There’s something very odd about working a shift knowing one won’t be back the following day. This is especially true when no one else realizes it’s one’s last day and coworkers believe you’ll be back. In recent years, I’ve had several moments like this and they never cease to feel awkward. It’s like knowing how a book will end, without knowing exactly how it gets there or what happens in the interim.
In writing, we call this suspense, knowing what’s going to happen but not knowing when or how it will happen. It’s often proceeded by foreshadowing, or dropping enough clues so the reader has some idea of where the story is going. The best writers can stretch a suspenseful situation across multiple chapters and perhaps even multiple works. It’s a common trope to introduce a situation in the early pages of a story, then relate how it came about, only returning to it once in a while to hold the reader’s attention until the inevitable outcome. Frequently art imitates life.
My father passed away from cancer in 1995 and my mother from various ailments in 2006. With both there was little doubt about their end, even though the exact moment was unknown. In fact, my mother’s death was more nerve wracking, because we were notified several times by the hospital that we needed to hurry over because they were certain she was in her final hours and by the time we arrived, she had stabilized. The final time they called, I’m certain she had already died and they didn’t want to notify us over the phone.
I recently had the opportunity to observe, from a distance, a family dealing with a similar situation. I wasn’t familiar with the details of their family member’s illness, but it seemed obvious there wasn’t much the doctors could do for the person. The family took a while to finally accept this and eventually prepared themselves for what was about to happen. Knowing the outcome, however, does not make it easier to bear. With both my parents, I knew they weren’t going to recover, but I still retained a glimmer of hope nonetheless.
This sense of finality can inform one’s writing, as we all know stories must end. Getting there is often the tricky part, though. If a work is well plotted enough to keep readers guessing, in the end they should be able to tell exactly why the story ends as it does. If enough clues have been provided along the way, they should reach the conclusion that the story could have no other ending. In this sense, writing has an advantage over life, since the ending can be anticipated and planned. Life sometimes ends in inconvenient ways leaving lives unfulfilled and destinies unrealized.
In my own work, the character of Rebecca Asher is someone who dies too soon and in a senseless fashion. Despite this, Rebecca is an influential character, becoming the conduit through which other characters connect. Through her writing, she influences Annabelle Collins to start her own blog, In the Midnight Hour. Rebecca inadvertently leads Leah Walker to become a friend and mentor to Rebecca’s brother Steven after Leah’s sister Alyssa suffers injuries in a car accident and wakes up believing she’s Rebecca. And Rebecca’s death is the catalyst that brings her friend Claire Belmonte together with Rachel Lawson, Rebecca’s aunt. Ironically, the character of Rebecca has become a metaphor for the play Rebecca, Too in which she’s introduced, spawning the Expanded Universe of Fictional Atlanta, despite never having been produced.
All stories end, happily, and done properly, they can lead the reader to accept the ending the writer has crafted. For the author, getting there is a daunting task but is also the most rewarding part. A well-crafted tale makes good use of the notion of finality, leading readers exactly where the author wants them to go. In the end, they should reflect on the experience and realize the ending was inevitable.