When Should A Story End?

Vincent the Lost dog with dead friend

I suppose sequels are inevitable for a writer of a certain age. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

We’re binge-watching Breaking Bad in my house lately. I know, I know…I am the last one to the party, but now I am hooked. Great characters (and a lesson in how writers can make even the most reprehensible people sympathetic). Great plotting (and a lesson on how writers should strive to make each plot point arise organically from character).  And each episode ends with a cliff-hanger.

We’re almost to the end. So the husband and I looked at each other last night and said, “how in the heck are they going to tie this up?” And the first thing I thought was:

Please, don’t let it be another Lost.

Do you remember Lost? The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were 1,000 miles off course when they crashed on a lush mysterious island. Each person had a shocking secret, but so did the island — an underground group of violent survivalists that made The Time Machine’s Morlocks look like teletubbies.  I loved that show, grooving on its nerdy sci-fi cum mythology thing. But somewhere around season three, things started to get…dumb. I was mentally exhausted trying to make sense of it all (what’s with the polar bear? Who cares how Jack got his tattoos?) and finally, I gave up. Plus I was too worried that Vincent the Labrador Retriever would get killed. One by one, all his owners did.

I think what happened with Lost was that it was so hot that ABC got cynical and said, “Find any way to keep it going!” It felt like the writers were just winging it, with no real thoughtful end ever in sight. (This happened with season two of the original Twin Peaks, you remember). Apparently, I should have toughed it out with Lost. Rabid fans tell me the writers found their focus again and that I missed a great payoff. Today, the series is being reassessed as break-through serial television, giving TV bean-counters the guts to take chances on great stuff like Game of Thrones and yes, Breaking Bad.

All this was on my mind the other day because I read an intriguing article in the New York Times by Amanda Hess called “The Curse of the Never-Ending Story.” Click here to read it. Hess bemoans the trend of turning stories into franchises that trudge across Hulu and populate Amazon like zombies, always alive when they should be dead.

Today, the tradition of the novel has been supplanted by that of the comic book: Stories that extend indefinitely, their plot holes patched through superpower, magic and dreams. Or maybe every story is a soap opera now: Nobody is dead forever, not Dan Conner of Roseanne and definitely not the superhero genocide victims of Infinity War. To Hollywood’s bean-counters, sequels are mere brand extensions of intellectual property. The logic of the  internet is colonizing everything.

So far this decade, 17 of the top 20 top grossing movies were sequels. Television is eating itself alive with reboots (Lost in Space, Will & Grace, and egad, Murphy Brown wearing a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt). And apparently, there are second acts in American life: Harry Potter made it to Broadway.

I am not sure what this means for us novelists. For those of us who write series crime fiction, it can be a struggle to keep our plots fresh without straining credibility. How many times can our hero get shot or beat up? How many bodies can turn up in Cabot Cove, the apparent murder capital of the world? How deep do we dig into the brains of our hero without looking like that creepy family in Get Out?

But maybe this is really in my thoughts right now for a different reason. One that I don’t want to deal with.

Back in 2015, our stand alone SHE’S NOT THERE was published by Thomas & Mercer.  I loved writing this story about Amelia Brody, an amnesiac who is convinced her husband tried to kill her so she goes on the run. It is, at its thematic heart, about what happens to your soul when you try to live an inauthentic life. It is about a woman whose past is erased, so she must painfully reconstruct it before she can have a chance at a future. When I typed THE END, I was convinced I had nothing more to say.

The problem I don’t want to deal with? I think I might be wrong.

In SHE’S NOT THERE, there was a skip tracer named Clay Buchanan who was hired by Amelia’s husband to track her down and kill her. Buchanan was one of those characters who emerge from the ether of the imagination unbidden; he was supposed to be a cameo, but he became a second protagonist. Amelia is desperate to remember her past. Buchanan is desperate to forget his. His wife and infant son disappeared ten years ago and he was accused of murdering them. He was cleared but his life was broken, especially because he lost custody of his daughter. Like Amelia, he can’t move forward until he fully confronts his past. Throughout the book, I use a devise where his dead wife speaks to him — or, in his grief, he believe she does. In one scene, he is looking at a photograph of his wife:

Buchanan stared at the photo then he looked up, into the shadows of his bedroom.

“Are you here, Rayna?”

He heard nothing.

“I need to know something,” he said. “I need to know if it’s too late.”

Still, silence.

For the first time, she is gone. But in this “man in the mirror” moment, Buchanan makes the decision that he will find out the truth about what happened to her. Until he knows for certain, he can’t move forward. This happens on page 362, the second to last chapter. When we wrote this scene, we had no intention of revisiting Clay Buchanan. I believed just having him decide to take action was enough. But then readers weighed in — often and loudly.  They wanted to know what was going to happen. They want to hear Buchanan again. They weren’t content with silence.

