Last week I re-learned the most important rule of novel writing. Maybe that sounds a bit over-dramatic, and, in truth, it’s a lesson I’ve known for a good long time. But I’m not sure I fully appreciated it until last week when I read a novel that failed miserably.
A novel is a promise made and KEPT.
In the first chapter of a good novel- sometimes in the very first line- the story makes an agreement with a reader. It tells us “this book is about x, y and/or z.”
Sometimes that promise is overt. (spoiler alert)
“My name is India Opal Buloni and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.” Because of Winn-Dixie p. 1
In the next page, India Opal rescues the smiling, dirty dog in need, claiming him as her own. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude the India Opal is also in need and that this book will be about how both India Opal and the dog are ultimately rescued.We don’t know the details yet- that India Opal’s mother abandoned her, or she’s just moved to a new town filled with lonely outcasts. We don’t know Winn-Dixie is afraid of thunder or that her father the preacher is emotionally frozen. These (and plenty of other rich character revelations) are surprises we learn along the way. But we do know this is a novel of salvation.
If it turned out to be a novel about survival after a martian attack or a romance between India Opals father and the hot-stuff divorcee down the road … the reader would be surprised- in a bad way. We want to find out how India herself is saved and Kate DiCamillo delivers. A satisfying ending is a promise KEPT. Because of Winn-Dixie ends with Opal, the preacher and Winn-Dixie sure of each other’s love. All their problems aren’t solved, all their emotional wounds aren’t healed. But they’ve come to greater understanding and happiness. Each major character has been rescued.
Easy, right? Obvious, huh? Ha.
Last week I read an advance copy of a adult novel that will be released this summer. Publishers and bookstores are already pushing it. Here’s another spoiler. It stinks.
But it took this bad book- a failure- to make me truly understand why making and keeping a novel’s promise is crucial.
I’m not about writing bad book reviews so let’s call this book “That Crummy Novel That Breaks Its Promise.” In the first chapter we meet a grieving father who has vivid dreams of his dead son. “(E)ven though Mark was awake he could still hear them? He couldn’t make her (his cold new fiance)- anyone- understand a thing like that.” By the second chapter he’s been stalked by a creepy woman who says his son’s ghost is haunting her house. And we learn that his ex-wife, the boy’s mother, has always believed she could make beyond-the-grave contact with her dead son.
So this is a ghost story, right? That’s what the cover, the early reviews, and the first pages promise.
Fast forward to about a quarter of the way from the end. We haven’t actually come close to a ghost yet but there’s been a lot of talk about them. The crummy protagonist is back with his ex-wife and they’ve hired spiritualists to summon their son’s spirit to put it to rest. The characters are nervous and excited. The reader is flipping pages with eager anticipation.
Then the writer slams on the brakes.
In a nutshell Mark, the crummy protagonist, says “I must have been drunk when I agreed to do this.” He turns his back on his wife (again) and kicks the mediums out of the house. Smack. Crack. Promise broken. That’s it. The end.
Ending with “I was drunk and there’s no such thing as ghosts” is worse than Bobby Ewing walking out of the shower and saying “it was all a dream.”
That Dallas ending was so spectacularly silly, over the top, and (for many people) disappointing that it became a campy national joke. It’s not so funny in an (allegedly) serious novel.
I felt cheated by the crummy novel’s non-ending. I was cheated. I’m not saying ghosts needed to start circling the house to satisfy me. A good ending must also be a surprise. But it’s an inevitable surprise. You may not always get the ending you “want” but a good ending satisfies the promise made, even when doesn’t tie up every problem with a shiny red bow or turn out the way you expect. Saying Oops I was drunk and I’m not going through with this doesn’t cut it (unless I guess it’s a novel about alcoholism.)
Katherine Paterson knew something about inevitable, surprising but ambiguous endings when she wrote The Great Gilly Hopkins. In chapter one Gilly wants to leave foster care and be reunited with her mother.
Things don’t go as Gilly plans. Yes, she leaves foster care. Yes, her mother comes back. But it turns out that her mother stinks and Gilly loves the wonderful wacky woman who fostered her. This isn’t the ending protective readers “wish” for Gilly but it’s the brave, honest ending this no-holds-barred book deserves. If Mr. Crummy Novelist wrote this there would have been a busy signal or a wrong number when Gilly makes her spectacular, heart-wrenching last phone call. But Paterson promised us Gilly would learn to open her heart and accept love, even when love leads to heartbreak. Promise made and promise (spectacularly) kept. That’s what I call a good lesson and a happy ending.
~tami lewis brown