On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel

On 3rd September on the third day of my Mystical Circles blog tour, blogger Rosie Amber hosted a guest post from me on her blog.On a journey (2)

This is part of a series in which I reblog the articles from that blog tour. So today’s post is the article Rosie Amber first published online, called:

On the Art and Inexact Science of a Good Ending to a Novel

Recently a fellow blogger piqued my interest with a piece about online book reviews. Amongst the observations she made, she referred to the attitude authors take to their reviews. She noted that many people have different interpretations of the star-ratings. Specifically she mentioned that she had experienced some asking her to take down three star reviews which they interpreted as negative.

As an author and reviewer myself, I review every book I read on Amazon and Goodreads. I will give a book 5 stars only if it hooked me, kept me enthralled, made me want to read on, answered the questions the author posed, AND delivered a strong, satisfying end. If all those things above are present, but the end does not satisfy, I will downgrade a star rating. I think you can in some way define an author’s theme, worldview, mindset (at the time of writing, anyway) from the way they choose to end a novel.

But having said this, I will admit to a challenge when I came to write the end of my novel Mystical Circles (out in a new edition with a new cover on 5 September). Ideally I would have liked to give two alternative endings, as John Fowles did in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

I don’t like an ending which ties up all the loose strands, and which is unequivocally happy or sad. My ideal ending is bittersweet. As in life, I believe that when all our dreams are fulfilled there will always be other aspects of the situation which have the potential to cause disruption in the future. One of my favourite endings is that to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudicebecause although the central story question is answered positively, it is also bristling with ironic little hints that life is not necessarily going to run smoothly for the main protagonist hereafter.

How I chose to end Mystical Circles was full of challenges because the raison d’etre of the story – a hothouse community called Wheel of Love who have gathered around a charismatic leader to learn how to achieve an ideal existence – derives all its emotional charge and dangerous dynamics from the psychological instability of the group members – and its leader.  The situation I outline in the novel – the attempt by a young woman journalist to rescue her younger sister from a mystical cult – could have a number of outcomes.

I think the key to a successful ending is that it must satisfy, whether it is happy, sad, tragic or bittersweet. I am conscious, too, that an unsatisfying end can undo much of the good work of an author.  As novelists the best we can do is to remain true to ourselves, to what we are trying to say within our stories. Though I admit we often don’t even know what we’re trying to say, until we’ve said it!

And back to reviews again; I love reviews of any star-rating where the reader has clearly read the book thoughtfully, and has genuine opinions to offer about plot, characterisation, theme. On Amazon the healthiest star-rating profile is a triangle with its broad side at the top. I am afraid I feel suspicious of books that have only five stars. Also I am often attracted to the one star reviews. I want to know, “What is the worst that can be said about this novel?” And, quixotically, some of the things said by the one star reviewers make me want to read the book. Human opinions are incredibly diverse, especially about books, and we must all respect that.

The Therapeutic Journey of the Fictional Hero or Heroine

Recently I came upon an article in The Psychotherapist magazine which highlights the close parallels between the novel and the process of psychotherapy.

In her article Psychotherapy and the Novel, in issue 56 Spring 2014 edition, the author (therapeutic counsellor Rosamond Williams) makes the point that only the novel (of all the narrative art forms) offers a parallel detail to the process of psychotherapy, in the exploration of relationships, thoughts and feelings.

Rosamond Williams cites as examples the following novels: Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Dickens David Copperfield, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as well as Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.

In all of these we can trace the hero or heroine’s  learning curve through their confusions and unsatisfactory relationship to resolution: a very therapeutic experience for the reader as well as for the main protagonist.

I can bear out everything she says not only in my reading, but in my own novel-writing.

In Jane Austen’s Price and Prejudice for example, I believe there are many other universal truths, equally valid for our own lives in 2014 just as they were in Regency England, that  we can learn, well beyond the ironic and flippant one in the first line: that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.

Here’s just a small selection of the truths, helpful for a therapeutic journey, that I’ve picked out from Pride and Prejudice:

1)  even the most outrageous person, behaving badly, can end up getting what he or she wants;

2)  no matter how mortifying and objectionable, that person can still be playing a vital part in the chain of events leading to a final positive outcome;

3)  when you’re at your saddest and most disappointed, convinced you’ve lost all your hopes and dreams, you don’t know what is going on behind the scenes;

4) when all seems lost, help can sometimes come from the most unexpected quarter;

5) sometimes people do the most disgraceful things and end up triumphing through it, because of the links and connections they’ve unwittingly set up between other people;

and

6) sometimes you can, through your own wrong-headedness and flawed attitude, interfere to try and stop a certain event happening, and end up being the vital factor that facilitates it.

I can identify, too, with the psychotherapeutic  journey in my own fiction-writing. In my upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit, my heroine, Zoe, sees her situation as perfect and ideal; when negative influences start to creep in, she denies them; through her stubbornness she continues her denial until she is goaded by a friend with a totally different outlook on life to recognise the threat for what it is. Only when the antagonism has become too great for her to ignore, she makes a critical choice to take responsibility and act to oppose the menace which is engulfing her life.

To me this closely parallels the journey one may take in psychotherapy.

 

 

 

 

Totally Devoted to Jane Austen

One of my favourite Christmas gifts was one I bought for myself for 10p in the late stock-clearance at my son’s school Christmas Fair – an audio book of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice book cover (The Folio Society Definitive Collector's Edition)
Pride and Prejudice book cover (The Folio Society Definitive Collector’s Edition)

I’ve been listening to it in the car over and over again. And despite Death Comes to Pemberley  on TV after Christmas, I still cannot get enough of Elizabeth, Darcy, Mrs Bennett, Lydia, Wickham and all the rest of them.

In addition, as another Christmas gift I received the DVD set of the classic BBC TV series starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Elizabeth Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett.

You’d think that knowing all the story-points and the outcome would dim your enthusiasm for engaging with one novel again and again.

Yet in Pride and Prejudice my appetite is never sated.

On every hearing, there are new glittering gems of psychological insight, discernment and irony to be found.

Was there ever such a bitchy young woman as Miss Bingley? Or such a cringing sycophant as Mr Collins? Can we ever quite fathom the sardonic detachment of Mr Bennett? And was Lady Catherine really pleased with Mr Collins’s obsequiousness? And can we ever truly understand Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins, or determine exactly what Mr Wickham imagined would happen to Lydia and her family once he’d  finished with her in London and gone off abroad to seek better chances there – as was his avowed plan when Darcy finally hunted him down? And has any author ever written a  better account of a changing heart than Jane Austen’s, in her depiction of Elizabeth reading Mr Darcy’s letter and coming to a new opinion of the respective characters of Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy?

We keen novel readers have many ideas of the best novel ever written. Some may say Cervantes’ Don Quixote, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or  Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But I say Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is the most perfect novel ever written because I can never get my fill of her wisdom and  insight into human relationships and behaviour and motivation. And there seems no end to the power of this story and these characters and this author’s observations, to set off answering bells in my own life-experience.