Friday, December 17, 2010

Endings and Epiphanies

Real life doesn't come with neat, tidy endings. Our lives are full of dropped threads and open-ended questions.

Maybe that's why a story well told is such a pleasure. A good book fulfills our need to see situations wrapped up in a satisfying way. And if that wrap-up manages to worm some essential truth into our subconscious, we like it even better.

When I first started writing, endings were always the hardest part. No matter how carefuly I plotted and planned, I'd reach the last chapter of my story and realize that despite the fact that I'd followed all the rules, the ending rang false, like a discord at the end of a lovely piece of music. The hero and heroine were together, the plot threads were tied in a neat bow, but there was something lacking.

While I was fussing over this issue, my husband asked me what was wrong. I told him I couldn't find the ending for my book.

"Well, what's the epiphany?" he asked. "And what triggers it?"

That was it: I needed an epiphany. The love realization in a romance is great. The black moment and its subsequent solution is even better. But what really makes a novel work is the epiphany - the sudden bright instant of understanding when the hero or heroine "gets it" and so does the reader.

While we all love a happily-ever-after ending, the happiness needs to come from something more than love and marriage. Romance readers these days are sophisticated enough to want real character growth along with the everalsting love and hot, hot sex. It's great that Cinderella got her prince, but did she also learn to assert herself so she won't end up sweeping ashes off the palace hearth? And now that Rapunzel's let her hair down, is she going to remain a free spirit?

The whole point of fiction is to reorganize life events to reveal an emotional truth. That truth doesn't have to be groundbreaking or profound; it just has to relate somehow to the real world, so the moment of epiphany is as much of an "aha" moment for your reader as it is for your character. It's that relationship to the reader's life that gives your ending resonance and makes your story linger with the reader like the last chord of a favorite symphony.

So my husband was right about the epiphany and the trigger. He's right about a lot of things - I admitted years ago that he knows how the universe works (merry Christmas, honey, I put it in print!). But he's not a writer and doesn't read a lot of fiction, so I'm convinced his answer to my writing dilemma came from some divine presence beyond his experience.
This was confirmed when I asked him a while back how he came up with that bit of wisdom.

"That thing about the epiphany really helped," I said. "Did you read that somewhere, or did you make it up?"

"I don't know." He gave me a puzzled look. "What's an epiphany?"

Yep. Definitely devine intervention at work.

So what's your epiphany?

The ending of one year and the beginning of another always seems like a fairly arbitrary distinction to me. Here in Wyoming, it's winter on December 31st and it will still be winter on New Year's Day. But somehow, the holidays punctuate what's past and make January feel like a new beginning. You can't help looking back at the year as a unit, thinking about how it differed from the one before and wondering what the next one will bring.

So what was your epiphany this year, and what was the trigger?

22 comments:

  1. I try to have regular epiphanies--keeps things interesting. My latest, about which I'm blogging over on Blame It On The Muse, is one I've had before: I control two things in the publication process and two things only: My writing and my personal conduct. This makes it easier to not get so attached to the good news (at this hour, "The Heir" might be the top selling Kindle romance. This time tomorrow, it could disappear from the list entirely).

    And it makes it easier to not take the bad news (EVERYBODY gets one-star reviews) quite as personally. This insight isn't a panacea, but it helps keep things in perspective.

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  2. Oooh, I love this post, Joanne! What is an epiphany? Priceless! :)

    For me this year, it was the realization that I could tackle some major house problems and resolve them, some major dental problems, and resolve them (well, still working on both, but they're getting there!) and still write and propose to my heart's content! That Heart of the Wolf wasn't a one book wonder, and that the series would total 10 so far.

    Plus, I could take a trip all by myself to meet up with friends in another country--Scotland, wow! And take a group of my co-workers to see wolves at a wolf reserve--so much fun! Despite all the downsides with all the dental and house woes, this has been an extraordinary year!

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  3. Joanne: Just plumb love the post. In complete agreement ... thank goodness for those times when Husbands are priceless! For me it's been learning that I CAN write most anywhere ... did a rewrite in the hospital when Mr. B was in the second time ... and that I don't have to be sitting in my office surrounded by familiar things. I take my brain and imagination with me wherever I go and that's what I need (well, along with some notes which I can carry in my purse) to write.

