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Where’s the climax?

I have this thing. Possibly it’s an issue, possibly it just demonstrates I’m fairly sane. It’s this: I feel strongly that all stories should have conclusions.

That shouldn’t be up for debate, right?

But seriously folks, I’ve read way too many books lately in which this really basic element of storytelling does not occur. Picture it: I’ve got the latest/oldest/most classic of all possible novels. I’m reading. I’m investing. I’m going along with it, I’m getting into it, I’m sure there’s going to be some form of climax – and then there isn’t. The story waffles off. Nothing is resolved.

Maybe this is postmodernism. Maybe it’s art. It’s definitely bloody annoying.

I recently went to the trouble of reading Neal Stephenson’s ‘Cryptonomicon’. For reasons beyond my understanding, this seems to be somewhat of a cult novel – everyone from my fire twirling best mate to my Mum was telling me I had to read it, so I did. It was nine hundred pages long. Normally I wouldn’t tell you this, and I wouldn’t care, but it was nine hundred pages of essential sameness. There was some build-up, there was some gradual progress, but the end was pretty much a continuation of the previous four hundred pages with no change in pitch or tempo. Imagine me, getting excited as I got into the last hundred pages, excited about finally knowing what it was all about and no freaking dice.

‘Cryptonomicon’ was the best example, but there was also the recent ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’, by Jonathn Safran Foer. Lovely book, lovely imagery, history, construction; I loved the first ninety percent and felt very let down by the last twenty pages. Not because it took some cheap way out, but because I honestly felt it didn’t resolve anything. My girlfriend and I argued about it; she thought it was the only way it could have ended. I wasn’t sure, but did know I wasn’t satisfied.

Here’s my thing. So far as I am concerned, telling stories is about understanding the world. I have an English degree and I know there are many other threads to this, but this one is important to me. I don’t think we tell stories unless we intend to learn something from them. Accordingly, most stories are about simplified versions of the world; the world with more reason, less randomness embedded. Coincidences that happen in real life would never be permitted in books, as they seem cheap and tacky.

The best books, best stories, are about very complex versions of the world, things with multiple layers of meaning going on, more characters, more simulated randomness. But what these books have in common is that for us to learn, for us to gain meaning from them, they have to come to some systematic, balanced, satisfying conclusion. There has to be a message underlying the whole thing, to explain why we told the story to begin with; there has to be something that draws it all together.

And if there isn’t, why are we telling the story? I honestly don’t understand. If we’re using stories to learn about ourselves and our world, what use is a story that can’t come together to teach us some symbolic thing about ourselves/our world/the story in question? It’s not as if real life isn’t short on unsatisfying events, no balance and a total lack of closure; I read books precisely to feel as though there is meaning in things. And it bothers me when there isn’t!

I know there’s probably some deeper thing going on here. I said the best books are complex ones with many layers; they’re the ones that more closely resemble life. Maybe this latest trend to not bring books to a climax is just the logical extension of that realism; things are complicated and out of balance, the end. But I hope not. Because if nothing else, books give me hope that there is pattern and meaning in life, and I’m not willing to give that up yet.

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Comments

  1. Maybe it’s because of the rise of popular narratives and popular modes of writing where characters established in one novel reoccur in others. Their narratives always continue, never conclude. So authors – hopeful that they’ll be able to write a sequel, but not always certain – resort to waffling in the last part of their books, in which some, but not all, narrative threads are tied together. Or – in the case of wildly successful book series – they create far too many narrative threads to be concluded in one book in order to provide as much material as possible for later books.

    • Huh. Now there’s a cynical thought. :D

      in the case of wildly successful book series – they create far too many narrative threads to be concluded in one book in order to provide as much material as possible for later books.

      That also sounds likely. Particularly in the case of Cryptonomicon.

  2. Dear Georgia

    I’m puzzled. Are you saying this is a recent development? Because you suggest it could be part of the postmodern malaise while simultaneously stating that it’s in all books you read, including the classics (‘Picture it: I’ve got the latest/oldest/most classic of all possible novels’).

    Wouldn’t more complex versions of the world with multiple layers of meaning and a multiplicity of readings be more likely to result in a lack of resolution? And what can readers learn from books that tell the same stories through the traditional story structure with its conspicuous climax?

    And because you left me curious, can you give me some examples of ‘systematic, balanced, satisfying’ conclusions?

    Signed
    A lover of refusal of resolution endings

    • Hmm. Perhaps you take my description too literally! It is not in ALL novels or I would give up reading and resign myself to TV (where frankly the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica is still annoying the bejesus out of me). It does seem to be a more modern development, although by modern I mean “the last thirty years”.

      Wouldn’t more complex versions of the world with multiple layers of meaning and a multiplicity of readings be more likely to result in a lack of resolution? And what can readers learn from books that tell the same stories through the traditional story structure with its conspicuous climax?.

