Wednesday, January 09, 2008

At Long Last, the Third Commandment!

Quick recap: Commandment Numero Uno: Thou Shalt Grab Thy Reader’s Attention. Commandment Letter B: Thou Shalt Hold Thy Reader’s Attention Vigorously. And now, Commandment Three: Thou Shalt Deliver a Pay-Off Worthy of Thy Reader’s Time.

This one is pretty simple in concept, methinks, but not necessarily simple in execution. Essentially, at this point you have hooked your reader into reading your story, you have held his attention and kept him interested all the way to the end, so now what? Now you need to reward him for his effort. That is to say, you have to deliver an ending that makes the reader think, “Hey, that was totally worth my time. Yessir, time well spent.”

That’s it. Now that goal can be achieved in any number of ways, and it’s really a much more individualized story-type thing, so you can’t really say, “here’s how you do it.” But whatever way you do it, you have to leave the reader feeling satisfied rather than cheated, or worse, confused as to why he read this damn thing to begin with (an experience I recently had with a book that will go unnamed). How many times have you read a book or sat through a movie that you really enjoyed, and then the ending left you thinking, WTF, mate? It colors your perception of the whole thing.

One way to think about this commandment is as an extension of the other two: the reader must be interested. Giving the reader a proper pay-off is how you keep your reader interested to see your next story (be it a sequel or not). It’s also what makes the reader say “I want to share this with other people.” In the case of the first reader you’re trying to impress, an editor, that’s the only response that counts. The body of the story is a sales pitch. The ending is the product. If the pitch ain’t good, most folks will wander away before the product is unveiled. If the product ain’t good, well, they won’t buy it.

But it’s more than that. A reader reads a story because they want some kind of pay-off. That pay-off can be cheap entertainment, or it can be a more substantial, emotional message, or an intellectual one, or simple amusement. The ending is where you deliver. If your reader is there for the thrills, this is where he gets the BIG thrill before he gets off the ride, and if it’s lame, well, the rest of it might have been worthwhile, but it’s going to leave him feeling just a little disappointed, much more so than if the lame part came in the middle (though that might make him stop reading early, which, as we discussed, is a disaster in its own right). Worse, if you’re hoping to deliver a more substantial artistic message, the ending is where you wrap it up and bring that message home. If you miss there, you miss entirely. For the reader, it’s like being taken on a great journey only to have the tires blow out in the middle of nowhere and being forced to push the damn bus home. Guess what, Mr. Tour Guide? No one’s going to sign up for your next safari now.

So hook them. Keep them. Then give them what they came for. I may be the proverbial n00b in this business, and I will be the first to admit I have a long way to go as far as practicing what I preach here. And over all, this “advice” may not sound like anything more than simple intuition, and maybe it will be too vague to help anyone else out. But I’m surprised at how often I have to focus on these three simple rules in my own writing, and I hope keeping those goals in mind will help someone else with theirs. If anyone has anything else to add, please, jump on in. I’d love to hear what commandments keep your stories rolling.