That’s right, yet another book finished — “Gatsby’s Girl,” by Caroline Preston, which I pulled off the new fiction shelf at the SPL west branch totally at random. It was delicious — just the kind of fiction I like. Interesting characters (based on real people, even cooler), realistic situations and good solid prose. It was a great (and quick) read to really get into a story, enjoy it and move on. You can see the characters change and grow a little bit, which is always good. I don’t have a ton to say except I really enjoyed this, and if you like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories you might be interested to read this, though it is a VERY different type of book.
And I was satisfied at the end, which is good. Sometimes with these sorts of things you’re not: the ending is too abrupt. I understand that, as a writer, you don’t necessarily want to tie your story up in a pretty bow at the end, because life’s not like that. Unless every single character in the story dies, anything could happen to any of them. But that’s always bothered me, for two reasons. First, I think it’s difficult to abruptly end a novel, and to do it well. Secondly, I don’t think it’s necessary for every novel to stop in an open-ended fashion.
Before I get into this explanation, I should note that I read for pleasure, and I evaluate fiction based on the story the novel tells. I don’t care how sophisticated or polished your prose is (as long as it’s readable and doesn’t strike me as something that never should have made it out of the slush pile); I care about the story you’re telling me, and whether you can capture my imagination and make me want to know what happens next. The best mark of this is finding yourself thinking about the book when you’re not reading it, also known as “I can’t put this down.”
Anyway, that being said, first, I said that I think it’s difficult to abruptly end a story well. You need to provide enough information, not necessarily directly, to end the story without leaving your reader thinking something like “but with another page or two you could have finished this off!” The best way I can think to accomplish this is to develop your characters well enough that your reader can think “well, the author doesn’t say so, but I know these characters well enough to know that this is what happens.” And maybe every reader comes to a slightly different conclusion, which is fantastic. (Sorry, I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head.) When that happens, you might not even realize this is what you’ve done.
On the second point, I don’t think it’s necessary to end every story abruptly. Some stories need to be finished due to the conventions of the style (examples: lots of deaths at the end of Shakespearean tragedies, at least one wedding at the end of Austen novels). Some stories need to be finished because they are A Good Story. I don’t care who wrote it and if the prose itself is a splendid and shining example of the best writing in recent memory. If you are writing something that is not trying to be Great Fiction* and you don’t end it well, I will not be pleased. It’s not fair to your readers! Reading for edification is important, but reading to escape and relax is just as, if not more, important. If you’re telling me a story, tell me the ending, too. It’s only fair.
*This differentiation starts to slide into “snobby reader-ism,” which I try to avoid. I try to keep an open mind and judge books based on whether or not I’m engaged by them, not by whether or not I “should” like them. For example, I don’t care for Faulkner, which surprises some people since I have a B.A. in English and Faulker wrote Great Fiction.