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.