Sunday, December 30, 2007

Supernovas, Dead stars and White Dwarfs

"I want endings (not stoppings) that close like supernovas and leave you gasping.”

--Richard Ford

I first heard this oft-quoted advice from a friend and writing teacher encouraging me to be more aggressive in the ending of a short story I was working on. (You can find the original remark in an interesting long essay by Richard Ford here.) I remember that at the time I was very concerned that my endings be “earned”—that they not come to a sudden resolution that hadn’t been prepared for.

In the old days, the unearned ending would be done with deus ex machina, and most people know better than to do that know. The more common late 20th-century mistake, which I tended toward, is to have a moody quiet character just go off the deep end and wreck any hope of reconciling the relationships. End of story—very tidy. Except that these endings are rarely earned either. An inexperienced writer doesn’t know how to set up for these endings and resorts to them because really they don't know fully what they're doing in their story earlier on.

So, trying to avoid that, I went in the other direction—endings that imitated Raymond Carver and James Joyce. Epiphanies and important realizations. Very slight gestures that indicated a change in understanding of some kind. The worst examples of this look like no ending at all—they just peter out in a way that looks to readers like self-important artsiness and deliberate obscurity.

In a way it is deliberate obscurity. Both kinds of endings are. They try to obscure—either with a lot of commotion or with an affected artsiness—that the writer isn’t command of the material. Instead of worrying about the ending, I would be better off making the characters as fully complex and honest as I could. In theory if I do that then the ending will take care of itself.

In any case, what my friend was saying in quoting Richard Ford was that if powerful emotions have been packed into the story and powerful pressures applied to the characters then something powerful is likely to result. A real person in that situation would naturally respond in some kind of way, and if they are human and singular, and if the situation is really justifiably interesting, they will probably respond in a way that is surprising.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a noisy ending—the choice isn’t between my “and then all of a sudden he started yelling” endings and my “he just shrugged and made a wry joke and walked out the door” endings. In theory, the endings of Carver’s stories and “The Dead”—subtle as they are—are supernovas. I think most readers are left gasping at the end of “The Dead.”

Supernovas vs. Dead Stars

All of this is a lot of background to what I wanted to say about the process of working on this novel.

After finishing the first draft and reading it through, I had many minor episodes that set up a dramatic situation early on, before moving setting up the primary climactic episode of the chapter, and after reading through my draft I could see that those minor episodes were missed opportunities. They didn’t have good endings to them oftentimes. They fell flat without adding anything to advance the plot. Sometimes, arguably, they developed characterization, but only in the sense that they were a character sketch, and characterization should always go hand-in-hand with advancing the plot.

I came to think of these episodes as the opposites of supernovas and in my work plan, not knowing anything about astronomy, I labeled them as “dead stars.” They have been key places in the meantime where I have worked to develop my draft. I go back to those episodes and ask myself what really interested me about that dramatic situation and what would really happen if my characters—who I have been getting to know better and better—were really in that situation, particularly in light of the experiences they’ve been having in previous episodes. Then I develop/re-write that.

Now that I think about it, that metaphor is all wrong, because if they were really dead stars the job would be to cut them out, but like I said, they were missed opportunities. My job was to turn them into supernovas. They might be more appropriately labeled white dwarf stars, but perhaps some literary-minded astronomer or physicist can suggest the more apt metaphor like black dwarf, red giant or Wolf-Rayet star.

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