The other day, I was listening to “Call of the Wild” as an audio book. For the uninitiated, Buck, the protagonist of the novel, is a dog who is taken from a genteel life on a country estate and thrust roughly into the life of an Alaskan sled-dog. Jack London is an amazing writer, who allows the reader to empathize with Buck and to see the world through a dog’s eyes without anthropomorphizing the animal characters in the story. But, I digress.
In the second half of the book, London relates three instances where Buck performs tremendous feats out of love for his master, a man named Thornton. Essentially, they are three mini stories within the novel. Introducing the third vignette, London writes, “That winter, at Dawson, Buck performed another exploit, not so heroic, perhaps, but one that put his name many notches higher on the totem-pole of Alaskan fame.”
Well, don’t that just beat all? He just gave away the ending. Whatever is coming next, whatever challenge is thrown at Buck, we know he’s going to overcome and succeed. It’s quickly revealed that the challenge is to come in the form of a bet, into which Thornton is unwittingly wrangled. The bet concerns Buck’s ability to start a thousand-pound sled from a dead stop, frozen to the ground, and pull it for a hundred yards.
“Well,” you say, “it might have been exciting if we didn’t know the outcome.” That’s what I thought too, at first. But as the narration went on, I became more and more anxious. My muscles tensed and I listened intently. My heart would break if Buck failed–but, of course, I knew he wouldn’t. What then could account for my anxiety? I asked myself that question and I cam up with the following answer:
A great storyteller can tell you, up front, that John wins the race, and can then make your heart beat for John as you learn how he did–and almost didn’t–win.
Which brings me to my point. In ninety percent of the stories you’ll read, you already know the ending. The hero wins. The protagonist overcomes the obstacles. The guy gets the girl. As writers, we jump through hoops to disguise our endings, making sure nothing is revealed until the end. We try to keep the reader guessing, we don’t want to “spoil” the finale. But, it’s largely unnecessary. The reader knows how the story ends. More to the point, they know how they want the story to end. Romances don’t often end with two people who go their separate ways. Epic tales don’t see the hero dying just before the final battle with ultimate evil.
Even a mystery doesn’t have to be a guessing game. Look at a TV show like Colombo (or, for those too young to remember Peter Falk’s signature role, Monk). Most of the time, the audience knew who did it. The fun was watching the detective prove it.
In a way, this is both good and bad news. It’s good in the fact that a writer doesn’t need to feel like every ending has to be a surprise. It’s “bad” because it means that the pressure is on for us to write well enough to keep the reader’s attention even though they know the ending. In other words, it’s not obscurity that creates suspense. It’s good writing.