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Closure

I've been tardy with updates lately because I'm having had some trouble achieving closure in the current novel.

Closure isn't the same as ending. It's dead easy to finish a novel if you don't care about closure; just have a masked stranger come through the door with a submachine gun, shoot all the protagonists, and type THE END. It's not very satisfying, though. Your readers will close the book with a sour taste in their mouths — especially if the book in question is a Regency romance.

Closure is hard to pin down, but if I had to take an off-the-cuff stab at it I'd say it's the emotionally satisfying wrap, coming after much struggle and a climax. The climax is easy to spot, whether it be on the melodramatic scale of the protagonist dueling with the villain on top of a burning zeppelin, or our thinly disguised literary academic narrator coming to terms with their middle age and deciding to move on. All fictional forms have their own forms and conventions for handling a climax, or declining to do so (in the case of slice-of-life narratives or somewhat perverse experimental works). But closure is not climax. A story that doesn't end with closure is unsatisfying — "it just ended" is a common reader complaint. But the closure-generating aspects of a story aren't necessarily as obvious as an infantile "and they all lived happily ever after". Sometimes closure is explicit, but sometimes it's sketchy — a bunch of arrows converging in the distance beyond the end of the narrative, so that the reader can draw their own conclusions.

Anyway, that's closure defined (or at least roughly circumscribed). My problem is a variation on the common issue of loose ends and dangling threads — a common closure issue in fiction. I'm working with three major plot strands, one of them only loosely connected to the others. Each of them needs to achieve closure. If only a couple of them achieve closure, my hypothetical reader is going to finish the book then say, "yes, but whatever happened to X ...?"

In my case, I've got the solitary strand more or less sorted out. But the two interlocking threads don't demand the same kind of closure, to say the least. Yes, there are different types of closure, following the conventions of different genres or types of literature. Detective/crime: the cop gets the crook and justice is done. Romance: the couple/multiple get it together. Horror: the last victim standing reaches an island of stability and comes to terms with what they've been through. Classical comedy, tragedy and farce have their own expectations of closure. (And so on.) And in my case I'm trying to use a welding torch on a romance-gone-wrong thread and a detective/crime thread, the latter as seen from the point of view of something utterly alien that is watching the world through the eyes of a sociopath.

I may be some time ...

77 Comments

1:

Thoughts like this are why you are a great writer, while others just move on to the next book. Thanks for taking the time to blog for us when you can.

2:

This is why your books don't read like a hack's. Thank you for taking the time to finish the story.

3:

So you won't be going for the fashionable 'they were all in purgatory working out their issues to get into heaven' solution then?

4:

I've got nothing really to add to #1 and #2 except that I've still not caught up your back catalogue!

5:

As far as I am concerned, take your time, a good story is worth waiting for.
I have the Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue lying on my desk waiting for a reread, I have pre-ordered the Fuller Memorandum. I guess there are 2-3 of your books that I haven't read, so I am good for now.

6:

Shhh! Keep your voice down. You'll ruin Neal Stephenson's party.

7:

"it just ended" is a common reader complaint.

But we still like Neal Stephenson.

8:

If satisfactory closure isn't coming easily from the story arc, are the characters themselves able to suggest something?

Hope that's of some use.

9:

#6: I read about a paragraph into this post and Neal Stephenson popped into my mind too. There's little he can't do, literary speaking, but his closure-generating circuits seem to have been surgically removed shortly after birth.

Me, I found "Accellerando" as a free E-book after having read The Concrete Jungle by our host, and as I'm almost through it now I need to decide how to best buy his other works, beginning with the Laundry series. Ideally I really want them in Epub format so I can read them on my phone.

10:

The second to last sentence, beginning with "And in my case..."? THAT'S why I look forward to new Stross books.

11:

Totally OT:

Charlie, I just spied the new domain name. Is this the new preferred, or am I just slow?

