Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Shocking Truth about Shocking Endings

"...and you won't believe the shocking ending!!!"

How many times have you heard this on television? Nearly every week, some show or another is promising its viewers an ending they won't believe. Or can't imagine. Or will be shocked by.


Sure, surprise endings have their place, but they've been way overused of late. Unexpected surprise endings might work in a short story or a television show, but a very good surprise ending is very difficult to write. Why?

1) In many cases, the audience is expecting it. Most people, when reading a story, are working to forecast the direction of the plot (Where is this story going? What's going to happen next?). This means that, aside from children (who are more of a pure audience due to their lack of experience), most readers will spot a 'surprise' ending a mile away. And, believe me, there is nothing worse than a surprise ending that falls flat.

2) Because of #1 above, writers must reach farther and farther for an ending that will actually surprise the readers. This means that, in many cases, surprise endings are becoming more and more improbable. Some even reek of deus ex machina.

3) Surprise endings often fall into the realm of cliche. Joe Bob thinks that everyone has forgotten his birthday, but all of his friends were merely planning a surprise party for him. Mary Jane thinks her boyfriend is cheating on her because he's out all night, but - wow! - he's really a vampire. Little Billy is being chased by a huge monster, but - surprise!! - he wakes up and finds out that it is all a dream.

Again, there is nothing worse than a surprise ending that is no surprise.
There are much better ways to build tension in your fiction. Over the next few posts, I'm going to explore some of these ways. There. I've told you what I plan to do and, therefore, have spoiled the surprise. On purpose.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Writing About Children

Maybe it's because yesterday was Mother's Day, but I've been thinking a lot about child characters in adult books. So often I've read what I've thought was a very good novel only to be annoyed by the lack of authenticity in its younger characters. Every character in a book, even the little ones, need to be convicing. I'm not sure if some authors don't have any experience with kids, or if they think their characters are exceptional, but after living with and working with children, I have found that, despite their differences, they share a lot of similarities.

1. Children are not tiny adults - This seems obvious, yet so many times I've read stories in which the children behave like adults. Obviously, there are some very well mannered children, but even these will get cranky at times. Children fidget. They cry. They whine. They pick their noses and blow bubbles with their saliva. In Martin Scorsese's movie Kundun, a very small boy is chosen to be Tibet's next dalai lama. As such, the boy is expected to meditate several hours each day. One of my favorite scenes in this movie is of the little dalai lama, who is barely out of toddlerhood, wandering off while the other monks are deep in meditation. Of course he's not able to sit motionlessly for hours on end! He's just a child!

2. Children are concrete thinkers, not abstract thinkers. I can think of many novels in which young characters are discussing philosophy or solving complex logic puzzles. This is simply not realistic. I'm not saying that there aren't some exceptional children who can out-think many adults, but this is the exception, not the rule. Lisa Simpson is a great example of this. I love the character - in fact, she is my favorite Simpson - but her interests in women's studies and jazz don't make her very childlike! (Obviously, this is part of the fun of the show.)

3. Most children are fearful and suspicious of change. Because their range of experience is so limited (they've only lived a few years, after all!), they tend to worry about things. If Mom has a cough, does that mean she's going to die? What will happen if I go to kindergarten and have to use the bathroom? And just try to get a child to try a new food that looks a little different from what he's used to!

Now, if you're looking at this list and shaking your head, chances are that you've had enough experience with children to know the exceptions to these observations! In that case, you are probably familiar enough with children to write believable characters. If not, try to observe children to see how they act and what they do. Even if your child character is a genius (such as Ender Wiggin in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game) he or she is still a child! Just like a female writer must pay special attention when writing a male protagonist and vice versa, so too adults must pay special attention when writing about the youngest of their characters.

[As an end note, I've noticed that the best children's characters are written by authors of children's and YA books. Katherine Anne Patterson, Jerry Spinelli, and Andrew Clements excel at writing about children and young people. If ever you need some tuteledge in writing young characters, I suggest reading a few books by these authors.]