I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

And Then What Happened ?


I am going to put my head on the block here and say that I like epilogues. I am a sucker for a novel that has a real ending, with loose ends tied up (cleverly) and a satisfying conclusion by the author. Sometimes I don't want to have to guess what happens next. It is sometimes too painful to have to close the book and not know la suite. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been utterly frustrated to read a book that ends on a big pause, an invitation to the reader to imagine how things are concluded or how the story continues.

I bring this up because I have had conversations recently with book-loving people who say there seems to be a trend nowadays towards open-ended novels. Apparently, it is seen as contrived by some to have a story wrapped up for the reader. Is it really something agents and publishers are now demanding? Who decided that this was now the best way to end novels? The endings of some long novels have often left me with the feeling that the author didn't have the guts to make a decision about the conclusion. Is it also because there is less risk with an open-ending? Something neutral, which upsets no one, makes more commercial sense?

I have an epilogue in the novel I am trying to sell, which comes in the form of a letter, making it clear what our main characters go on to after the final scene. I felt it was important to let the reader know how things turned out. I wrote it as I would like to read it. I've tried to make it subtle, which is why it comes in the form of a letter. However, having already had one agent in the past voice doubts about whether it is necessary, I am in two minds. I am going with it because I believe it works, but I am not completely confident about it. Of course, I would be more decisive if I already had a publishing deal, or if I was already an "established" author.

I certainly hope that an agent or publisher who reads the manuscript is not going to reject the novel because of the epilogue. I almost wanted to type the word "optional" underneath the word epilogue. But I decided it wouldn't look good to come across as indecisive. It goes without saying that I will let you know how I get on ... or maybe I want! Maybe I'll just leave you hanging! Did he or did he not get the publishing deal in the end?


Suzan Abrams, email: suzanabrams@live.co.uk said...

I'm with you on this, Shameless. So far, I haven't seen agents or publishers requesting for this kind of a conclusion, so I hope not.

I have come across open endings especially with several short stories presented online.

It does leave me rattled, yes...I'd like a complete closure and of course, one always expects the characters to go on. I'm a reader who likes to knows what happens to every significant character mentioned.

That's one of the reasons too, why I loved reading the late Dame Iris Murdoch. She used to devote her last chapter explaining what happened to every character and event.

Sometimes, she'd do it very quickly in a para like ...Tom disappeared one early autumn morning. It was said he had found the mystical and one day, simply vanished without a tace. Mona returned to Egypt and married a soldier. Carol ran back into Jack's arms with more then guilt..."

These are my haphazard lines but exactly how Murdoch employed her technique. :-)

S. Kearney said...

Hi Susan,
I'm glad I'm not the only one! Everyone around me seemed to be saying it's too "passé" and contrived to have everything tidied up. I think there's a lot to be said for "I write it as I would like to read it", with the stress on the "I". We can't pleae all the people all of the time! :)

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

"Maybe I'll just leave you hanging! Did he or did he not get the publishing deal in the end?"

No, no good, because in the prologue we are led to believe that this writer is already published!

'Coven of One' probably gives you an idea of where my heart lies as far as pro's, and epi's, are concerned. Call me a traditionalist, but I like a taster and an empty plate, to finish

Unknown said...

I've often heard it said to avoid prologues and epilogues, on the basis that if you can't fit it into the storyline, it should be there. I've written some stuff with prologues and epilogues and I find while I don't mind reading epilogues, I'm not keen on reading prologues - so I guess I should follow my own tastes for advice!

Re open-ended endings - I can't help wondering whether that doesn't have something to do with marketing - ie leaving the ending open, so that if the book is hugely successful, it offers the opportunity for a sequel.

Anonymous said...

I like them both.

Endings are tough. A wonderfully concise ending with things all wrapped fulfill a reader's desire to know "what happened" to a character, a situation. It is nice to know "the facts" and feel settled about it.

