For the last week, I’ve been struggling with a major rewrite of a short story. Basically, the character was not so likeable, her journey was boring, and the ending was very, very lame.
The problems with my Lame-O story:
This was already the third or fourth draft of the story. I’d originally written it for a particular venue, who rejected it. Later, it was accepted for a different one, conditional on me completing a satisfactory rewrite.
The main structural changes the editors asked for were the removal of one subplot (and the scenes both where it was introduced and where it was resolved) and a new ending.
I cut out the subplot. No problem. I wasn’t entirely attached to it.
But still not done!
Now my story had a new problem: no escalating action. By the middle of the story, the character’s personal problems had resolved. There was no reason for the reader to continue further. Nothing exciting was ahead.
So I threw in a nasty complication for the main character. Better.
Now, I re-read the story. The end still failed to bring any sense of closure to the story. I’ve now read it and re-read it a bunch of times. I burst into tears of frustration a couple of nights ago because I was at such a loss on how to fix my story.
Looking for some nice MICE advice
I’ve been thinking about Orson Scott Card’s rules for how to use a story’s “type” to determine structure, for one thing. (He calls this MICE, and I call it niiiice). I think there might be a mismatch there. Most of my story is straddling two types: character and event, and the ending is straddling two types, too: character and idea. No wonder I’m struggling!
Contrasting two great books
I’ve also been comparing and contrasting two of the best Jewish novels of last year: Dara Horn’s A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel and Ruchama King Feuerman’s In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist. I highly enjoyed and recommend both, but Horn’s ending didn’t work, and Feuerman’s did.
On one hand, Feuerman ratcheted up the stakes and then provided a high-energy climax that met the needs of all the characters. Importantly, the concluding pages matched the logic of the rest of the story. There is no “happy ever after” ending here, but it is a satisfying ending.
On the other hand, Horn provided a logical conclusion to the main physical conflict, but then followed it up with a denouement that completely contradicted the spiritual/psychological lessons that resulted from the climax. The actions of the characters in the denouement are also illogical in the context of the rest of the book for a number of other reasons (which I won’t tell you because there would be spoilers). When she pulls out a dramatic final paragraph, because it is so unrooted in the previous 250+ pages, it feels fake, not satisfying.
[Horn shouldn’t feel bad, by the way. I think at least a third of novels have terrible endings, including those by many literary “greats:” half of Stephen King’s early work (haven’t read any recent material, so maybe he’s learned his lesson by now), Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Alice in Wonderland, and Huck Finn all come to mind.]
Back to my story:
My closing scene is well-written and heart-warming. But after a lot of contemplation, I’ve decided I made a big, big mistake. Or, rather a few of them:
1) It doesn’t resolve the main conflict of the book (it wraps up a subplot without addressing the central conflict).
2) It’s there’s no relief of tension. One of the perfect things about Feuerman’s ending is that there is so much tension, you want to explode. You have to find out what is going to happen next! When you finally do, you want to sigh with pleasure. I need to go back and raise the stakes before the climax to make the conclusion feel like a payoff.
3) I’ve got to make sure that the ending really matches the rest of the story. In fact, I probably going to have to choose one MICE category for the whole story, make some revisions to the body, and then write a completely new ending that matches it. (Sheesh. That’s going to be a lot of work!)
And now, I’m heading back to that Word Doc to try again.