I have mixed feelings about this because I’ve always believed that all stories have a logical end, that you shouldn’t over-explain. I’ve always believed in the power of ambiguity, even in unhappily ever after. (I blogged HERE about it a couple years back). I believe in leaving some space at the end of a story for readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, to imagine what a character’s life is like after they close the book. I like the idea that readers can “write” their own epilogues.

But I think I might be wrong this time. I think I might have to write a sequel.

I’m having trouble getting moving on this book. Partly is it because I don’t want this to feel forced or derivative. I don’t want this to be a soap opera. Maybe I have seen too many bad movie sequels that felt cannibalized or read too many series thrillers that felt phoned in. Maybe I am just worried because, so far, Clay Buchanan isn’t talking to me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m not listening hard enough.

My sister Kelly keeps telling me, as she always does when I am blocked, to just have faith, that we will figure it out before we’ve been there before. But with this one, we haven’t. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. As they say in the serials, stay tuned…

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30 thoughts on “When Should A Story End?

  1. Maybe this isn’t a sequel as much as it’s a “spin-off”…
    You told the SHE’S NOT THERE story, and unless you resurrect characters other than Buchanan, this is, or should be, a stand-alone – or the beginning of an entirely NEW series?
    😉

    • Huh…I hadn’t considered it that way, George. At first, I thought I needed to have Amelia in the book even though it is about Clay. But no matter how hard I tried, she didn’t want to be in it. 🙂 That should have told me something right there. Well, maybe it did because I threw out five chapters and am now starting over with the idea that I need to leave her alone. And yes, it IS possible he could support a series on his own but I can’t even get to that point yet. Thanks!

      • It worked for the Danny Thomas Show, which spun off Andy of Mayberry which spun off Homer Pyle, USMC~ (humour, of course, but still)…
        On the other hand, MASH spun off After-MASH and Friends spun off Joey, so maybe…
        😋

    • I agree with George. Characters often demand their own stories, and there’s nothing that says that story has to be part of another series (although you might be surprised). Maybe it’s because I also write romantic suspense, where series are really ‘connected books’ with recurring characters. If you’re like me, you don’t know exactly where it’s going until you get it under way. I had an injured character in my last Blackthorne book, and I’m writing his story now — to see what happened to him.

  2. Hey, you’re not alone! My wife and I recently started a “Breaking Bad” binge too. It didn’t seem like the kind of show I’d like, but the characters are great. We’ve got about 6 or 7 episodes left and I too am wondering how they’re going to tie this up.

    As for writing, I’m wrapping up my 3rd book in a series. I’d always planned it to end there, but now I’ve started to wonder…

    • I felt same about BB…what, I am supposed to watch a series about meth heads and cookers? But after two episodes, I was hooked by the writing. As for series vs stand alone…I think your protag dictates the longevity. Some protags have numerous stories to tell; some are good for one go-around only. I wrote another stand alone set in Paris with a reporter as the amateur sleuth. I loved doing that book but I knew in my bones that when Matt came home, it was over.

      • Good point. Problem is just because I’m through with my protag doesn’t necessarily mean my readers are. 🙂

        I try to work at least one or two characters into every novel who are capable of morphing into their own novel/series. We shall see…

        • Tom, that’s true that readers often want you to do more books about a character. But as I found with the Paris book, there was no more honest story left. Matt had resolved his demons.

  3. It’s your story. If you don’t want to write it, don’t.

    Margaret Mitchell was constantly hounded to write a sequel to Gone With the Wind. For her, it ended where it ended.

    • Ha! Good succinct advice! I considered this but in the end, I decided his story does need to be told. I just haven’t found the right entry point into the story yet. It will come. It always does. Some books come easy; others fight you every inch of the way. Which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be born.

      • I get a steady stream of requests to add to my Ty Buchanan books. But Book #3 is the most perfect ending I’ve ever written. I just can’t bring myself to add to it.

        • That’s a good point in itself, that sometimes you just come up with the perfect ending. If you try to string it out, you kill something great. See for reference: Cheers, Mad Men, MASH. One I didn’t like — Seinfeld. And you can start a crazy debate over The Sopranos.

  4. I wrote a three-novel series and thought it was over. Then, a few novels in a different genre later, one of the characters from the series tugged on my sleeve and whispered in my ear.

    I liked what he said, so I wrote a prequel. Then two more. That rendered the original 1-3 novels books 4-6 in the series. I thought, Okay, surely that ends everything. Then I wrote a sequel. Then another. The saga finally ended with Book 10.

    I’ve actually WANTED to revisit the characters and write more in that world, but I can’t. Their story is over.

    Respectfully, at the end of She’s Not There, perhaps YOU had nothing more to say, but maybe Clay Buchanan is whispering to you now. Maybe he wants to tell HIS story.

    An overall story ends where it ends. Sometimes it ends with a short story, sometimes with a novel, sometimes with Book 10. But it isn’t up to me. It’s up to the characters. After all, it’s their story.

