Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"That Ending Sucked!": On Payoff in Fiction

Let me be straightforward---I don't write "literature." Now, that's not to say that I don't try to write well and with literary value. But the primary motivator in "literature" is seldom entertainment. Literature seeks to ask questions and make us think. I hope it makes us better people for having read. And I hope my readers find some really good takeaway value in my stuff as well. But I am all about payoff.

I want people to finish the last page of my stuff and say, "Wow! My questions were answered, my hopes were fulfilled, my expectations were met, and I feel satisfied." Just like after Thanksgiving dinner. Payoff. I love that feeling. I love finishing a book and wanting to hug it to my chest to continue that deep sense of completion. Payoff.

Now, I've read books that were excellent and well-written but left me troubled and pensive in a bad way. Madame Bovary comes to mind. I just wanted to beat the hell out of so many people at the end of that stupid book.

TV shows are the same way. I know that it's got to be the hardest thing in the world to write a series finale. After all, this is TV. People want payoff. And when shows pull unexpected endings--St. Elsewhere and Newhart immediately come to mind 'cause I never watched The Sopranos---people discuss whether or not that unexpected ending gave them payoff.

Take, for instance, Lost. I am beside myself right now since I just finished the show last night. Was that crazy ending payoff? Did I seriously expect payoff? In what way did the show fail to pay me what I expected given the amount of time I invested in watching it? I am still thinking about that.

Because when we read/watch something, we are investing ourselves in it. The closure we get or don't get off of it is the pay we earn by reading. We know if Nicholas Sparks's name is on the cover, part of our payoff will involve major character death and many kleenexes. But what if you're not expecting that? I completely quit reading Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series many years ago because of her tendency to introduce characters I loved just to kill them off mercilessly later. That wasn't the pay I was after!

I have been so thrilled with the reviews The Blacksmith's Daughter has been getting. It has been called enjoyable and a fast, fun read. I am delighted! That's the exact payoff I wanted to deliver. I wanted to take the reader for a ride that they would find interesting and fun, with dashes of deadly peril and romance just to make it extra zippy.

After all, who finished watching Star Wars: A New Hope and wasn't thrilled to see the heroes prevail and Darth Vader spin off into space? Knowing he was out there to come back was part of that excellent payoff. There's nothing wrong with a happy ending.

Maybe I'm just not angsty enough. Maybe I like things tidy. Maybe I don't like to be reminded of my mortality every time I pick up a book or watch a show.

So for all of you out there who'd like to escape the grim realities of life for a little bit, I'm going to keep writing.

Because I believe we can all use a little payoff sometimes.

PS Lost Rant: WTF?!! They are where?? My sci fi/fantasy island expectations just went out the window and my mortality has been stripped bare. I went through eight kleenexes in reunions---OMG James and Juliet---and somehow I still feel robbed. Crap. WTF. End of Lost rant.


  1. Great blog post, Arley :-) I totally agree. About payoff that is, not Lost because I haven't watched any of it. Probably the only person in the world not to.

  2. I'm with you on the payoff front, girl. Sometimes I like to read something that I know is going to leave me miserable, but ... nah, not so much. Just recently I finally read "Crime and Punishment" and all I wanted to do at the end of that one was just slap everybody involved. Usually it's movies that affect me that way, I'll admit.

    I loved LOST for two seasons, loathed it for one, put up with it for another, and loved it again by the ending. All things considered, I figured that was the best they were gonna do for an ending.

    If the Deryni books bugged you, you might not want to read George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series. I've thrown a couple of those across the room. And have you seen them? If I'd hit something with one of those concrete blocks, I'd have broken it for sure. Good thing I've got no aim to speak of. ;D

  3. Hi Arley, I'm shoulder to shoulder with you on payoff. Often the type of payoff is genre specific, but it still boils down to leaving the reader with a sense of completion and that plot strands are resolved in some way. Or maybe just neatly laid out for the next book. To do otherwise smacks of lazy writing, even if the intention was to subvert the form.

  4. I agree. I don't do nihilistic books or films. I need it all to mean something. Watched "There Will Be Blood" the other day...WTF? What the heck was that ending supposed to MEAN?

    I knew there was a reason I liked your books, Arley!

  5. I agree. I love an ending that has, well, an ending. (Although, I do write literary works.) I love to read books that I don't have to say,"Huh?"---L.K. Mitchell

  6. I am so with you on rip-off endings. I just spent about 3 weeks plowing my way through Stephen King's book "The Dome" (I used to be such a SK fan...) and the ending made me want to throw the book across the room. What a let-down!! I also agree with you on "Lost". What about those darn polar bears?