have been okay. As it was, though, I feel like it was sad and hopeless just for the sake of being so."

Yes. I feel personally cheated if I feel the author messed with me just because he or she wanted to shock me or manipulate my feelings and make me feel sad. I get really angry about that.

The way to avoid this is: if you are going to kill off your protagonist, make sure there is tons and tons of foreshadowing. The reader should know it's coming and understand why it happened. It should make complete sense in terms of the whole story arc.

In other words, the death of a protag should not be a surprise, it should be an inevitablity.

Be aware that you may lose readers either way, because some readers just don't want to read sad endings. But if you can write a story that is true to itself, including the ending, even a sad and fatalistic one, it could be a very powerful piece.

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