At the same token, I think a little ambiguity is lovely -- sometimes a slight question mark at the end is wonderful poetic. Though it should not come because of laziness on the writer's part or because he/she just couldn't come up with a proper ending. (But I hate to think of either of those options as a literary trend. Horrors.)

unarex said...

I agree with GT- I go with what works. I know this will sound silly as an example, but in the Harry Potter books, it always annoyed me that she had to spend the last 50+ pages explaining what everything meant. I've enjoyed open endings in foreign films (as in non-dumbed down American ones) Bergman does it quite a bit, as well as Kieslowski, and of course, Kubrick, among others. In 2001: A Space Odyssey there are so many ways that ending can be interpreted, which is one of the many reasons for its greatness. The same in poetry, like Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower" can also be read in multiple ways with multiple meanings. All these art forms share a common thread of expressing the idea, and how that idea can be interpreted. But a weak ending that is forced poetry is bad. An example would be the Altman film "Three Women" where it ends up forced into poetry, and Altman himself could not explain it, he was just saying it was 'a feeling' which tells me he hadn't a clue on how to end the film.
I know we're talking about books, but films have had an impact on my story structure quite a bit since I learned from them that not every element needs explaining. And should you tire from reading, I recommend giving films a try- you'll be surprised how many ideas you can gather from them.

S. Kearney said...

The writer is already published? Oh, yes, journalism published. No, I mean books, darling, lovely lovely books that smell of glue! :)

It's funny because I've got only a epilogue. I felt I needed it because it comes some months after the final scene. Also, because it's a letter, it needed to be set apart, different to the rest of the book. Commercial decisions must come into some endings, I'm sure.

You're right about the poetic twist. I try to achieve this, but does it always work? It's hard to know. Sometimes an attempt at being poetic/clever turns out corny. And when it's too straight forward, it's banal. A tricky one, as always! :)

I agree that films have so much we can learn from. Endings in films throw up the same debate for me. I do tend to like things wrapped up though, to leave the theatre knowing what happened, or having a fair idea. An open-ended film just annoys me! :) Unless the whole thing is meant to be experimental/poetic/arthouse.

Anonymous said...

I don't think an agent is going to reject a book he/she loves just because it has an epilogue and he/she hates epilogues. It will just be a matter of discussion during revisions before the book gets marketed.

I think gentle, brief epilogues can be nice and artful. With yours, my only hesitation would be whether the letter format feels like a plot device. I'd probably ask myself whether the letter form is a natural progression of the novel. Whether the fact that it ends with a letter has been foreshadowed.

S. Kearney said...

I certainly hope that agents and publishers are open to discussion on these things.

The letter at the end is a kind of coming full circle ... there's also a letter my main character writes near the beginning. It seems to be the best way to keep in touch with how things have gone. I thought of other scenes/devices, but I didn't suddenly want an eye in the sky zooming in on another country, another time. A difficult one. One to keep thinking about. Thanks for the comments, Jason. :)

Suzan Abrams, email: suzanabrams@live.co.uk said...

Hi again Shameless,

I had a look at some of the literary agents & publishers' websites yesterday. All seem keen on strong openings but I don't sense that the ending at the point of submission is a priority. Of course, they expect a finished manuscript.

About what Atyllah said & the sequel.
I've seen sequels on lots of books with neat endings. One of these is Rosamunde Pilcher's (UK) bestseller called The Shell Seekers. Her ending was neatly tied up with every character accounted for, but as long as no character dies, that means they keep on going, don't they.

So she wrote another sequel to The Shell Seekers that was titled September and that too became a bestseller. :-)

S. Kearney said...

Yeah, I suppose even if things are tied up, there is always room for a sequel. Not that one immedialtely springs to mind with my book. But, one never knows!
Thanks for the research! :)

Unknown said...

"No, no good, because in the prologue we are led to believe that this writer is already published!"

Shameless, don't be dozy. I was referring to your theoretical book!!

