Sunday, September 6, 2009

Journey's End

by Raelene Gorlinsky

From Running Hot by Jayne Ann Krentz:

She turned another page. "I already know how it ends."

"You read the ending first?"

"I always read the ending before I commit to the whole book."

He looked at her, baffled. "If you know how it ends, why read the book?"

"I don't read for the ending. I read for the story. [...] Life is too short to waste time on books that end badly."

Ms. Krentz's character and I are completely in sync. Yes, I admit it, I am one of those people who read the ending first. Well, I don't read it first. I generally read a chapter or two at the start in order to find out what the story's about and who the main characters are, then I read the ending, then I read the rest of the story. People who don't do this find it appalling and inexplicable. "But you're ruining the story! There's no suspense left. Why bother to even read the book if you already know how it ends?"

It's the journey--the story--that makes the destination worthwhile, all the experiences and excitement of the trip. But first you need to want to get to that destination. The most lovely drive in the country is no fun if you know you're on the way to the dentist.

Face it, for most fiction genres we already know basically how the book will end. The bad guys will get their comeuppance, the lovers will have their happily-ever-after, the mystery will be solved. So reading the ending first isn't totally cheating, it's just reassuring oneself that the destination is good and is worth the time spent on the trip there.

So besides my musing on the subject (and interest in hearing how many others read the ending first), what's the point of this blog post? Well, we harp a lot on how important the first line or paragraph is to grab the reader. And many writing classes talk about how to fix your "sagging middle". But don't forget the importance of a satisfying ending that carries the excitement and emotion and action to the last word of the book. If the last chapter is slow or confusing or just drags on too long after the climax, end-first readers like me aren't going to bother taking the journey of your story.


Venus Vaughn said...

An action like reading the ending first, especially in genre fiction, is a statement of mistrust towards the author.

Like you said, you already know how it ends. The bad guys will get their comeuppance, the mystery will be solved, and the lovers will get their happily ever after. You know that going in. You know that by the label slapped on the side of the book.

To read the ending first is to say to the author, "I don't trust you not to take me to the dentist. There better be a picnic at the end of this." In genre fiction you're guaranteed the picnic.

Admittedly in litfic there's a precedent where you can't trust your delivery boy author. But in genre fiction you know you're going to get what you signed up for.

It sounds like instead of a fear that the author is going to take you to a literary dentist, instead you want to check the contents of the picnic hamper before you even commit to getting in the car. The author may have provided a perfectly satisfying fruit and chicken salad, but you won't sit down on the grass for less than champagne and chocolates.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Venus but am not nearly so eloquent. I read romance specifically because I want HEA.

I'd like to thank you for this post, though. I'd given up on literary fiction (no judging please, it's all I used to read) after having been burned too many times. I've confined myself to romance, children's books and non-fiction for a couple of years now.

Thank you for providing me with a tool that will allow me to venture back into literature. I don't want to think about how much precious reading time I'd have saved if I'd used this technique years ago.

However, I love a degree of suspense and surprise (and great sex) and will still spend most of my leisurely reading time on romance.

MsSnarkyPants said...

I don't read endings first. However, if I'm not reading a romance novel then I get my best friend to read the synopsis first and tell me if I'm going to like it or not. hehe No, this isn't being cruel. She always reads the synopsis first of everything she reads so that she isn't taken surprise by something. This guarantees that I still have the suspense but won't waste my very limited time and energy on something that is going to make me miserable. I don't like reading things with awful endings. I don't watch like watching movies with depressing endings either. What I wouldn't give to have had someone tell me to NEVER watch The Mist!

KB Alan said...

I've been told this before, so I'm mostly over being appalled, but I'm still baffled and find it fascinating.

How far back do you go, when reading the ending? The last paragraph, page, chapter? And what does the ending have to do to turn you off? Like you said, we know they get together, so what can the author do to screw it up so badly you're no longer interested in the journey?

The only time I've ever read the ending early is when the book was so bad I couldn't force myself to read the story, but wanted to see how they tried to bring it all together.

Venus Vaughn said...

Ms SnarkyPants - that brings up an interesting thought for me. One that i should probably put on my own blog, but whatevs, I'll hijack this one instead.

Back in the day when I subjected myself to horror movies, I watched Pet Cemetery with my sister. She had read the book, I hadn't. Every time the tension got too much for me, I'd lean over and insist she tell me what was going to happen next, so I'd be prepared. No wonder she didn't like hanging out with me.

But it brings to mind what you said about your friend reading the synopsis and then telling you if you'd like the book. You're getting the info from someone you trust, so you're willing to make the journey.

I think it was the same with me and that movie - I couldn't trust the filmmakers not to scare the sh*t outta me. But I knew my sister, no matter how irritated she got, would never stab me in a graveyard and leave me for dead. The story was the same either way, but I was only willing to sit through it if I trusted the narrator.

Penelope Marzec said...

I don't read endings. However, sometimes when the story gets too intense and the protagonist is in grave danger, I'll read a few pages ahead just to be reassured that the good guy will survive. Of course, if it's a romance, I know there will be a happy ending--but I scare easily.

I don't like to read literary novels because too often there are very bad endings which leave me depressed. I read one very well-known book years ago in which the protagonist gets blown up in the middle of the book. Afterwards the POV switched to another character. I was so upset!

So I stick to romance for the most part--unless someone recommends a literary book to me where the good guy makes it all the way through the book. :^)

Diana said...

I admit that if I'm reading a book that I'm not enjoying a lot, or if it's moving too slowly, I'll take a peek at the end to see if I really want to commit to finishing the book.

Karla Doyle said...

I've never read the ending of a book first, though in hindsight it would have saved me from a few literary letdowns.

How a book ends will often influence whether I pick up another of the author's books. I like a fine balance between resolution and leaving what comes next to my imagination.

Recently I read a romance (from a popular, multi-published author) where there were THREE CHAPTERS MORE after the HEA. I read them, but was bored, even counting how many more pages I had to get through before it was over. The author provided so much "this is what happened after the happily ever after" that she robbed me of the chance to think for myself.

Anny Cook said...

I've always believed that a fabulous ending can save a so-so book. Actually, the ending is the deciding factor when I decide whether a book is a keeper or not.

Can't tell you how many books I've read where the author really needed to post a "The End" for me because the story just stopped.

Personally, I think Linda Howard has some of the best endings in the business.

Angelia Sparrow said...

I was discussing this with a friend of mine who writes horror.

She says she is freer because she can write what she wants, as long as it's satisfying. Whereas all my stuff ends the same way: lead characters get each other, happily at least until danger threatens again.

And sometimes I envy that freedom.

But I keep reminding her that for us queers, a happy ending IS transgressive. Otherwise, it's just another "Dead Gay in the Last Reel" thing.

However, this is why I find het romances dull a lot of the time. Boy meets girl.
Plot ensues.
Boy gets girl.
There's no chance that the pairing is NOT going to happen, no matter how much plot gets committed in the middle.

Anonymous said...

I admit it. After I've read a few chapters, I often read the ending. Not in genre romance (usually!) because I know what I'm getting. But I often skip ahead in lit fic or in literary sci-fi.

I don't know if it's so much about not trusting the author--after all, the author hasn't made me any promises. For me, it's about not wanting to invest time and energy in a story that will leave me bummed. That's why I gave up on most literary fiction, like Anonymous--got burned too many times.

My other reading rule is that if, by page 100, I don't care whether the protagonists live or die, I stop reading. Why waste time on books I don't enjoy when there are so many out there that I will?