I’ve finished my reference work on religions, and I’m now starting to think about what I might want to do for NaNoWriMo in November. It’s never too early to start outlining, after all! I’m also continuing with my read-through of the Harry Potter books. I’ve had to slow down a bit, since school is back in session, but I just started the 7th book last night.
As I come to the end of the series, I am reminded of something we heard Patrick Rothfuss say on one of the panels at Gen Con a month ago. The panel was about writing satisfying endings, and Rothfuss mentioned what he considered Rowling’s great mistake in the final book: the epilogue. And it wasn’t something specific about what happens in the epilogue, or the things we learn there. It wasn’t finding out that, yes, sadly, Hermione marries Ron. Or the sappy names that Harry gives his sons. No, it was the mere fact that the epilogue existed. It’s the fact that we, the readers, are never going to get to imagine our own version of the future for Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Instead, there is a fixed, canonical future for them, written out and planned. A future, moreover, that Rowling still continues to fill in for us.
A friend of ours from grad school calls this the readers’ “imaginative space”: the parts of the story, and the parts before and after the story, that readers get to fill in for themselves. Rather than letting us picture our own continuation of the story, you could say that Rowling invaded our imaginative space. Yes, it’s her world, and she invented it. But at a certain point, a creator has to let it go.
Everyone always says that it’s always best to leave the reader or the viewer wanting more, and the trick to that is knowing when to stop. It’s so very tempting to just keep going. I mean, as a writer, I’ve got these characters, and I’ve grown to like them. And if I’m lucky, the reader has grown to like them. So why quit? Why not keep hanging out with these people we like?
The first novel I ever wrote for NaNoWriMo was Guardian Winter, and of the friends and beta readers who have read it, two of them asked me when I was going to write a sequel. I took it as a compliment, of course, but I’ve never bothered to spend much time trying to come up with another story for Fred and Arden, the POV characters of Guardian Winter, because I feel like their story came to a nice, satisfying conclusion. I suppose if I really wanted to, I could try to come up with a sequel, though. I mean, why not?
Well, the first reason not to do a sequel, of course, is that, much like hanging out with your real friends, your fictional friends may eventually start to wear on you. In a fifty to sixty thousand word novel, they’re charming. Would they be quite so charming in larger doses? Perhaps not. Just like that part with your friends, where you suddenly notice everyone checking his or her watch, and you realize the party should have ended an hour ago.
The second reason, though, is that by ending the story at its natural conclusion, you’re giving the reader the opportunity to imagine what happens next. It’s like turning over the keys of your world to the reader and saying, “Here. I’m done with it. Why don’t you take it for a spin?” This (I think) is what our friend meant by a reader having his or her own “imaginative space.” What Rowling is doing, in contrast, is like handing over the keys and then taking them back, again and again, and saying, “Oh, whoops. I just have this one more thing I need to do.” As this article points out, Rowling needs to be careful that she doesn’t slide down the slippery Sarlacc Pit after George Lucas, who took away so much “imaginative space” that fans started rebelling.
Creators aren’t just invading imaginative space at the end of the story, either. The other night, S and I were talking about the growing fondness for carefully-leaked “spoilers” between seasons of TV shows. Here are a few articles, for example, explaining what certain casting choices and filming locations reveal about the plot of the next season of Game of Thrones (it should go without saying, but those links contain spoilers. Or at least alleged spoilers).
Now, I can understand the temptation for shows to play along with this sort of thing. It builds “buzz” for the show. Or something like that. And apparently these kinds of articles are popular, because they keep getting posted. But when S and I talked about it, we decided that it was more fun when our TV shows didn’t provide us with constant semi-official hints as to what might be coming next. It was more fun when we had “imaginative space” to picture what might happen next season. Now it feels a bit pointless; we already know which characters are going to be there, and we have a pretty good idea what they might be doing.
This is disappointing as a fan, but for someone who is trying to write fanfic in the ‘verse of a TV show, as S currently is, this is maddening. She has certain “events” that need to happen in the course of her story, but she is obliged to try to squeeze those ideas into a vaguely-hinted-at framework of plot points and locations that people are talking about on Twitter and Tumblr.
Imaginative space is, after all, the fertile field from which fanfiction springs. The whole point of fanfiction is to fill in those gaps that the creator left behind. So writing becomes quite challenging when the creator refuses to leave any gaps. At some point, S might write on this blog about how she handles that challenge.
In my own writing, I suppose the thing I can learn from this is that not every story needs a sequel, and not every novel needs an epilogue. I like where Fred and Arden ended Guardian Winter, and if I never come up with another good story to tell about them, I would be happy to just leave them there. There’s also the case of our wizard characters, who live 2,000 years. Some of them have popped up in three or four of my novels now, spread out over centuries. In order not to crowd out the reader’s imaginative space, I think it’s important that we remember not to spell out canonically every single thing that has happened to our wizards between the books. Especially where wizards are concerned, a bit of mystery is good.