Sequels, hmmm. Having a problem at the moment. Not my problem, but people who have already read Coven of One are outraged that the sequels finds Dorcas as a grandmother. Can't please everyone!
I don't think I am aiming to tie up any loose ends and I wanted a completely different set of characters to get my teeth into.
I am not sure how some writers write about the same character again and again - I would die of boredom.
I do like sequels though, as a reader, a bit like getting back into a comfy chair. I think the important thing is not relying on those characters and making sure the story line is, hopefully, as strong as the first.

S. Kearney said...

Oh, right! (Still confused) :) Oh, no, yes, I get it. I SEE! (crosses his fingers).
Sorry for my dozy head! That's probably why I shouldn't even go near prologues or epilogues! :)

Dorcas as a grandmother is PERFECT! This is no ordinary witch!
I also like sequels, but you're right that there has to be strong plotlines that take us somewhere new. The stakes also have to be different, I think.
I look forward to your next adventure, Minxy!

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I see I'm not the only one who actually likes closure at the end of a novel.

Speaking for myself, I sometimes find it repellent when an author can't be bothered to finish properly. If it's an open ending that works and was done for that reason, that's one thing, but laze I find insulting to my intelligence.

Having said that I find it very difficult to bring things to a conclusion because I can imagine so many different ways a story can end.

Maybe it's just a trend in publishing circles?

Marie said...

It all depends on the novel. Some novels need prologues and epilogues, as does the current novel I'm working on. But I agree that some novels just don't need them.

If you feel your novel needs it and it works, then you should include an epilogue. Just go with what feels right to you.

S. Kearney said...

Thanks for your visit and comment. I'm glad to see others feel the same about endings. It's nearly always obvious when an author has just given up on the task of resolving the ending. All authors must struggle with it!

Hi Marie,
Good to have you stop by. You're right about going with what feels right ... the problem is when we can no longer see the woods for the trees! :) We keep trying though.

* said...

Hi Shameless,

I like epilogues too. I don't mind the author stating what might have been obvious to the more astute (know-it-all) reader...

btw, I've been trying to leave a comment here for days now! Days! But the word verification thing there is very temperamental and acts like a snooty gatekeeper and has just now deigned to let me in...

S. Kearney said...

Hi there LP,
I'm glad to hear there are a few of us around! :) I will stress less now about my epilogue! :)

And yes, isn't the word verification thing a right royal pain! The combination of letters seems to be getting longer and longer, harder to read and increasingly stupid! I always have to have several goes before I get it right! Yesterday I had one that even read: brasoapy! You have to laugh. I turned the damn thing off for a week but got about five spam messages every day, which I hated.
I don't know why the word verification thing can't be just four easy to see letters! :)

L.M.Noonan said...

Ciao Shameless, reading through the comments you created yet another forment. As usual i feel uneasy or rather unlearned when it come to commenting on things literary. However, I believe that the act of writing should be exactly like the act of creating a visual artwork, intuitively and 'from the gut'. As an artist I'm firmly rooted the Picasso's rather than Duchamp's camp (although I admire Duchamp). All this talk about prologues and epilogues... it matter not. I do, for the most part agree with Jessica Schneider that mystery, a certain ambiguity, some room for the reader to fill in the gaps is essential for me. I hate all the rules. WWhy should a novel have to have a miniumum or maximum for that matter words. Why must it be divided up into chapters? Why must there be a synopsis? I'm cringing to think of the torrent of replies to my pathetic views.The long and the short of it is, in my heart of hearts there is no formula, you should write for yourself and if your lucky someone else will also derive enjoyment from what you do.
PS...love your China photos.

S. Kearney said...

Well said. I don't think there'll be a torrent of replies. This all makes sense. :) We should just write what feels best, what feels right, which is what I try to do. It's just if we want to get published ... but if not, hey, let's have fun! I'm glad you like the China pics. The best part was being there! :)

cate sweeney said...

