“Act III: Everybody’s Dead” or “Screwing the Punchline”
I find myself in a particularly creative mood today. Abigail is happily watching an animated television show that ran for 3 weeks on HBO called “The Neverending Stories,” based on the movie. I am back at my current addiction, shooting Facebook intravenously into the vein in my big toe. So, I thought I’d put the needle down for a second and try to get my mind off the sweet elixir that is seeing miniature numbers at the top of my screen telling me I am a VALUABLE PERSON.
One of the main reasons I have been working on my book for so long is that I am afraid of it. It sounds funny, but I wonder if my writer friends can help me out here for a second. I think there is something that we all fear about our creations. I mean, look at Frankenstein, for heaven’s sake. If there is a better metaphor for the absolute terror of having something you build come to life and then destroy your universe, I don’t know of one. Jurassic Park is also a valid response.
My great fear is not about giving birth to a monster, although it is something I think about each day that Abigail gets closer to the magical age of 15. My greatest fear is that I will screw it up. Listen, I have read almost as many books as you have, buddy, so I know what it’s like when an author is really on a roll and then they TOTALLY SCREW YOU OVER!! This is not some one-night-stand for me, Mr. Author. I have put a lot of time and effort into reading your story and you’re telling me the world just ends?! Lame.
A perfect example is The Dark Tower series. If you haven’t gleaned this by now, I really love Stephen King’s writing. He is fresh, gritty, interesting, and his characters are so nuanced that they seem like they could jump out of the book and choke you to death.
The Dark Tower series is no exception. We follow the fantastic gunslinger, Roland Deschain through the magnificently crafted Mid-World where he seeks a tower that basically holds up the fabric of the universe. There are 7 books, each at about 500 pages each, so it’s not poolside reading. This is the big time, kiddos. Bad words and everything.
If you want to invest the 232 hours it takes to read these books to find out how the story ends, you should stop reading now. If you would like to have those two weeks to engage in a more worthy cause, like becoming a Professional Nose-Picker, I’m about the tell you the best advice of your whole life.
At the end of the 7th book, Roland finally does get to the dark tower. This is after 5 whole books of shit hitting the fan over and over and over again. So, the reader is ragged and worn (much like Roland himself), and so happy to have made it to the end of the series in order to watch as Roland saves the universe. He gets to the very top and opens the door. We see his friends, the ones he had to say goodbye to in order to get here, all happy and loving each other. Roland has finished his quest and we’re all smiling and crying and hugging ourselves.
Then SK totally blows it.
He writes some note after this chapter ends that goes like this: “Um. I hope you liked the end of the book. If you want to remember everyone as super happy and everything working out, stop reading.”
And then there’s another chapter.
Dear friends, trust me. STOP THERE!!
Kyle and I have talked about this a number of times since we both read these books and I think it summarizes perfectly my problem with endings. SK just bailed out. He wanted to have a happy ending where things go well for everyone. He wanted to also have an ending where all the joy in the universe is sucked out the window and everyone is miserable forever. He couldn’t choose. Instead, he makes the reader decide which they would rather have: a false happy ending, or a real super-bad ending.
For a fan, this is the worst thing you can possibly do. And, as we all saw in Misery, letting the fans down can be very dangerous.
This is what happens when you write the wrong ending. Fans get…upset.
As I get closer to finishing my stories, I start getting jittery. I start realizing what I have at stake. When you come to like characters, settings, or just the actual plot of something you’re writing, you start to realize that you have to be fair to the story. It means that if you create a fantastic story with characters that make you want to laugh and cry and be a part of them, you can’t just kill everyone off in Act III because you don’t know what to do next. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Hamlet)
It is a lot like telling a joke. When I was young, I used to sit around with the guys and listen to them tell jokes. I don’t really know why women don’t do this, but men do it a lot. Most of these jokes had to do with penises (penisis? I’m unsure of the pluralization there), but they were still funny. Invariably, when I jumped in to tell one (not about penie, generally speaking), I felt like I was going to throw up. I would get all into the story until everyone was eating out of my hand, and then I would go and BLOW THE PUNCHLINE.
A joke is never funny if you try to tell the punchline twice. Just like a story is no good if you have multiple endings or an ending that’s all cussed up.
So, I get nauseous as I get closer to the finish line. I am just afraid that I’m going to mess the whole thing up for everyone, especially me. Because, truthfully, I write most of my stories for me. And I’m one fan that I am never going to get away from. The consequence of this is, unfortunately, that I have a crapload of writing that is passionate and exciting and 2 pages long. I can usually get the first few lines of dialogue in, and then I run to the bathroom to throw up.
I just recently finished my 2nd…3rd(?) full length short story. When I got to the exciting part, I did what I always do: read a book, watch tv, pull off all my toenails with pliers, etc. Then, for one of the first times EVER, I sat back down at the computer and finished the story. With dignity, with grace. And, when I was done, I realized that it wasn’t great. And, I realized it wasn’t terrible, either.
It feels like it did the first time I didn’t screw up the punchline to a joke. Sure, the joke wasn’t very funny, but I told it. I have continued to tell for about 15 years. Every time I tell it, I get better at it. The last time I told it, a student actually fell down laughing. There is a lesson here.
My hope is that the better I get at finishing poorly, the more likely it is that I will finish better, and eventually well. Maybe, in the distant (but not TOO distant) future, I will complete something and feel like I was honest with my story and myself. Whether it means leaving the audience in laughter or wondering where to store all the dead bodies, I don’t have all those answers yet. What I do know is that I will have pleased my most outspoken and dangerous fan: myself.