    In “real” life, we live various episodes depending on our actions, reactions and interactions, so why shouldn’t we allow the characters to do the same?

    I don’t offer advice, just thoughts for consideraton. It’s all up to the individual writer. In my own real life, my plot points arise from my own story. In my writing, I allow my characters the same freedom I demand for myself.

    I am controlled only by my own actions, reactions and sense of morality and what’s right or wrong. I wouldn’t dream of levying control over anyone else, including the characters in their stories. As a result, they’ve told me stories I could never have imagined on my own.

    • Yeah, I think you are right in that in my book one character’s story had found its resolution but the other character still needed a voice. Prequels are another topic all together. Didn’t Rowlings do a Harry Potter one? (I’m not up on her books)

  5. Don’t get me started on LOST. I warned all my friends who were raving about it that it’s very easy to drop in an inexplicable cliffhanger every week. But just you wait…and of course, the ending caused no end of consternation. (BB, OTOH, like Mad Men, managed a great ending).

    I was amused by an account of one of the writers of LOST admitting this to a writer on another hit show, who asked him how on earth they were going to pay off all these things. The LOST scribe answered: “We’re not … We literally just think of the weirdest most f****** up thing and write it and we’re never going to pay it off.”

    The first writer was incensed. But he wasn’t writing the checks.

    • I gave up as the LOST first season ended. I knew there’d be no answers worth watching.

      A show that has a momentum gaining mystery (but with answers along the way) is MANIFEST, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see another LOST about a plane but the writing is better.

  6. Breaking Bad has the most perfect (true to the story) finale. I binged it for days years ago. Great weird “WTF” TV.

    On Clay, you may need to reread your book to get a feel for him again, but it sounds like he needs his own story. Take time to develop his plot & his voice will be there. Other motivations can drive him into the light of his own story, but it’s a good promo to give the story roots in your original novel.

    • Yeah you’re right, Jordan. I might be worried that I can’t give his story the due it deserves. Might be a touch of cowardice in this. Which is no excuse, I know. You guys are like a good therapy session…

  7. Kris, maybe Buchanan is waiting to be interviewed by you, as JSB describes in his great book VOICE. Sit down with Clay over coffee and ask him a few questions. See what he says. Sounds like he’s tapping the walls in your subconscious, looking for place to punch through and escape.

    Funny you mention The Sopranos. My hubby and I just finished it last night and kicked around follow up ideas–Paulie takes over and Carm marries him, Meadow becomes the next gen Godmother, leading to sib rivalry with AJ who thinks he should be boss. And on and on…

  8. I thought the writers of LOST dropped the ball. The final episode was awful. You didn’t miss much, IMO.

    I dealt with a similar thing not too long ago. I thought for sure I could never surpass the previous book and make the story compelling enough to warrant future books in the series. But after I finished the manuscript, I realized I was wrong. The cool part was, the next book in the series practically planned itself (need to let the outline simmer a while). Your sister is right. Go for it. Once you do, I bet you’ll uncover gold. Buchanan sounds like an intriguing character, someone worthy of his own story.

    • Thanks Sue. You guys are the best. This was very helpful to me. Thanks for indulging me today.

  9. One of my pet peeves is the whole sequelitis thing. There’s one good source material, be it book or movie or whatever. It’s a hit. Well, better have more. Then it’s hey, let’s adapt it to another format, i.e. a book to movie to stage, and then a movie based on the stage adaptation. The Color Purple, anyone? It’s just all about money. I have no interest in any of the new Star Wars movies. They’re all about the money, and nothing else. That’s the only reason they exist. It’s a bankrupt form of creativity.

    Parts of Lost were enjoyable, other parts infuriating. I found the ending acceptable, even though it didn’t – couldn’t – tie up everything. My opinion is the writers never really knew where the show was going.

    OTOH Breaking Bad was brilliant from start to finish. You can binge watch it and it all hangs together. If one didn’t know better one could believe that it was always intended to be like this, as one continuous story, with the ending the way it was. This isn’t actually how it was, but it has that feel. Now there is going to be a movie, a sequel. Sigh. Yep, all about the money. The story ended perfectly.

    IMO the ending of The Sopranos was a chicken sh!t ending. The creators/writers chose not to have an ending at all. No wrapping up, no denouement, just a cut to black. I was not a fan of this, nor of the show.

    Good luck developing Buchanan into his own stand alone character.

  10. Pingback: When Should A Story End? | Loleta Abi

  11. This has nothing to do with the main point of your post, but yesterday I was at physical therapy, staring out at the hilly green portion of the golf course through the window, thinking “this looks just like the screensaver with those animated critters coming over the hill.” I could not think of the cartoon creatures until your post–teletubbies. LOLOLOL!!!!!! See, I learn something every time I come to TKZ. 😎

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