In defense of unhappy endings

i09 just ran an article  about “Why all stories should end happily” and in the argument the author essentially says that fiction stories, because they are fiction, and therefore not real, should end happily rather than realistically.

Inglis-Arkell argues that most stories, especially science fiction/fantasy need to have happy endings because nobody wants to read about the bad shit that happens to everyone in everyday life and that bad shit is predictable. She argues that good stories are about the little guy going up against impossible odds and that the only reason we like underdog stories is because the underdog wins.

The revolutionary war was a group of people going up against an empire. They won. Sort of. The epilogue to that story is a country that employed the use of slavery, split for a time during a civil war, and now slips into an economic and educational decline more on par with that of a third world nation.  What started as a revolution against a monarchy has now become enslaved to a plutocracy ruled by a wealthy corporate elite and governed by a theocratic backwater that refuses to place human dignity above religious hubris.

People are complex animals. There is a give and take, a dark side to everything we do. “Winning” doesn’t always mean winning and losing isn’t always what makes a good story. But losing is what makes things believable.

Firefly, arguably one of the best Science Fiction shows on recent TV, centered around a group of characters who at one time fought in a civil war… and lost. The characters of Firefly would have been much less sympathetic had the Browncoats won the war.  We love the underdogs. But we love the underdogs more, the more they try and fail because failure gives characters depth.  We learn the most from our mistakes.

I’m not saying that every story has to have characters that constantly try and fail at life, but it makes them much more entertaining to watch the more they struggle. The moment the leading man gets the girl, the moment that rebellion gets what they want, the moment that advertising agency splits with the corporation and does their own thing, that’s the moment the story jumps the shark. It is the baby episode, the “very special” episode.

People are boring as shit when they are happy. It also makes them less easy to relate to because deep down, we all know that the princess is always in the next castle and the cake is ultimately a lie.

Now, I can understand the argument against realism. That rag tag group of five rebels should get something. There always has to be a payoff, a carrot to keep the audience engaged. But, unless they are complete idiots, they know better than to actually try and lead a war against impossible odds. That is just plain bad military planning and they should pay a price for their foolishness.

They might win the war decisively enough to change the world a little, but half of them will die in the end, perhaps even questioning why they did it. The guy might get the girl, but only after he learns that there is a lot more sacrifice than he bargained for in order to do it. And what happens after he gets her? After actually living with the hair curlers and snoring for 10 years, is she really the same princess he rescued?

Interesting stories are not always realistic. They are filled with bad decisions, overzealous expectations and various degrees of hyperbole to keep things entertaining. But to make every story end happily, to make ever guy get his girl is just plain naive and I think it insults the audience.

Life is complicated. The princess grows into a haggard queen, eating bonbons while the hero grows old and develops a limp from that injury he got when he was younger. The dragon always has eggs because life finds a way (that dragon had a family too, you know.) Friendships turn stale and grow apart.

In the end, the characters have to ask themselves if it was all worth it. The answer will probably fall somewhere between “not as bad as I feared” and “not as great as I hoped for.” If the characters are smart, they’ll learn to take what they can get.

People change. They grow up. Stories should grow up as well.

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How to piss off a writer (or how not to give feedback)

Let’s say that hypothetically, you have a friend who likes to write. They come to you one day and proudly proclaim that they have written a book. You say “Wow! That’s awesome! I totally want to read it!”

That was your first mistake.

The writer has undoubtedly spent no less than a year, probably more like 5 years working on this book. That’s 365 days a year of endlessly writing, rewriting, thinking about the book, rewriting the book, memorizing the book until they are sick of it themselves. If they have been working on the book for longer than that, you can bet that they are even prouder and have put even more of themselves into it. This is their baby, their brainchild, their life’s work.

Then you said, “I totally want to read it.”

You said it because being their friend or family member, you want to be supportive.

Now, there are a couple directions you can go from here. The smartest is to follow the statement up with, “I mean.. uh… I don’t have a lot of time right now, but I’d love to see it if it’s ready. Let me get back to you.”

Then run. Run far across the land. Disconnect your phone. Contact witness protection. Because they. Will. Find. You.

Now, if you are lucky, the writer will shrug disappointedly and walk away, not wanting to bother you with a manuscript they aren’t 100% confident about.

Chances are you agreed to read it. You fools!

If this happens, you my friend, are screwed. Your writer friend has probably just slapped that manuscript into your hands, or emailed it to your kindle or snail-mailed it (all 1780 pages of it) to your doorstep. Congratulations.

If you have unwittingly fallen into this trap, be prepared to suffer.  If you are lucky, the book will be fun to read. If the book is not readable, you will undoubtedly be sweating to find something nice to say. This is what we have always been told our entire lives, right? “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.”

