Once upon a time, stories had to have, if not necessarily a happy ending, certainly a neat one. While I was planning this piece, the first such wrapup that came to mind was at the final Exeunt in Hamlet, in which Fortinbras is left to mop up:
Let four captains
The bodies are borne away, somewhere offstage a shot is fired, and the tragedy ends there, though you're left to ponder the parallels between Fortinbras, crown prince of Norway, and Hamlet, prince of Denmark: their fathers (for whom they were named) were killed, and vengeance was expected of both. But while Hamlet was prone to Morrissey-style brooding you can't tell me that "To be, or not to be" isn't a spiritual ancestor to "How soon is now?" young Fortinbras was a boisterous Johnny Rotten type. Inevitably, by the time everything was wound down, that Rottenness was superseded by a John Lydon-esque concern for, um, public image.
It is perhaps an accident of timing that I studied these matters while our culture arbiters were deciding that ambiguousness and moral imprecision were irreducible components of fiction, and maybe even of nonfiction; anything ending with "And they all lived happily ever after" was dismissed as a mere fairy tale, unsuitable for the gritty reality of contemporary life. (I persist in believing that if Holden Caulfield had finally come to grips with his existential crises, he'd be utterly forgotten today, and J. D. Salinger might be best remembered, if remembered at all, for Franny and Zooey or "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," equally bleak but not exactly cultural markers, and anyway Frank Portman had the last word on The Catcher in the Rye.) The high point of my cognitive dissonance was a classroom discussion of West Side Story, thinly-disguised descendant of Romeo and Juliet that it was, though the hopefulness we were supposed to have felt by the ending, with Jets and Sharks both in mourning, was definitely overwhelmed, at least for me, by the romp through "Gee, Officer Krupke!"
Well, krup that. Today we don't have endings, happy or otherwise, because we have to leave room for the sequels. And I have learned that after decades of osmosis, I haven't been able to declare myself entirely immune to this particular syndrome. Earlier in this century, I used this space for a couple of short-short (under 1000 words) stories that seemed to demand follow-ups, and then didn't follow up. Love unseen (2005) was an inversion of the old invisible-girlfriend gag: he's the only one who can't see her. Two divided by love (2009) was an overwrought yet undercooked sex scene between a left-wing girl and a right-wing guy. Neither tale had any potential for expansion, I thought, and I let them lie fallow. (Although you'll notice I didn't take them off the site, either.) And both reinforced my conviction that I had no gift for fiction.
And I didn't try again until this year, when for no apparent reason I wrote an 18,000-word fairy tale, for lack of a better term, abandoning my original ending, modeled on the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes," in favor of something a trifle more, um, hopeful. To my surprise, it garnered readers; to my greater surprise, some of those readers wanted to know what happened to those characters. I duly ground out a sequel, picking up the story at some indefinite point in the future, after all the problems had been hammered out. It went over well, but it also drew comments like this:
Any more sequels for this series? Because I'm totally digging it, and it would also be kind of nice to maybe see what happened in between this and "The Sparkle Chronicles". You obviously don't have to feel obligated just because one of your fans requested it, but it'd be nice.
The idea of having Actual Fans was so overwhelming that I started work on a story that fits between the other two stories. (Protip: Writing stories in this sequence 1, 3, 2 roughly quadruples the opportunity for continuity errors.) Have I learned my lesson? Maybe, maybe not. I've done a standalone story that doesn't at all lend itself to sequelization, inasmuch as it begins after the lead character's funeral.
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Copyright © 2012 by Charles G. Hill