12:

I had closure issues with Saturn's Children. It's not so much that it doesn't have closure, it's more that around the time closure happened, I was a little too confused and unsure of what exactly had happened. So I kinda just shrugged and said "okay then". It's the only Stross that's fallen flat for me so far.

I think the more you're trying to do awesome, genre-bending things, the harder it gets to get to proper closure (obviously, like alluded to in that last paragraph up there). It's also much harder to predict whether or not your idea of closure is going to register with your readers in just the right way. You may think you're writing a story of a family going through the Singularity, but all your readers may care about is the cat robot awakening to strong AI (although, granted, in that example the cat got pretty good closure too) (and SPOILERS)

But I'll also echo what was said above: that Charlie is aware of these things, that he understands the problem well enough to summarize and discuss it this well, is a large part of why he's so much fun to read. I'm about 4/5th through Iron Sunrise now, and I can taste the climax coming. I know that after the villains have been built up like they have, there are Bad Things in store for them, and I know that the stories of our young heroine and our intrepid warblogger will be wrapped up properly. And of course Rachel and Bob... uh, Martin will come through unharmed, ready for another sequel. (Seriously, what is it with the techy male leads unwillingly saving the universe from horrible cosmic cataclysms?)

13:

A proper answer to this might depend on Charlie being prepared to discuss his "process", but I know other authors who have talked about their characters "taking over and doing what they want rather than what i want", so I'm prepared to say that this is a viable maybe.

14:
and as I'm almost through it now I need to decide how to best buy his other works, beginning with the Laundry series. Ideally I really want them in Epub format so I can read them on my phone.
Now I am tempted to suggest a law stating that threads on this blog eventually converge on the topic of ebooks, and their distribution, formats, and cost, with a probability of 0.5 or so. I wonder if it can be generalized to authors' blogs in general?

(Janne: Hi, by the way. I haven't read your blog in a while, but maybe I should head over and take a look.)

15:

Good luck! I'm looking forward to the end product, particularly after that description of the welding torch and the genre threads...

16:

What new domain name?

17:

What I like as a reader often are fast-forward vignettes. Looking at the end from the other side, in a way.

18:

I was going to suggest a wrap-up sentence, purely as a joke, then I realized I'd probably come a little too close to a possible denouement for a book based on Rule 34 and I just might be stepping on our host's toes...

Sic transit humor.

19:

"...the latter as seen from the point of view of something utterly alien that is watching the world through the eyes of a sociopath."

If you need a consultant for that, I believe Dick Cheney has some time free...

20:

I'm a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and while a couple of his books do seem to end rather abruptly, both Anathem and the baroque cycle gave a sense of closure, so perhaps he's heard the critics...

Either way, i'll take an abruptly finishing Neal Stephenson over almost any other author any day of the decade!

21:

What specifically did you not like about the ending? I just re-read Saturn's Children and I'm pretty good with the ending. Freya's happy (and has grown), evil plans have been thwarted, etc. Granted the status of Juliette is a bit confusing (given the fork states and all), I'm a little unclear on how long all this was plotted (apparently decades in advance) and I've liked a bit more on Dax, but those weren't deal breakers for me.

22:

Perhaps leaving a little conjecture to the reader is not such a bad thing, providing that's intentional. It might even be haunting, if executed masterfully. After all, it's the spaces that let us readers become part of the work via our imaginations, and create a living, breathing piece of art.

23:

I've found that a lot of books I've read lately have been lacking in the closure department. I would enjoy them right up through about the 3/4 mark, and then they'd just sort of peter out to a tepid ending. None of your books have done that to me, and now I see why. Thank you for taking the time and effort.

24:

Hmmm... sounds like a job for space dolphins....

25:

@16 - All the links on accelerando.org are going to http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/

So I'm guessing it looks like a new domain to recent readers.

26:

Well, the probability of anything with the word "eventually" in it is usually either zero or one (because of Kolmogorov's zero-one law), so it's pretty unlikely to be half...

