A couple weeks ago, in my post on the writer/reader contract, many commenters hit on the importance of resolution.
It’s not exactly a surprise that resolution—payoff—is a crucial component to the reading experience for a lot of us, and becomes exponentially more important with series. A resolution that hits the reader the wrong way, after investing in the book (or series), can lead to an angry breakup. Or, put another way, though the writer did their best to tell the story they had to tell, the reader no longer trusts them.
Several book-loving friends have talked about writers who used to be on their autobuy list, now slipped to “Maybe check to see how people react after it’s been out a while”—or even, “No more.” There’s one author whose earliest books I still reread with pleasure, though I no longer get the new ones. I recognize that that writer owes me nothing. The writer is being true to self. But I feel that writer still broke my trust.
What’s happening here? There can be a lot of reasons why a once favorite author loses readers, but one of the biggies, I’ve found during many discussions with fellow readers, is disappointment in the resolution or payoff.
Readers get invested in a series, so much that what happens to the characters is nearly as engaging as following friends and family in real life. I should establish up front that I know any book’s resolution isn’t going to resonate the same for everyone—what one considers a fabulous payoff is a sharp disappointment to another—but like everything else, there are patterns.
I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss these patterns as we perceive them. (And I know we might not recognize the same patterns, but I really like seeing what others think.)
Okay, so, resolution, or payoff.
One of the ways I’ve seen it defined is: dramatic catharsis. What does that mean? There are many readers who don’t care for any aspect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, but his essay “On Fairy Stories” has resonated with me since high school. And every time I reread it, I still agree. Here he talks about eucatastrophe.
Ursula K. Le Guin in Steering the Craft is a lot more spare about resolution and payoff, saying merely that the end should be implied in the beginning.
Vladimir Nabokov, about as different from these two as can be, talks in Lectures on Literature about how the book’s universe enters you and you enter it, and in the successful book, “The prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbles away with the nonego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner—who is already dancing in the open.”
It’s interesting that both he and Tolkien talk in different ways about that hitch of the breath, the lift of the heart that one gets from a satisfying resolution.
When it doesn’t work, readers can get as angry as if they had been betrayed in real life.
“What a rip!”
“Did you ever read anything so stupid?”
“I am SO SICK of:
Then there’s the reader telepathy into the writer’s real motivation: “Obviously the author was sick of the whole thing and just phoned in that ending.”
I’ve been around enough writers to know that writing the end of a novel is far more frequently tough, challenging, and exalting, or emotionally exhausting, or they would have given up on the book long before.
But sometimes, I think, writers can mistake emotional catharsis for dramatic catharsis. Especially when steaming to the ending in that weird mixture of exhaustion and euphoria.
Here’s how I see the difference between the two: an emotional catharsis is primarily felt by the writer. A dramatic catharsis is also an emotional catharsis, but it is felt by the reader.
So for example, the random death of a protagonist five pages before the end can have shock value, which is an emotional bang, but fail dramatically, especially when there are no consequences for the other characters.
Over the years I’ve heard it said repeatedly by disgruntled readers who feel angry and cheated by a novel that brings the heroes all the way through to the end, only to be wiped out by a bus.
These readers might feel that the author sacrificed dramatic integrity to make an Important Philosophical Point, and that author might as well give up regruntlement for those readers.
In series especially, sometimes writers, in their efforts to have The Last Battle top all previous efforts, put forward a climax that is just bigger and louder and vaster (pile on the superlatives here) but otherwise pretty much the same sort of climax as previously explored.
The author might feel that tremendous weight of stress writing the details of that mega-battle, but a reader, who has followed the series faithfully through several previous megabattles, blinks through the superlatives, and might even begin to skim. The reader’s emotion doesn’t match the writer’s.
A dramatic catharsis that works for me is not just a climax with a meaner Dark Lord in a deeper dungeon prolonging the most horrible tortures evah, after the nasiest gloating speech in the history of villainous speeches, before the Sword of Light comes to the rescue (or before they all die miserably in despair).
In my own reading, I find that the best dramatic catharsis results from the protagonist gaining agency as part of their character arc. The best catharsis not only does that, but furnishes something new. Even if it’s relatively small, an insight not visible to anyone else . . . like at the end of “The Scouring of the Shire” in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo understands that in saving Middle Earth, it was not saved for him.
Compared to the blowing up of Mordor and the last-ditch saving of Gondor, this ending is very small, but the dramatic catharsis is just that much more intense a payoff—and like Le Guin says, it was set up at the very beginning of the story.
Frodo’s actions, though minimal when measured by the yardstick of violent endeavor, had tremendous impact—and his significance did not go unnoticed for all the great and powerful (though not so much in his own neighborhood!).
Frodo’s finding that after all, there was no longer a place for him in the world he tried so desperately to save is so much more satisfying than if he had been crowned king of the universe; he gave up any kind of power, but he’d gained tremendous gravitas, a kind of agency rare and poignant.
What about you? What kind of resolution works for you? What doesn’t work, and why?