      The first half of this, yes, certainly. And frankly I’m not much for the purely traditional climatic novel; they’re too predictable (a reason crime bores me to tears). However, I do think there’s a balance between the two. I read lot of Man Booker novels; I find the best of these usually do walk some kind of balance between complexity and resolution. Amitav Ghosh is another favourite, the novels span generations and countries, but are resolved (if not climaxing). The same with Peter Hoeg, his novels are complex but resolve SOMETHING in the end. To go to the less highbrow, Haruki Murakami has a knack for telling complex stories that I’m not entirely sure I understand, that are usually at least concluded. I don’t think any of these are traditional story structures, but they do resolve things.

      I think I gave you some examples of the conclusions I look for… but a book I genuinely loved was Sheri Holman’s The Mammoth Cheese (which does follow a traditional story structure) and another is Possession by AS Byatt, which does somewhat follow the usual structure but rather ironically, I felt.

  3. Here’s the problem: you argue that “telling stories is about understanding the world” (an already dubious assertion), but then argue that “I read books precisely to feel as though there is meaning in things. And it bothers me when there isn’t!” Effectively, you want to read stories that help you understand the world only if that understanding falls within the parameters that you’ve already predetermined.

    It seems to me that books that don’t “resolve” are teaching us precisely that our innate desire for meaning and intelligibility doesn’t square with our actual experience of the world–itself an important lesson. But, as Gilbert Sorrentino noted, “It’s difficult to accept a life as nothing more or less than the pattern that it makes.”

    • Oh, Emmett. You’ve definitely put your finger on something there. I disagree on some details, like this:

      Effectively, you want to read stories that help you understand the world only if that understanding falls within the parameters that you’ve already predetermined.

      I think it depends on what you mean by parameters? I’m in the habit of reading all sorts of things, not necessarily those that confirm my own opinions. However, if you mean the paradigm, the way in which I read the book, certainly there’s something there.

      It seems to me that books that don’t “resolve” are teaching us precisely that our innate desire for meaning and intelligibility doesn’t square with our actual experience of the world..

      Oh, now you sound just like my girlfriend. :p And I guess I know at heart that it’s the cause – I just don’t WANT it to be the case.

      • OK, but I guess I don’t ultimately understand exactly what all the fuss is about. I’ve read many similar arguments over the last decade (e.g. Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult,” Dale Peck’s Review of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil), and I don’t understand why readers with basically conservative taste become frustrated with writers of more experimental fiction. At best, such arguments are a more or less unfounded declaration of personal aesthetics, and, at worst, they amount to a nuanced philistinism.

        The overwhelming majority of fiction, even of so-called “literary” fiction (like Booker prize winners!), offers the typical plot structure of rising action, climax and resolution; it’s very rare for books that eschew this formula to get any kind of real notoriety (with notable exceptions like Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Bolano’s 2666). It’s not exactly like novels without clear resolution are flying off the shelves, or dominating the literary marketplace. So, if you want fiction that is entertaining in more or less traditional ways, then there’s good news for you: bookshops are full of novels like that. There’s no point in attacking a kind of literature directed at the small percentage of readers who want a different sort of aesthetic experience.

  4. When I get to the end of a story I’m writing and can’t decide what to do with any of the characters, I just start killing them off.

    Worked for Shakespeare. (His other tactic was a big-ass wedding but I have vowed to never plan another frickin’ wedding as long as I live).

    • Hee. My favourite lecturer used to say that for Shakespeare, comedies ended in marriages and tragedies ended in death, but they were otherwise pretty alike…

      I’ll have to remember the killing people trick. Bwaha.

  5. I was working on a novel some time ago, and the guidance I kept getting was about ‘finding the climax’, ‘arcing the narrative around it’ etc, which was the polar opposite of what I was actually trying to achieve ( a sense that a series of periodic happenings were part of a larger, futile and possibly eternal social problem).

    In the end I tried to bash the book into the formula, totally f*cked it up in the process and had to go back to the point I was at before I received this advice.For me, it’s less about the reader’s satisfaction and more about the author’s end objective.

    As a reader, I don’t mind being led into the darkness and left there clutching and disorientated…as long as there is a point (and it doesn’t have to be one I agree with).

    • I can identify with how annoying that must be. I personally don’t believe in the three act novel/formula/whatever, but I do believe you have to have an objective. And I guess my point with this article is: some books don’t. Or don’t seem to. I too want a point, even if it’s one that I loathe.

  6. When I’m writing a play, it’s immensly important to me to stick to the 3 act convention, to pay off everything I set up at the start.

    When I’m writing a verse novel, it’s more important to me to stay true to the idea that not everything is resolvable.

    • Yeah, I too agree not everything is resolvable. But I do believe there’s a bit of space between conclusion and resolution, even if it’s hard to find. Maybe it’s better to use Maxine’s term above – there needs to be a point, even if the point is everything sucks or is out of balamce or is irrational. There’s a difference between a conclusion that tidies things up nicely and a conclusion that marks the end of a book, and I’m more worried by the absence of the latter. If I turn a page and am genuinely startled it’s the final one, there may be a problem.

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