27:

It's not new; I pointed accelerando.org at antipope.org/charlie/ about nine months ago. I was planning to migrate entirely to the new URL, but unfortunately the google mojo for antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/ is so high I don't date move -- I'd hemorrhage readers by the thousand.

28:

Charlie@27 you can turn the old site into a redirect farm...

It would be great to revisit this topic about six months after Rule 34 hits the shelves, so a quorum of your fans can see for ourselves how you resolved the problem. Maybe save a few of your alternate endings to compare and contrast.

29:

Yeah, I second that.

Anathem was certainly put down at a nice calm spot where, on the one hand, the main plot has been resolved and, on the other hand, new things are *about* to begin, but neither the reader nor any of the protagonists know exactly what they will be. All of which is quite satisfying after the rather dizzying last couple of chapters. At the end of the book, the whole world that has been described has lost very fabric that used to hold it together. Inertia dictates that some things will keep going for quite a while almost unchanged, but there's little that will keep it from falling apart. So, maybe it's not closure but annihilation. But, hell it works.

The Baroque Cycle dedicated almost 1000 pages (The System of the World) to weave all the loosely hanging threats that were spun in the previous tomes together into one piece. And I still love the ending paragraph in the same way that I won't ever get the "On Mars. On Mars. On Mars. On Mars." of Blue Mars out of my head.

It's not like a well written last page makes a good ending. But it sure does influence the way I remember a book.

30:

Charlie, in the end I think that what bugged me about Merchant Princes was that your ending kind of felt like [SPOILER REDACTED]. I didn't get a great sense of closure.

Which won't stop me from buying whatever sequels set in New Britain that you may eventually choose to write, but still...

31:

How to wrap it up?

1. Insert tongue firmly in cheek
2. The girl got the guy in the end.

The only question is, what did she get him with? It's not clear whether a branding iron, a tracking device, or a dildo would be more appropriate. Possibly an alien anal probe disguised as a dildo?

Good thing I'm not writing this one! Hope it works out soon, Charlie!

32:
Well, the probability of anything with the word "eventually" in it ...

Well, yes -- assuming the blog stays open forever, and commenting is never ever closed, I suppose the spherical cows will come home eventually and start talking about ebooks in every thread. Or not.

But try writing a joke about that.

33:
"And then Donald Rumsfeld kills everyone."
Coincidentally, Peter Watts posted a new fiblet just now. And it's just as uplifting and positive as we have come to expect.
34:

With Anathem I got the distinct impression with the penultimate chapter that the author was muttering "can't do endings, eh? Here, have several" as he wrote.

@30 - Spoilers, much? Serves me right for getting those books from the library rather than preordering the first editions, possibly.

35:

"And then Donald Rumsfeld kills everyone." would be an awesome band name.

36:

perhaps you could somehow connect them around the common theme of understanding and empathy, a prerequisite to love, whereas a sociopath cannot do these things by definition and thus relating to romance gone wrong. Or perhaps that theme is trite and you will come up with something more meaningful or hilarious, or hopefully both. You are a great writer, so I am sure the vast majority of people who read your work will enjoy whatever you come up with. Keep up the good work.

37:

H: 2. The girl got the guy in the end.

As my elevator pitch for this book is "Charlie's big gay near-future Edinburgh police procedural", I think not.

(All the protags are genderqueer, except the villain, who is straight. See also: cliches, inversion thereof, 101.)

38:

Really? Looking forward to it.

One suggestion: market Rule 34 heavily in the American Bible Belt. On the rights page, follow Mercedes Lackey's example and include a note:

"Bulk sales discounts are available for book burnings. If interested, please contact $My_Distributor"

39:

@34 Gah, I apologize. I seriously wasn't thinking. Charlie, could you please delete my comment #30 so as to have a similar effect on others?

41:

Whatever ending you come up with, it'll _still_ be better than the ghastly Epilogue of a certain fantasy series (cough DH cough).

But then, so is my grocery list (ok, still pouting over how Sn*pe died, _see_ Tasha Yar and Jadzia Dax. Admittely, I enjoy seeing Roselyn go down the elevator shaft in LA LAW, but that was just me).

