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Monday, November 11, 2013

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: C is for CLIMAXES, CONCLUSIONS, AND DENOUEMENTS

NOVEMBER 11th, REMEMBRANCE DAY, VETERANS DAY, OR ARMISTICE DAY, depending on where we are in the world. Although this post is about what not to do when writing climaxes, conclusions, and denouements, the points I want to illustrate also fit well with a story I’d like to share about my Uncle Donald. He passed away in 2009, but in 1943, he was a WWII pilot with the RCAF, the Royal Canadian Air Force. 

I love the way his story as a pilot starts, because it’s so typical of that time. Like a lot of young guys back then, Don lied about his age, wanting to join the Navy at 17. The recruitment officer knew his dad (my grandfather) and turned him away, told him to come back a year later. Don, not willing to take ‘no’ for an answer, walked across the street to the RCAF, lied about his age again, and got away with it. By 1943, he was in training in Cairnbulg, Scotland, waiting to fly his first solo night flight. Bad weather had prevented it so far, he was the only one of his squad who hadn't completed it, and they were about to move on to a new training camp. Desperate not to be left behind, Don climbed into his Airspeed Oxford MK1 and lifted off from the runway on one freezing December night. His radio wasn't working, so he took a risk. What he didn’t realize was that none of his navigational equipment was working, either. In driving rain and a pitch black Scottish night, he set out over the sea, not wanting to crash into the Cairngorm mountains. 

After a few hours, he ran low on fuel and sought a break in the cloud for a visual as to where he might land. Below, all was surging white water and rock. He flipped on his landing lights. The rain hammered the light back. Suddenly, a cliff loomed in front of him. Heart slamming against his ribs, he pulled up, only to see another cliff rise above it. He pulled hard, but one of his propellers caught the cliff's edge. The plane buffeted, he teetered, his left engine cut out. The world spun, he couldn’t see anything, but somehow, the plane slid across solid ground. Through all of this, he had the sense of his father right beside him. Unknown to Don, he had died two weeks before in a Saskatchewan hospital. When the plane finally came to a stop, Don jumped out of the cockpit but saw nothing. Not knowing where he was, he wrapped himself in his parachute and spent a cold night waiting for morning. At dawn, he saw he had narrowly missed smashing into a standing stone.

Two lighthouse keepers approached him, fearing he was a German pilot. He called out, “Am I anywhere in England?” His Canadian accent calmed their nerves and convinced them he was friend, not foe. They escorted him back to their lighthouse and fed him an omelet for breakfast. He marveled; due to rationing, eggs were a rare treat. Later, he learned that as well as his navigation not working, neither had his IFF (identification friend or foe). He had been lucky. He could have easily been shot down by a pilot from the naval base at Scapa Flow, thinking he was a German bomber.

That’s my Uncle Don’s story. Now, imagine if I’d told it without the details of his crash, or, if I’d told it from the light keepers’ point of view. Or, if I included the crash, but lopped it off right after, without giving you any further details as to whether Don survived. I bring these points up because I recently read two novels that did just these things. 

In the first novel, the writer did an excellent job leading me up to the climax, she’d built good tension and wrote strong escalating events, but when she reached the climax, she backed away. She filled it in with exposition, telling me what happened through a secondary character. My sense of that? Either she didn’t have the guts to pull me through the worst (which is what I wanted – every visceral, awful bit of it), or she didn’t think she could write it effectively, or – maybe the worst reason, she thought she had. This is like anticipating the presents under the tree on Christmas morning, and then being told that Christmas is called off.

The second novel gave me a good, strong climax following interesting, escalating events, but there was no conclusion, no denouement. This would be like me telling you my Uncle Don’s story up to and including the crash, but not telling you whether he survived. I really liked this writer’s story, so much that I actually wrote her to ask her to fill me in on the details. Although she appreciated my comments, she wasn’t willing to add to the end. It was her story, she would do with it as she liked. (I may be puffing myself up here, but it strikes me that if an experienced editor of 20+ years makes suggestions to you about your self-published novel, then maybe you should listen.)

If I were to write a denouement for my Uncle Don’s story, it wouldn’t be long, but I might say a thing or two about his sensing his deceased father's presence at the moment he thought he was going to die. I wish I could remember the story more clearly; I think he told me he actually thought my grandfather spoke to him. Denouement is a great place to bring in theme. Here is where I might have said something about miracles, about life and death, love and war, and/or the ties of family that extend beyond what we think is possible.

Happy Remembrance, Veterans, and Armistice Day, everyone. If you can, take a moment to reflect.



2 comments:

  1. Anonymous6:19 PM

    I disagree with these. I believe there is a time and place for those types of endings. Ex. The Grey, Cabin in the woods, hell even Stephen King's The Mist.

    I prefer King's ending to the story instead of the ending in the movie. The ironic twist was stellar but in true Lovecraftian form King decided to leave the ending on a ledge. "Alfred Hitchcock endings" do have their place.

    It is this way in every media. There is a concept album by Protest the Hero called Kezia. Although they might not be the sort of genera most people enjoy, the story they tell is an epic.
    A girl, Kezia, is sentenced to death for participating in women's rights in a country/time/place where that is unacceptable to do so. The Story fallows three people [a priest, a prison guard/executioner and Kezia] on this journey and depicts who they are, why they are here and after weighing their morals if they will stop the execution. They all know Kezia should die but none of them want her to.

    The whole album you root for her to be set free. However, at the climax the priest watches on as the guard holds a shotgun to a blindfolded Kezia. Kezia gives her last thoughts on what's to become to her and the story is over. So every time someone puts on that album she is always 'resurrected to be killed'

    Her story is tragically beautiful. And under the surface there are social, political and economical statements that make the listener think about where they would stand and if they would stop her death. To use a cliche: It's not the destination, it's the trip.

    Latly, with regards to your comment of chest puffing I believe that only the writer in question has the right to add to their ending. Although you are AN editor, you are not HER editor. Everyone is entitled to opinions but not everyone can add to a piece of art. Eventually the art will cease to be art and lose it's meaning.

    What you find mundane might be profound to someone else but you stating she was "wasn't willing" underlines that you demanded something be changed whereas it may not. You said it best yourself, "editors are sometimes wrong".

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  2. Thanks for the comment. Just to clarify, I didn't demand anything from this second writer. I was excited by what she wrote and asked her, first, if she would like to hear my suggestions. She did. She also chose not to put them into practice. Her choice, but I won't be recommending her book here on Suzenyms, as I had hoped. I do like your comment that what some find mundane, others find profound. Viva la difference.

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