I’ll let you in on a little secret. That part is complete bullshit.

The worst thing you can do to a writer is A) tell them they are talented and B) tell them their book is good when you really wanted to light it on fire after the first paragraph. Trust me, in either situation you aren’t doing them any favors.

Why is this? Well, lets start with the talented bit first. Telling a writer they are talented because they wrote a book is like telling a cyclist they are athletic because they didn’t fall down, give up and take the bus instead. Writing a novel, a complete, revised novel, is a test of endurance more than skill or talent. Honestly, anyone can cram 100k words into sheets of paper and call it a novel.  Calling any creative person talented is not only patronizing, but it suggests that they are somehow entitled to be recognized for what they have done by publishers or a larger audience. When the harsh reality of life bitch-slaps them across the face, talent doesn’t really amount to much.

Now, of course there are exceptions. the person may have no intentions of ever publishing the novel, which is fine. But chances are they plan to send the manuscript to publishers and agents. You are doing them a disservice by not being honest with them. And I mean completely honest.

The publishing industry is all about rejection.  Roughly 1% of all novels submitted to agents ever get considered. Most agents get about 10,000 submissions a year. Those are pretty rough odds.

That being said, the “you are so talented” line doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. The world is filled with talented writers who still remain unpublished and will probably be unpublished forever.

So lets talk about feedback.

You have read through the first chapter and, frankly, you really can’t go on. The prose is dry, the language is cliche and boring, the characters are laughable (and not in a good way.)

This is the part where you do everything you have been told not to do by your mother. You tell the person with brutal honesty that it didn’t work for you.

But you must tell them why.

Now, that isn’t to say you have to be a dickhead about it.

“It sucked,” is fine actually, but you have to be willing to back up your words. Why did it suck? Was it the dialog? the prose? The characters? Too much description? A little of column A, B and C?

Be honest. Be as honest as if the person had just handed you a book by an author you didn’t know, and you are handing it back saying “no thanks.”

It is your responsibility as the reader to tell them why. And do not ever mince words. If the first five pages were “godawful” then tell them. If it was completely unreadable, tell them and tell them why. You read books. You know what you like and don’t like. Any writer that wants to improve their craft should have a thick enough skin to take whatever feedback you give, no matter how critical.

(I would just like to amend this last part by apologizing to all the people who suffered through my early drafts of my novels. Seriously. I know it was painful. I can’t thank you enough.)

Now, the way to really piss off a writer is to do the following:

1. Never read their novel. Put it off for months and never pick it up. If you live with a writer, make sure you leave the untouched manuscript around the house. Use it as a platform to put your coffee. Use it to put other books on, books you would rather read. Read the other books in front of them. Play Sudoku in bed while their manuscript festers on the nightstand.

If you don’t live with the writer, be sure to tell them all about how you almost read it but then left it in your car. Tell them in detail how ratty and yellowed the cover is becoming. Tell them about how you got your car towed with the manuscript in the back seat. They will love to hear your riveting story about how the project they have worked on every day for the last five years is now a pile of shredded cat litter on the floor of your sedan. Please, go on…

2. If the writer is a coworker, be sure to leave the chapter (along with your notes) out next to a company printer or on your desk. Even better, leave it where someone from HR will pick it up and confront the embarrassed writer with the manuscript, forcing them to describe in detail the contents of the writing “Because we have to make sure it’s yours! LOL”

(Now, if you never really wanted to read the novel in the first place, this is a good way to insure that you will never be asked to read that novel (or any other writing) by that author again. Forever.

3. Tell the writer how they should have written parts of the book. Make notes adding little phrases here and there, inserting your own prose, ideas and interpretations into the novel. They wanted your feedback, right? Why not just rewrite that science fiction epic to be more like Dune. “NEEDS MORE SANDWORMS” is a great suggestion.

(Look, the writers job is to write. It is your job to simply hold up a mirror and show them the blemishes. It’s hard to do, I know, but we don’t look in a mirror, expecting it to say “You really should try to look more like George Clooney”. Really. Just tell me if my hair is too long and I will decide on the style.)

It doesn’t have to all be bad. I’m not saying that you can’t tell them parts you liked. Of course we want to hear what you liked, when parts really got to you, what made you laugh etc. But be specific. Don’t be Sarah Palin and say you liked “All of it.”

There are few things more nerve-wracking than giving your novel to people to read. It takes every fiber of my being sometimes to not bother the person daily to see how far they got, if they like it, blah blah blah. I am sure that after this recent round of beta-readers, my pool of potential future beta-readers will have shrunk considerably. Some because of me, some because of them.

So please, if you don’t think you will be able to read a novel, do not offer to read one. You have no idea what you are getting yourself into.