Looking forward to the goodies e'en as you sweat, toil, bleed, etc. It will be worth it.

42:

Endings where the chief protagonist leaves the solar system heading out for new beginnings seem in the canon of posthumous Heinlein and in keeping with previous. John Varley and Spider Robinson removed the solar system, Stross leaves it fearing the resurgence of an ancient pink (near enough to rugose?) horror.

43:

The ghastly horror in "Saturn's Children" is definitely squamous and rugose.

(H. P. Lovecraft had some very strange phobias.)

44:

Don't use the machine gun---that's just _cheap_---follow the late Michael O'Donoghue's recommendation instead:

http://www.workableweb.com/_pages/tips_how_to_write_good.htm

As for the Gruimarkt, all I could think (in quick succession) is:
1.) Maybe he's _really_ tired of it, or of writing the series in general.
2.) Does a reasonable foreigner really see us this way?
3.) Maybe we _deserve_ to be seen in this way---between the «pour encourager les autres» (alright, «décourager les Russes») aspect of the Nagasaki bombing and the enthusiasm in some sections for barbarism in response to a simple, now-useless, social/technical hack that killed fewer people than a bad day during the Great War.... (Note: I love New York City, and not just when people get mass-murdered there; I'm just not a fan of acting butch for the sake of making it look like you're really doing something---I prefer Cordwainer Smith's Lord Redlady, who insisted that civilised people were the most dangerous.)

45:

Lambda closures?

46:

HP Lovecraft was a phobia.

As for closure, I'm relieved to hear that you haven't decided to go the JJ Abrams route. I enjoy his stuff (Except for the shaky-cam. Shaky-cam + Motion sickness = No Fun) but would it kill him to actually wrap up a storyline for once?

47:

Charlie, Do you have a post-book ritual? Something like smoking a cigarette while being kidnapped by a rabid, obesessed fan perhaps?

48:

Charlie @43 "(H. P. Lovecraft had some very strange phobias.)"

I have heard possibly on Making Light, Lovecraft described as "the man who was afraid of everything."

But, more importantly(?), what was his thing about gambrel roofs? He refers to them over and over again, he never refers to other types of roof, and it never matters to the story. It's starting to bug me.

J Homes.

49:

Terry Pratchett once described his post-book-writing ritual: he destroys all the notes he made while writing the book, while intoning the ceremonial incantation, "Tough luck, future literary scholars, get an honest job!"

50:

I don't destroy my notes and offcuts and spare material.

I just keep them in a bunch of really obscure file formats, the better to torture the digital archaeologists.

(The actual MSs live in the most stable, standardized file formats I can find, and get carted around and upgraded regularly. Just because.)

51:

So which would you recommend? Papyrus rolls, Bound vellum or baked clay tablets as the "most stable, standardized file format"? ;-)

52:

I just noticed that accelerando.org is the response I get from a Google search on your name, not the more familiar antipope address. (New machine - still setting up).

Apologies for derailing the topic.

53:

Just steal a trick from Joyce, and finish the book midsentence, with the conclusion of that sentence being the opening line of the book. Never need to worry about closure when you have the poor reader trapped in an infinite reading-loop. No need for thanks, I accept PayPal.

54:

> ...the "most stable, standardized file format"?

Mylar-base punched tape, stored under dry Argon at constant temperature. 8-)>

55:

We're getting good results from Arymatic (sp) Composite punch cards, storing in hard vacumn from an argon atmosphere, ATM. ;) HTH.

56:

I think it's a place setting, Arkham/Massachusetts thing - gambrel roofs being a feature in Massachusetts.

My favourite of Lovecrafts overused word is 'gibbous' where would the Lovecraftian moon be without it?

57:

"Charlie's big gay near-future Edinburgh police procedural" would also be a good band name.

@49
I heard this also, but the reason I was told was to keep Discworld "compendiums" and such from becoming a cottage industry after he stops writing.

