Friday, July 14, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: Milieu Surprise

This week on Ask Mr. Writing Person, we discover what surprise endings have to do with stiff French knickerbockers, and probably send a guy named Alex off to certain consternation. Roland Pips-Week joins us from Walla Walla, Washington, with a question about ending his novel:

Q. I've just finished my novel. Or, I'd like to say I've finished, but the last page is driving me nuts. It doesn't wrap up properly.

A. It's probably not square enough. I have that problem with socks. I end up stuffing them in tubes first.

Q. Um, sure.

A. Can you give us the last paragraph of your story so we can fix it up?

Q. Yeah. Here it is:
As Alex sat to eat his sculpted mashed potatoes, he was overcome with a feeling of emotion. Giant tear drops ran down his cheeks, splashing upon his potatoes, creating tiny rivulets that meandered down and pooled up underneath his green beans. It reminded him of THE MOUNTAIN, and all the horrible happenings that went on during those events that occurred.

It's great so far, isn't it? But leaving the guy crying just doesn't satisfy.

A. Lovely. I like how you've employed transitive redundancy everywhere, especially with that "feeling of emotion." Strikes a nerve in me. A chord. Whatever. Anyway, you could always have him commit suicide.

Q. Really?

A. Of course! It worked for Shakespeare. Everything wraps up nice and tidy with a dead body at the end. You could even have him recite poetry as he plunges the knife into his heart. "O haggard dagger" and all that. It's fairly satisfying.

Q. Great! I'll go do--

A. Hold your behoofed quadrupeds, Mr. Pipsqueak! We aim to be a tad more sophisticated than Shakespeare, don't we?

Q. Pips-Week, two words. So what do you have in mind?

A. A subdermal bossanova, which is German for "a surprise ending so good you'll dance until you go comatose." Now, what's the main focus of your story? Is it milieu, character, idea, or event?

Q. I don't know. What's "mealy-you?"

A. It's a French word that means "stiff knickerbockers," but they stopped using it so we annexed it. Now it means the environment your story happens in.

Q. I still don't know. Can you run through the possibilities for each one?

A. Of course, my eager grasshopper. Let's start with the milieu surprise ending:
... It reminded him of THE MOUNTAIN, and all the horrible happenings that went on during those events that occurred.

Suddenly, Alex awoke in his bed, sweating and weeping like a milksop. As he stared at the tiny rivulets running down his greasy pillow, he realized it had all been a dream: Mandy's crochet hooks were exactly where they should be, his favorite chicken still had two legs, and J.R. was still alive.


Isn't that clever?

Q. Sweet! I'll have to change some of the specifics, of course--

A. You mean adding Mandy's crochet hooks, a one-legged chicken, and a dead guy named J.R. to your story, of course.

Q. Um, yeah. Of course.

A. Also, you shouldn't run off and make changes until you've seen all the endings. Next, we have the character surprise:
... It reminded him of THE MOUNTAIN, and all the horrible happenings that went on during those events that occurred.

Suddenly, a beautiful woman burst into the room like a ray of sunshine. She swooped down upon him, kissed his salty cheeks, and ate his mashed potatoes.

"Who are you?" said Alex.


Q. Is that Mandy?

A. Who cares?

Q. Got it.

A. Notice that her presence establishes a sense of mystery, which is essential to having a good surprise ending. Who is she? What's her name? Is she really a woman? What's her waist circumference? Why did she eat Alex's mashed potatoes? I even very cleverly had the point-of-view character ask one of those questions.

Q. Yeah, that's great. I'm thinking maybe the milieu one would be--

A. You should withhold judgment, young Philistine, until you've seen them all.

Q. Right. Sorry.

A. Next we have the idea surprise, which is best if your story is centered around an idea. Let's see what happens:
... It reminded him of THE MOUNTAIN, and all the horrible happenings that went on during those events that occurred. His friend Beauregard sat watching him in mealy-brained silence.

Suddenly, Beauregard spoke up, interrupting Alex's angsty stupor. "I'm a vampire," he said. "This explains everything, doesn't it?"

"No, not really," said Alex.


Q. Um, wouldn't it be better if the vampire thing actually did explain everything?

A. That's what your readers are expecting, isn't it? How are you supposed to surprise them if you give them what they expect?

Q. Oh, right. Genius! I like that one. I might just go--

A. Grasshopper! You will stay put!

Q. Sorry.

A. Ahem. So now we come to the last, which is the event surprise. If your story centers around an event, this is your best bet:
... It reminded him of THE MOUNTAIN, and all the horrible happenings that went on during those events that occurred.

Suddenly, the lights went out, bathing him in darkness. As Alex reached for a napkin to wipe some of it off, he was struck by the beam of a massive spotlight.

"Ugly bag of mostly water!" cried an alien from the gloom. "You will come with us!"

As Alex trudged to the metal gangway, he reflected upon his recent experience on THE MOUNTAIN and decided that it really had prepared him for whatever the horrors of being a guinea pig to a super-advanced race of purple, sulfur-based aliens might be. He instinctively patted his pockets. The crochet hooks were still there.


Q. "To be continued?"

A. Of course! You can't have your main character abducted by aliens on the last page of the book without writing a sequel, can you? You ought to be thinking about your future, Ronald.

Q. It's Roland. So is that all of them?

A. That's it.

Q. I like the vampire one.

A. I like the alien one. You should use that.

Q. I really don't want to write a sequel, though. This novel took a lot out of me, and I'd like to start something new. Besides, Alex is a complete pansy.

A. I see. I wouldn't want to write about him either. If you'd much rather end with "the end," you could still do the alien abduction thing, but have Alex commit suicide.

Q. With crochet hooks?

A. "O haggard crochet hooks." It has a certain charm.


At 6:08 PM, Blogger eleka nahmen said...

Bravo, bravo. I officially like you. You have true quirkiness and I find it to be divine.


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