It’s too bad that soap operas are a dying breed, because I think they may have been my calling. I have been writing fiction since middle school, but I never finish anything, because I lack discipline. I usually don’t bother to map out my plots before taking pen to paper, and when I do, I quickly toss the roadmap out the window at the first sign of an intriguing plot diversion. I am always sending my characters off on unforeseen detours without considering the long-term ramifications on the story, and it makes for a messy result: sometimes the decisions a character makes to end up on such a boondoggle is not in keeping with her values or motivations; often, the diversion is not in keeping with the themes of the story up to that point; always, always, always the detour sends the plot-train careening off the rails. However, some of those detours bring the plot to places that are better than I could have planned and imagined, and in that case, careful editing/re-writing of the beginning can salvage (and generally even improve) the story.
No, here is my real downfall: my inability to master (or, if I am honest, to even truly attempt) the art of the dénouement. Almost everything I have ever written ends in one of two ways. Most of my stories are truly soap-opera-esque, with a huge cast of characters who flit from one adventure or crisis or romance to another over the course of thousands of pages and the span of decades of fictional time. Occasionally, characters will die off — sometimes as a result of peaceful old age, but more often as part of the drama — but never, ever, ever, does the character arc reach resolution. Just when it looks like there might be a conclusion on the near horizon, there’s a car crash or a meteorological catastrophe or someone will get knocked up, and there goes the crazy plot-train, derailed again. This is the first option, and these stories always end with cliffhangers — not because I plan them that way, but because the plot detours have become so complicated and convoluted that I can’t begin to unravel them, and so I give up and go on to another project.
A few years ago, I decided that I am a grown-up and if I’m going to spend untold hours engaging in a hobby as self-indulgent as creative writing, I needed to be more disciplined. When a new story line would pop into my head, I made myself write it down, map out the dramatic structure, sketch the characters — what do they look like, sound like, what motivates them, what are their backstories, what fears make them lie awake at night, do they have annoying tics or charming quirks, et cetera — and most of all, Plan. The. Ending. Because, without a satisfying conclusion, what’s the point, right? We’ve all read books that are fabulously written, totally absorbing, exciting and delightful and transporting… right until the author gets lazy and writes a slapdash ending that falls flat and kills our pleasure in everything that went before, right? There is nothing sadder, more frustrating, more infuriating to a reader than that! It’s like getting food poisoning from a rich delicacy that tasted fantastic going down, but once it turns on us, our enjoyment of that dish is spoiled forever.
Alas, my efforts at plot discipline often turn out even worse than the stories that just go on and on, careening from climax to catastrophe and nadir to pinnacle: usually, these are the stories that bore me until I give up and abandon them, half-written. I will start with piles of notes about the characters, research about the settings and the plots, sketches of important places and people, and the most beautifully plotted dramatic arc, in which I know in advance the purpose of every single scene of every single chapter, and exactly how everything that happens in the story will lead into the next scene, and the next, and the one after that, until we reach a conclusion which is both surprising and thrilling and yet also, in retrospect, somehow a bit inevitable. -Weeks and months of prep work, in which planning and researching the story has taken all of my free time, has consumed my every thought so that I am wandering around in a distracted haze, and yet….
And yet, somewhere along the line, no matter how promising the story seems to be, no matter how carefully planned, no matter how rigidly I resist the impulse to let my characters tiptoe along the primrose paths of plot diversions, I always become convinced in the middle of the writing that the story is turning out to be utter shite. Boring, lifeless, pretentious, uninspired, ridiculous, embarrassingly horrific drivel. So I give up. Rather than burning themselves out in a blaze of credulity-straining action that is (sometimes) glorious in its absurdity, these stories trip along haltingly until they sputter and die, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
Anyway, it’s too bad about soap operas, because if I could have been a soap opera writer, I wouldn’t need to bother with plot resolution. I could happily send my characters on wildly improbable adventures, let them fall in and out of love on a whim, lift them up and send them plummeting, toy with their emotions, and never worry about where or when the crazy train would reach the station. Best of all, I could have gotten paid for it!