Thursday, September 28, 2017

Cart before the Horse?

As a writer, what do you make of readers who flip to the end and see what happens last first?

Hmm. This is something I doubt I would ever do. I like the journey a story tells and wouldn't want to arrive before I've left the station. We’ve even coined a phrase that demonstrates our passion for being surprised by an ending: spoiler alert. But people like to do things their own way, and I get that. As a matter of fact, I hate it when others comment on, say, what I like to eat and when. So vive la diffĂ©rence, I suppose.

But as a writer, I will comment on the implications of reading the ending first. First, the whole plotter-vs.-pantser issue. For writers who outline and plot out their books extensively, a reader jumping to the ending and ignoring all the narrative gymnastics the author has gone through seems disappointing. And for the pantser, who followed instincts and flashes of imagination along the way, then painstakingly revised to make sure everything was neatly woven together and makes sense, it also seems unfair. But who said the world had to be fair to writers?

Second, I've said many times in public settings that I believe writing a novel is an exercise in putting off the ending for as long as possible, while keeping the reader entertained along the way. So in that spirit, reading the ending before its time is a circumvention of my wishes as an author. But you know what? If you've paid for my book, you're free to use it any way you please. Read it backwards. Read every other page. Read with one eye closed. Listen to it, wait for the movie, or—better yet—the Blu-ray. Hell, wait for the VHS if you’re so inclined, I don't care. The important thing is to enjoy the experience.

And that's what should be at the core of reading, after all. Enjoyment of some kind. I have a terrible fear of heights. That means I do not enjoy Ferris wheels or roller coasters or looking over the lip of the Grand Canyon from behind a sturdy barrier. It's a visceral reaction that I cannot control or intellectualize beyond the obvious: falling from great heights is not advised. 

"Gravity unleashed is a risky proposition at best," as one of my characters observed in HEART OF STONE.
But would I dictate that buildings be limited to two stories? That amusement parks stick to spinning tea cups and kiddie trains? Or tightrope walkers be institutionalized for their own protection? No. Live and let live, I say. Or better yet, given my fear of heights, live and let die.

I'd like to make one last observation in the form of a question: Does anyone skip to the end of a movie or a television show to watch the ending first? I may be wrong, but I don't think people do. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.


Paul D. Marks said...

Good stuff, Jim. And it really is like putting the cart before the horse. I can re-read things and watch movies over and over, so of course I know the ends. But the first time I dive into something I don't want to know it. I want to go along for the roller coaster ride and enjoy the overall experience. Then, if I do watch or re-read something I can get into the more subtle aspects of the story and characters.

RJ Harlick said...

I like your "writing is an excercise in putting off the ending". Yup, that's me to a degree. But it's also a case of trying to figure out what the ending should be. I'm a pantser. Good post.

Gram said...

I rarely do this, but once in a while when the story starts to slog for me I have to decide if I wish to finish it....then I check out the last chapter to see if it will be worth it. So many books, so little time.

Susan C Shea said...

Repeating myself, sorry, but to answer your Q, Jim: If the story/movie hits my worst fear buttons, I ask someone who's read it if the child dies, the woman is sexually tortured, anyone is tortured (or eaten)? If I hear the child was rescued, the woman was brave and rescued herself, and the torture was more implied than described in loving detail, I'll chance it. I made it through Stuart Neville's Ratlines only because I know him and he's actually kind of sweet in an Irish sort of way!