[This week we’re fortunate to have successful author Warren Adler with us, giving his insights on how a novel ends.]
Roderick Thorp was part of a small group of novelists who came together on a monthly basis in the late eighties in Los Angeles to chew the fat. Rod had made a breakthrough success at the age of twenty-seven with the novel The Detective, which became a very successful movie that starred Frank Sinatra. Rod’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever was the source material for the tremendously successful movie Die Hard and its numerous sequels.
This group of novelists, founded by yours truly and the great thriller novelist Andrew Kaplan (War of the Raven), also included Ib Melchior (Robinson Crusoe on Mars), whose novels and stories about his experiences in World War II are now classics; S.L. “Sid” Stebel, a novelist and celebrated writing teacher; Mann Rubin, a playwright and successful screenwriter; and Brian Garfield (The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians), a prolific best-selling author whose novel Death Wish spawned numerous sequels.
They were all savvy, extraordinarily talented writers, each with stellar resumes of achievement. Although we talked in general about the ups and downs of the writer’s life, much of our conversation was about movies, conflicts with of our publishers, and various events of the day. Our group was the highlight of my life during my six year stay in LA, some of which was spent on the Warner Lot, where my most pleasant memory was the time I spent daily in the commissary.
Rod and Mann have since passed on, but the group, although its members are a bit long in the tooth now, continues to meet, and whenever I am in LA I join them happily. There is a strange bond that exists among writers of the imagination, and I believe we all felt the same way about the sheer joy of coming out of our lonely scribbling caves to meet together, as if it were a reunion of comrades taking time off from the battlefield.
Sometimes a casual remark by one of my writing friends would strike a chord that lingered and expanded into some indelible and profound insight that continued to resonate through the years. One of these remarks came from the irrepressible Rod, who once opined that if he knew how a novel of his ends he wouldn’t write it.
In my opinion, that remark nailed the existential dilemma of the novelist’s art. What constitutes the end of a story, and how is it achieved?
Rod’s idea articulated the way novels should be written. I had always pursued my novel writing using this method to achieve a proper ending, but it was Rod who articulated this perspective without compromise. What he meant was that a creative and serious novelist cannot presume the ending in advance.
Such a pronouncement, of course, is open to argument. Many novelists do approach their work with an ending in mind and work backward to create elements that lead inexorably to that prearranged finale. Most genre novels end this way. Indeed, that is why they are categorized as “genre.” To achieve this categorization, they follow well-trodden plot paths to a preconceived and genre-prescribed ending. They employ a skillset requiring ingenuity and talent, and I don’t in any way wish to disparage their effort.
As I interpret Rod’s pronouncement on endings, our method is to create our characters from a basic idea that has flown mysteriously into our imagination, and follow them on their path to their destiny, as if we might have a doppelganger watching over our shoulder, eagerly following the story. What happens next, we know, is at the very heart of storytelling; like life, it is a walk into the unknown. As the scotch poet Robert Burns so elegantly declared in his poem “The Mouse,” roughly quoted: “The best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry.”
As you can see, John Steinbeck had uncovered the perfect title for his wonderful novel Of Mice and Men, which in a way underlines the thesis under discussion in this blog. For those who know the story, Lenny’s fate is organic to the ending of that great novel.
For an author, the real excitement and inspiration, the joy of creation, comes in tracking the fate of their created characters into that unknown future. To the creator, these characters become real, full-blooded, and three-dimensional. If the writer knows in advance the fate of these characters, the effort is merely a lifeless mechanical construct.
Unlike life, which always ends in death, a novel’s end can be described as happy, sad, conclusive or inconclusive, disappointing or satisfying, but it is that crucial moment, the climax, that closes the experience for the reader.
One does not question God’s sequence of events in creating the world, nor why he or she decides to rest on the seventh day. As they say, it is what it is.
This was post was written by Warren Adler.
Warren Adler is best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. Adler’s international hit stage adaptation of the novel will premiere on Broadway in 2015-2016. Adler has also optioned and sold film rights for a number of his works including Random Hearts (starring Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas) and The Sunset Gang (produced by Linda Lavin for PBS’ American Playhouse series starring Jerry Stiller, Uta Hagen, Harold Gould and Doris Roberts).
In recent development are the Broadway Production of The War of the Roses, to be produced by Jay and Cindy Gutterman, The War of the Roses – The Children (Grey Eagle Films and Permut Presentations), a feature film adaptation of the sequel to Adler’s iconic divorce story, Target Churchill (Grey Eagle Films and Solution Entertainment), Residue (Grey Eagle Films), Mourning Glory, to be adapted by Karen Leigh Hopkins, and Capitol Crimes (Grey Eagle Films and Sennet Entertainment), a television series based on his Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series. Warren Adler’s newest thriller, Treadmill, is officially available.
Learn more about Warren Adler at www.warrenadler.com