Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Thinking about story time - the end

In stories time goes back and forth. Things that happened many years apart can be laid together as if they are (and indeed for the reader they are) occurring concurrently. That which is fractured and fragmented is presented as smooth and seamless. A while back Justine Larbalestier blogged about the hardest thing to do when you're writing a novel: transitions or as Kingsley Amis put it, 'getting your characters out of the pub and into a cab'. Attached to this, and a separate issue too (but another transitional issue) is the passage of time. Everything in Undine happened over the course of about a week, and Drift was a similarly intensely packed time period. But in Breathe I needed more time. Time time time. I needed time that seemed to flow naturally and inevitably forward, but time that behaved like time does in real life, sometimes days just pass. The circular journey of return (dinners and dinners and dinners) that marks the passage of days continues and nothing occurs to interrupt this seeming flow, if a novel was a daily account, a diary, it would be pages and pages of 'nothing to report'. When we look back on our lives we probably see it in this way, episodes of note and in between an aggregate memory of undistinguished days: dinners, breakfasts, showers, sleep.
Story time is more like memory time than real time and like memories, stories have gaping holes. Except at the same time anything you have set in motion will continue (in an implied way) until you stop it. So that if you have a character getting fat and suddenly there's a flickering of calendar pages or the winding forward of a clock (like in a movie), the implication is your character will be fatter. Or sadder or sicker or happier or more in love...
Sometimes stories are about time. Like The Time Traveler's Wife. Then story time almost becomes a metafictive element, the fabric of storytelling and timetelling begins to show, like the seams in a patchwork quilt beginning to fray so that instead of seeing the quilt as a whole, you begin to notice its parts.
Coraline is more about time than I thought it was. It's all about time. It's about time passing and time not passing, about the paradox of the endless summer, of repetition and return occurring so frequently that time almost seems to be in a continuous loop, and yet underlying the endlessness of time is the bitter note of time's perpetual end - the end of summer, the end of days, the end, the absolute end.
What does The End mean? And so it continues? And so it ceased to be? And so the story became transformed into something else, something textless, like a caterpillar becoming a lighter than air butterfly? Where is Undine now, now that I'm no longer writing about her? Where is Coraline, now that her story is finished. Perpetual cycle, the journey of return, they exist of course at the beginning again. Caught forever in their stories. Is The End an arrow back to the first line, the first moment of the story? Or does it point somewhere else, somewhere new?


  1. I am a reader of stories, not a writer, and for me the end is a destination. There's no more after that. When I stop reading I only ever think about the events and people as they occur between the first word and the last full stop - the story never bleeds beyond that for me. This might be linked to what many tell me is an atrocious habit of reading the end of a book when I'm about two chapters in. I like to know where we're all going to end up, and that place can only be in the bounds of the story.

  2. Where is Undine now, now that I'm no longer writing about her?

    This is a discussion I was having the other day about Harry Potter. A lot of people are really irritated about JK Rowling doing all these interviews where she tells us what Ron ended up doing, and what happened to Luna etc etc. A lot of people think that she doesn't have the right to specify - that once a book is finished, it belongs to the readers, and it's up to them to decide what happens next.

    I like that idea. I always like ideas that give the reader a more active role in the creative process...

  3. About endings... Especially in fantasy series, I think endings which mirror the traumatic experience of finishing a beloved book are particularly effective. I'm thinking of Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' sequence. The story goes on, but in a space in which we - and most of the characters - cannot follow. The characters turn back to their ordinary lives, with the added poignancy that they cannot even remember the story in which they have taken part - except in dreams. For the reader, it stops here too - we are interested in the story, not the ordinary lives, after all, and must reluctantly turn back towards our own. The Lord of the Rings negotiates this well too - Frodo and Gandalf sail away beyond the reaches of story, but Sam, like us, returns to the Shire, with the immortal words: 'Well, I'm back,' he said.

  4. There have been a nuber of book I've read where I am desperate for the author to continue just to see where the story goes as I get very involved in the lives of the people in the books and feel lost when the book just ends!! Anne McCaffery is great for writing heaps of books to round out all the stories, Isaac Asimov was shocker..lol.. Difference between short story writers and novelists!

    I see Undine finishing school and going off travelling.