Elaine Forrestal

Knowing when to stop

Elaine Forrestal keeping warm

One of my favourite things to do on a Sunday morning is sit down with my first cup of coffee and read Review, the magazine in The Weekend Australian. This morning my attention was caught by this statement. ‘Spare us the storytellers who don’t know when to stop …’ (Jonathan Dean, August 4-5, 2018) I was certainly like that as a child. I loved playing with words and sentences, changing them around to make different pictures, trying to evoke, on the page, emotions as powerful as the ones I felt when I read the scary bits of Alan Garner’s books. I was an avid reader and greatly admired writers who could make me cry. I wanted to be able to do the same. But although my stories started out well they seemed to just keep going on and on. I kept thinking of new adventures, instead of resolving the ones I had already started. I couldn’t seem to end them, which was a problem when my Literacy homework was due – then overdue. It was not until many years later that I realised what the problem was. I kept on becoming so fond of my characters that I didn’t want to let them go. I wanted to keep them with me for as long as possible. It took a lot more practice as a writer before I was able to recognise at which point a particular character’s story had come to an end.

I still become very involved with my characters. When I am working on a novel I look forward to going into my office in the morning to make contact with them again. I want to chat to them and see what has been happening in their world since I left the office the day before. They are like imaginary friends to me. Perhaps that’s why most of my novels have open endings. I don’t want to loose that closeness with a character.

I do believe in a story needing to be shaped. The ending needs a sense of closure, a satisfying resolution to the main conflict. But it also needs to be open enough for readers to find their place in it. Readers who feel, by the end of the book, that the story is theirs will carry the characters around in their heads. They will be thinking about them, imagining what might happen next, extending the life of those characters long after the book has been closed and put back on the shelf. Those are the sort of endings I want my books to have. I’m still experimenting with ways to pull it off.

Beginnings are also tricky. Next week I will talk about them. Stay tuned.