Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Racing to the End

by Holly West

I don't like endings.

I don't mean endings in the big, grand scheme of things. Life milestones, events,  and such. Some of those I like and some I don't, depending on what's ending. What I'm talking about are the endings of books, specifically, those of the crime genre.

Yesterday, Jay talked about novel structure and how basically, he's all over the place. One Act? Two?Five? He argues that novelists should forgo the "straight jacket" of the ubiquitous three-act structure and take charge of your story. He says it better than I do, so go ahead and read it if you haven't yet.

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the three-act structure. Without following it pretty closely, I might not've met the deadline for my second book, MISTRESS OF LIES. Okay, if I'm being honest, I did have to ask for an extension on the first deadline, but damned if I didn't make the second, all right? So as a writer, I'm definitely an advocate of the three-act structure.

As a reader, maybe not so much. This gets me back to my initial statement: I don't like endings. In the three-act structure, we have, loosely, Act 1, Act 2 (usually broken into A & B), and Act 3. I'm totally fine with Acts 1 & 2--there are certain benchmarks--or turning points--that should happen in those acts but the author is free to define them as he or she sees fit. To me, they're much less generic than Act 3.

It's Act 3 that gets on my nerves. Act 3 usually contains the resolution and climax of the story, so it should be the most exciting part of the book, right? It's the culmination of everything your characters have worked for. In crime fiction, particularly, traditional mysteries, Act 3 usually begins with the protagonist FINALLY understanding what's going on. Who did it and why. But that doesn't mean he or she is scot free. No, once these details are revealed, the protagonist must engage in a Final Battle with the antagonist and, usually, achieve that one Final Victory.

My problem is that once I learn what's really going on (which, as I've indicated, usually happens around the beginning of the third act) I pretty much lose interest in the book. Take the novel I'm reading now. I've really enjoyed it, but now that I've come the Final Battle I'm rushing through it. I'm not even really paying attention. I can't blame this on the book itself because I almost always feel this way, no matter what I'm reading. It's like that with films, too, which makes sense because most of them follow the three-act structure now.

When I turned in MISTRESS OF LIES, my editor said the climax needed more tension. That was because I totally rushed through it, wanting to get to the end as quickly as I could. This is funny when I think about it because I essentially did the same thing I do as a reader--once the story was wrapped up I just wanted to get to the end. I didn't really care about the Final Battle all that much. Don't worry, I added a whole bunch of that much-needed tension in my edits, but that initial draft was all like, "Okay, I know what happens now, aren't we done?"

As a writer, I clearly need to figure out a way to make my endings satisfying while not falling prey to the usual Act 3 Final Battle cliches. As a reader, maybe I need to take a break from crime fiction for awhile. I have to admit that the first two books I read this year were non-fiction and I devoured them. Or maybe I just need to work on expanding my attention span. I find that as I grow older, I don't have as much patience with books as I used to.

Is that the problem? Am I just old?

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