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  4. Grace, that's extremely good advice. And congrats on the success of "The Heir"!

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  5. Terry, the house and dental stuff sounds like a pain - but you're always good at looking on the bright side! And you're right - you're anything but a one-book wonder. Ten! Amazing!

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  6. Carolyn, I hope Mr. B. is better and you don't have to write in the hospital anymore! But I know you take your brain AND your sense of humor everywhere you go, and I'm sure that helps! I'm glad you can write anywhere, because that way you can keep creating those hot cowboys!

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  7. I guess my epiphany is that I can't make everything perfect. It's okay if things don't go to plan (though I don't have to like it). Flexibility is not a bad word!

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  8. Great post, Joanne! My epiphany this past year? I'm a heck of a lot stronger than I thought. :}

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  9. Joanne,

    What a husband! You are blessed! It was so funny when he said, what is an epiphany. I laughed out loud because I never expected that. Too funny!

    Amelia

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  10. Loved the epiphany story!

    People do sometimes say exactly what we need to hear with no awareness at all that they just changed our lives. Ask them two minutes later to repeat what they said and they can't do it.

    I've been playing with a story idea that would have a theme of character growth instigated by that sort of Divine Intervention.

    My big epiphany this year is that I should pay for a cleaning service. The benefits would hugely outweigh the cost.

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  11. My epiphany this year? That I cannot do all that I have planned in the time that I have available. It simply isn't possible. Now, if I could just have another epiphany about how to change that, all would be well.

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  12. I Love epiphanies, and I think I've just had one after reading this blog. I think endings can be awkward sometimes, and I think your hubby hit it dead on. I'm going to keep this in mind when I'm writing endings.

    In my life, I tend to look at all that needs to be done, get overwhelmed, then spend more time procrastinating than working. I think I've FINALLY realized in the last few weeks that I must focus on one small thing at a time. A little effort goes a long way.

    And I love Mary Margret's epiphany. I need a cleaning service too.

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  13. I just love this post, so I'm going to comment again because I've had another epiphany. I was so intimidated by blogging. So a HUGE epiphany for me was realizing that I could blog (good or not, still I'm blogging occasionally) and also that I could blog here with the Casablanca Authors. I was quite intimidated worrying about fitting in with the lovely Casa Babes. It's a wonderful feeling to see my name and my picture there. It's added to my realization that I can handle anything, get anything done, one step at a time.

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  14. Shana, that's a good epiphany. Sometimes I think it's one I haven't learned yet. Perfectionism doesn't make everything perfect; it just keeps you from getting anything done! That's always been a big battle for me.

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  15. Kathryne, being strong is good - but having things test your strength doesn't sound like a good thing. I hope you prevailed, and hope you know that your books gave people a lot of pleasure this year!

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  16. Amelia, he is quite a guy. He makes me laugh all the time! And he often has insights into my work that surprise me.

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  17. Mary Margret, you're so right. It's interesting how the universe works to help us in unexpected ways! And bravo for the cleaning epiphany! If it will help you write more books, I'm all for it!

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  18. Cheryl, I agree. I have so many plans, especially when it comes to books I want to write. But pressuring yourself to do it all is counterproductive - that's what I learned this year!

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  19. Anita, I think we must have been separated at birth, because I do exactly the same thing! One step at a time is a good idea.

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  20. Oh, Anita, you fit right in without a doubt! I was nervous about that too. And I agree - it's fantastic to be a part of this group. I haven't been participating as much as I should - various personal things have really slowed me down the past few months - and it just warms my heart that everyone comes out and comments on my post anyway. There's another epiphany - friends make all the difference. I'll be around more now, I promise!

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  21. I think Mary Margret wins the epiphany prize so far for her cleaning service idea! There's a running theme here of everyone trying to fit too much into their busy lives. I doubt that will change for most of us, but it's nice to know we're not alone. Living in the real world while writing a fictional one is always a challenge. If only we could introduce plot twists into our lives when we need to - or new characters, like a cleaning lady!

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  22. Great blog, Joanne! I need to have a epiphany. Right now I'm just dog tired.

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