58:

@57 (and to some extent 49) You mean like "JRR Discarded First Drafts Excavated From the Litter Bin" is? ;-)

59:

If the moon were not waxing gibbous, then it would wane archly.

As for archiving, I recommend scratch marks and organic paints on cave walls. It's a proven technology.

60:

Of the Moon, "gibbous" is "waxing, more than half Moon but not full", so waxing is tautology, and gibbous means the second week of the Lunar month.

61:

I was planning to migrate entirely to the new URL, but unfortunately the google mojo for antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/ is so high I don't date move

If you preserve (essentially) the same page structure on the new site and do a site-wide 301 (permanently moved) redirect that maps every page to its new URL, that should preserve your Google pagerank/mojo. I've done this on a couple of sites and it seems to work, anyway.

Of course you'll need to keep the old site around pretty much forever to cater for all the static links (I've still got old links a decade on.) So sticking with the old URL is much easier.

62:

How about a new character for the Laundry novels. His name will be Eul Gibbous, and he'll say things like, "Have you ever eaten a Night Gaunt? Many parts are edible..."

63:

@37: All the protags are genderqueer, except the villain, who is straight.

I think I may have just Squeed myself.

64:

Terry told us in the bar at some con or other that his estate has instructions, when they have confirmed knowledge of his death, to destroy all working notes and manuscript copies of any work he might have in progress. I think he fears the Tolkein laundry-list effect.

65:

Very small engraving on Iridium plates. There was a company offering to do that, as well as a less fancy material - stainless steel or somesuch.

I'd assume actual letters rather than binary representations of them, and hope enough Rosetta Iridia survive.

66:

@60 Waxing gibbous is not a tautology as the moon also wanes gibbous. It waxes gibbous during the second week and wanes gibbous during the third week.

67:

I may have mis-read intent of the dictionary entry, which specifically says "more than half but less than full" to imply waxing only.

68:

I think you did: dictionary definitions tend to say only what they need to, and to omit things like 'and vice versa' if not required. My reading at least indicates that 'gibbous' is meant to indicate just state rather than process.

Compare with the concept of a glass half full - it's actually more likely that the glass is in the process of changing from full to empty than vice versa.

69:

I too have heard this - his assistant Rob Wilkins apparently has that as one of his contract conditions.

70:

The Wikipedia article on the phases of the moon is pretty clear that gibbous just means that more than half of the moon's visible surface is illuminated, during both waxing and waning. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_phase

71:

One example of how NOT do do closure is JJ Abrams LOST. That was a real disappointment.

72:

Contrariwise, compare that to another multi-year story that ended at the same time (well, give or take a few hours): Ashes To Ashes (the story beginning in Life On Mars). Its final episode worked. Everything fit. Not everything was specifically explained, but within a 60 minute slot, all the character arcs suddenly clicked into sharp focus, and what the whole story had been about made sudden sense.

Before the showing, I'd had terrible misgivings over whether they could come up with something that made dramatic sense. By the end, I was pretty well weeping with gratitude to see it so well done.

You may have to have watched the preceding 5 years for it to have worked that well, and I strongly suspect that a single sentence could be the ultimate spoiler for the entire storyline. I'm happy to say that I have yet to see any such spoiler.

73:

I said I'm happy to say that I have yet to see any such spoiler.

A quick check shows that the Wikipedia article on the series does contain exactly such a spoiler. Such is the nature of such articles.

74:

Personally, I'm not convinced by the "official explanation", since my memory says that location was a regular set in Life on Mars. I'm not sure how much further we can discuss this without running the spoiler again.

75:

Probably not at all, to be honest, so I'll just note that I've seen a few varying analyses of the final situation, and I'll leave it there.

76:

Scaley and wrinkly: a weird phobia and philia: kids, don't let this happen to you. Your cones may eventually get rugose, but if they are squamous, consult a physician.

77:

@ 6,7: Likewise Alastair Reynolds.

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