This one might be a little esoteric but hang with me. It’s a somewhat different take on resolving a book than the “Stick the Landing” post, which primarily delineated where we can go astray when ending our manuscript. That was a “how” thing, this is more of a “why.”
My theory is that a story doesn’t end when you stop writing. It really ends in the reader’s mind, when they think about it and imagine how it might unfold, going forward. Or how it might not. And the more the reader thinks about the story and the more they carry it with them after finishing the last page, the more resonance it has with them. (I don’t want to add, “…and the more they like it,” because that’s a bit simplistic, but saying, “…and the more important it may ultimately feel to them” probably has some validity.)
And who among us doesn’t want to write important books… books that resonate? (Even the term resonate conjures up things ringing on after the initial note is struck, like a church bell that carries on long after the rope is pulled.) As authors, we hear feedback about our work—both good and bad—constantly. Maybe more than any other profession. But it’s telling that the single comment on my work that meant the most to me was someone in the industry simply saying, “I finished it on Saturday and felt bereft on Sunday, as though I had lost touch with friends.” That meant more to me than any amount of “Loved it!” or “Awesome!” or “Thought it was great!” because it indicated that—at least somewhat, on some level—I may have achieved one of my goals for the book: to create characters who felt real, who seemed like people you might know, or might want to know. (I realize it’s kind of funny that someone basically saying, “I read your book and felt sad when it was over” was so meaningful to me, but there you go: resonance uber alles.)
So what factors might lead to a story carrying on after “the end”…? I think one is simply when the reader gets the feeling that—even though this particular episode is finished—at least some of the characters may have more life yet to live. Yes, we saw them—and some important times in their lives—but we probably didn’t see all there is to see of them. You don’t necessarily need to hint at what comes next (although that can be cool in some cases), you just need to give the reader the feeling that there is the possibility of more. Imagine a story that basically finishes with: Everyone died - The End. Even if the characters were interesting while they lived, it’s hard to believe anyone’s going to spend a whole lot of time thinking or wondering or worrying about them after they finish the book, because it’s a lost cause. For your characters to occupy someone’s thoughts beyond the end of the book, they need at least the vague vibe that something—ideally something interesting—is going to happen to them at some point in their future. (Yes, there are notable exceptions. One of my favorite books as a young man was Freedom or Death, by Kazantzakis. Let’s just say it doesn’t end in freedom.)
Another key factor is having characters that feel real. This can mean different things to different people (both readers and writers) and there are a lot of factors which can increase or decrease the credibility of your characters—so much so that there are whole books about the subject. So what I want to say here is simply to be mindful of the difference between your characters having realistic circumstances, and being plausible as real characters. The circumstances can be as bizarre as you like, but the characters should respond to their surroundings in ways that have some correlation to how real people might actually respond. One thing that can kill a reader’s suspension of disbelief is a character who’s not self-consistent. Readers will buy any number of fantastical settings, but they won’t buy a character who acts “out of character” in order to make the plot work. So… giant flying scaly alpacas? No problem. A smart character who suddenly does something really stupid for no reason other than to get us to the next plot point? Not so much.
It also helps if we actually care about the characters. Maybe have a little empathy for them… want to see them succeed, or at least survive. Another word for this is likable. Snark is currently popular, which is fine as far as it goes—humor can be a bonus in a manuscript. But if overdone, it can lead to characters readers don’t like. I can think of a few recent books which were well written but not well received, and many of the critical reader reviews basically said, “I didn’t like the main character. She was too [choose one] snarky / bratty / whiny / mean / spoiled / etc.” This is one area where beta readers can really help, because the odds are you—as the author—really like your main character. Which is as it should be. You created her, so you know all the back-story, the hidden motivations, the justifications for her misbehaviors, everything. Which also means you’re the least qualified person to judge if she’s really likable. Not everyone will like every protagonist, but if you get notes from multiple early readers that your POV character isn’t all that likable, you may want to address this before submitting.
This doesn’t mean you want your protagonist to be Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy. Real people are flawed. They make mistakes. They get pissed off—sometimes at the wrong person, sometimes at the wrong time. Sometimes in trying to solve a problem they overstep and create a worse one. In other words, they’re human. We tend to like that in people. Especially fictional people we’re trying very hard to believe in.
And finally, the veracity of the world in which your characters operate matters. It doesn’t have to be real (or science fiction and fantasy novels wouldn’t exist) but is should feel real, at least for the duration of your story. This means you should treat your setting almost like a character… develop details that go beyond what’s on the page, create a rich backstory, pin up images if that helps you visualize it. Then use just enough of these to intrigue us and make your place seem real, but consider sprinkling little tidbits throughout—without interrupting the flow of the story for an explanation—as an option to info-dumping everything on us at once. There’s a natural tendency (which I’m as guilty of as anyone, during first draft) to think, Damnit, I did all this research, I’m going to use it! (Around here we have a phrase we use when we read things demonstrating this: “You can see the research.” It’s not necessarily a compliment.)
So… these are some of the factors that can help your story live on in the mind of the reader after they’ve closed the cover on the last page. And in the end, isn’t that what we’re all shooting for?
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.