The Point of No Return

REPENT

Found this carved above the toilet in a public restroom. Even the can judges my writing choices.

A question today, for all you writers and readers: how far down the dark road can a character go before they’re completely irredeemable?

It comes up because I’m doing some rewrites, and, man, some of them involve a particular character going to a bad place. I think it’s necessary, but this character, who is already not a great person, is going to do some stuff which might make them irredeemable to readers.

Which could be a problem, since I intend to redeem them. Eventually. You know, after they’ve suffered for a bit.

Writers really are such assholes.

Note that being irredeemable is not the same as not liking a character. I might dislike a character for plenty of reasons, including but not limited to whining, passivity, entitlement, meaningless brooding, and just being a little shit. For a character to cross into irreversible damnation, they have to commit a pretty big sin, and most of the characters I dislike don’t think that big.

My line, such as it is, is fairly simple: in order for a character to be morally dead to me, they have to punch down. In other words, they have to choose to hurt someone who is weaker than them or unable to strike back and know it. Strike the helpless, abuse an animal, verbally cut someone you know is already hurting just because you can…choose to do those things when you damn well know better and you are on thin ice, friend. Do it twice and you are on thin ice while wearing a seal costume with a big hungry polar bearheading your way.

These metaphors got really Canadian all of a sudden.

Where’s your line, dear reader? What thing can a character do to make them just the worst? Or do you think everyone, from the most minor sinner to the Darkest of Dark Lords, can come back to the side of the angels? Tell me your thoughts.

In the meantime, I’m going to go ruin this character’s life. Again.

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Betrayals and Broken Promises: The Importance of the Ending

Too much?

It happened again.

I was enjoying a story and then the ending just…well, ‘disappointing’ might be the kindest description.*

It wasn’t that it was sad. I’m not a huge fan of stories mired in misery, but a tragic ending that fits the story is a great one. Some of the best things I’ve read have ended in tragedy. And, importantly, tragedy that I didn’t see coming during the story. But when it happened, it fit. It might have broken the tangle of baling wire and coyote teeth I call a heart, but at least it was broken for a reason.

This, however, was tragedy without purpose. It didn’t fit the story; in fact, one part was at best a cheap ploy to illicit FEELS, and at worst a betrayal of the characters.

So. Yeah. Not a fan.

I know not everyone feels this way, but here’s how it is for me: an unsatisfactory ending–either happy or sad–ruins an otherwise good story. You can create the best thing in the world, but if you fail to keep whatever promises you made in the course of it, then we’re going to have a problem.

It’s not about twist endings, either, because some of those have been my favourites. But, again, it has to be a twist that serves the story. Not one that’s an author’s attempt to shock just because.

As with all my advice, your mileage may vary. For you, endings might be less important than the journey it took to get there. I understand that, and the story that ended so poorly recently had many great parts leading up to that shit show. That might be enough for you.

But if I was going to offer advice to writers, it would be this: keep your promises, or don’t make them in the first place. Because an unsatisfactory ending is a betrayal of the audience’s faith, and a betrayed audience stops reading your stuff.

Stick the landing or don’t bother to show up.

*The unkindest was probably heard by all my neighbours. Screw that, they probably heard it on the ISS.

Twist and Shout: How Not To Do Surprise Endings

…the fuck is this shit?

I read a story recently that had…well, let’s call it a twist ending.

Except that it wasn’t a twist. It was a thinly disguised deus ex machina that neatly got the protagonists out of danger without them actually having to do anything. But the feel was that I should have been so distracted by the sarcastic-quotes-twist that I shouldn’t have noticed. It was less “hey, that was a surprise” and more “here’s a wool hat, do you mind pulling it over your eyes real quick?” I was clear I was supposed to play along, but, frankly, the author hadn’t earned it.

It was the worst possible thing the ending to a piece of fiction could be*: it was unsatisfying.

Writers: don’t do that shit. We–meaning your readers–are not stupid. We know when we’re the target of authorial condescension. And we don’t like it.

This isn’t to say there can’t be surprises or twists. Obviously there should be, because otherwise there’s no suspense. But in retrospect, those twists have to seem like the organic outcome of who your character is and the choices she makes. It should come, not out of left field, but from the home plate, even if the reader isn’t entirely sure where it’s going to end up.

A twist isn’t introduced at the end. A proper twist is introduced in the beginning. Casually. So that we barely notice. Then, when it appears later, it’s not going to induce the WTFs in your readers.

If you can’t write your ending without an external force swooping in the save the day–especially an external force that hadn’t been so much as mentioned in the three hundred pages previous–then you need to rethink your ending. And possibly your beginning. Because, honey, you took a wrong turn somewhere and it landed you on a such a dead end road that you figured that was the only way to get out of it.

What comes next is…what comes next. It is inevitable. Every step should have led here. Even if we couldn’t see the road.

*To me, obviously, but if there’s one among you who claims a worse crime against narrative I can only assume you’re an alien in disguise.