Hey Shamus
and you really are Seamus, how cool is that?
Well I think a letter sounds a clever way to do it, rather more subtle than a ckunky conclusion, so you'll probably get away with it. Hope it's good news.
Funnily enough Novel I've just finished I had an epiluge that I ended up making the prologue, double faux pas maybe?

Debi said...

Hi Muffin. Presonally I do think it's always good to end prope

S. Kearney said...

Hi Cate,
So excited to see that your book is finished. What about pro-epi?
I hope the letter works; I just had another no from a major publisher in NZ. It was very quick reply saying "not suitable for list". So it wasn't the letter, because they only had three chapters! I suspect it was straight away seen as not commercially viable in small market, blah blah blah. We will get there, just don't know where that is yet.

Miss Muffin is miffed about why you keep trying to talk to her. She says to buzz off and quit speaking to her in English. She can be sooooooo rude that cat!
You can speak to me though. I will rub her fur the wrong way for a week as punishment for her outburst! :) I see your message wasn't finished though?

Art Durkee said...

Epilogues are fine, but they need to be what they are: afterthoughts, afterwords, a taste more of what happened, but not themselves an ending. Epilogues are a partial sequel that tells the reader that life goes on.

But the book needs to end on its own, if it's going to end at all. The epilogue shouldn't necessarily tie

It's hard not to see a desire for "closure" as a desire to rationally tie up all the loose ends, explain everything, and be, well, neat as a pin. A desire for Order that conquers Chaos, if you will. That's fine for a murder mystery novel, but I doubt it's necessity (other than as a matter of taste) in other types and styles of novels. I confess to a preference for ambiguity, because some writers when they tie up all the threads, fell like they're forcing an ending, and an interpretation of the meaning of their artwork, down your throat. It's like a Watteau, where you know damn well what the artist is trying to tell you, versus a Kandinsky, where you are free to project your own life-experience and meaning onto the artwork. Your own paintings look far more like Kandinskys, so does this preference for absolutely clear meanings cross over into your other artworks? I doubt it. And your poem-music multimedia pieces, which are far more ambiguous and open to interpretation. Is it that The Novel must be far more logical, far more rational, far more narratively coherent than other literary forms? (Or rather, that it has often been so, therefore people assume it must be so.)

I think Jessica's example of films is a good one, because it points out how the psychology of narrative in Western literature is perhaps overly dominated by the psychology of closure. The archetypal example of Western literary stroytelling is of course the fairy tale, which must begin with "Once upon a time" and end with "And they all lived happily ever after"—I mean, talk about a rationalistic, logical, neatly tied up sense of closure! (Jung would have a field day with the need for neat conclusions, and what they represent to the psyche that projects meaning onto the world.)

I prefer ambiguity. Actually, like GT and Jessica, I prefer whatever is appropriate to the tale being told. I don't mind an open ending at all. Open endings, just as much as epilogues, can imply that life goes on for all the characters; and perhaps the reader is free to make up their own continuances for a reason. That reason being that "life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." (Whatever else one thinks of the author of that quote, she certainly got this bit right on.)

(I'm not going to comment at the moment on the Farry Potter books, as they are not meant to be Great Literature, and make no pretense towards being such. Honestly popular lit is sometimes more honest than pretentious Art Literature that tries to delude the reader. But I digress.)

I admit to a fondness for circularity, creating a closed-loop universe that is self-contained. Of course, there are good examples and bad examples of this technique; in a good example, it's integral to the work as a whole; in a bad example, it's a mannerism, a bit of scaffolding that peeks through the drywall. Good examples: Octavio Paz' "Sunstone;" Samuel Delany's "Dhalgren." Bad examples: Marquez' "A Hundred Years of Solitude;" Wagner's Ring Cycle. I won't put "Finnegan's Wake" on this list, because some think it's great, others think it sucks.

S. Kearney said...

Wow! This is some mammoth food for thought! Thank you for taking the time out to make some very interesting points. I agree with most of what you say here; I suppose it really does depend on the individual project.