When I was a young reader, I had a horrendously bad habit.
Whenever I started a new book, I would systematically read the front cover, the back cover, the front matter, the back matter–and then the final line of the book. I know, I know. Anathema.
I clearly remember the day I swore to never do this again. I was around fourteen years old, curled up on the window seat in my parents’ room, avoiding company so I could start the third and final book in Timothy Zahn’s original Star Wars trilogy. I did my usual routine, then flipped to the back and read the final line.
Immediately, I wanted to bang the book against my head. Why had I just done that? My silly momentary impatience had just ruined the whole book for me. I knew the ending. What was the point of reading the book now?
Except, of course, I did read it. And what’s more, I enjoyed it. Even though I had ruined the ending, I hadn’t ruined the book. How come?
Don’t Discount the Power of the Re-Readability Factor
Writers accept that what’s gonna happen next? is the most important question in fiction. Implicit in that question is the suggestion that writers need to prevent readers from guessing the story’s ending.
But that simply isn’t true.
Consider three very different story experiences that all defy the necessity of an unexpected ending.
1. Revisiting Favorite Stories
The one thing all my favorite stories have in common is that I visit them time and again. (In fact, I impose limits on myself to keep myself from visiting them too much.) My all-time favorite movie is John Sturges’s World War II classic The Great Escape. I’ve watched it every year since I was twelve. Am I tired of it yet? Nope. Am I ever bummed that I know how it’s going to end? Nope. Has my intellectual and emotional response to its characters and themes dulled over the years? Not at all. In fact, if anything, the response has only sharpened.
2. Guessing Plot Twists Before the Reveal
When we think “surprising ending,” we often think “plot twist.” The plot twist is every writer’s favorite weapon in keep readers from guessing the ending. And it’s true readers love nothing better than a good, honest sting. But here’s the thing about a good plot twist: if it’s going to work, it has to be so awesome that readers care far more about the actual plot development than they do the twist.
When reading the opening book in Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer trilogy, I guessed the plot twist halfway through. How did I react? Was I upset with the clumsy author for writing such a dumb and obvious ending?
I was excited by the possibilities. I could only hope my guess was right and that the story would turn out like I guessed. It did, and it was awesome.
3. Knowing the Ending Going In
Okay, now, I’m going to tell you an appalling secret. I have a major soft spot for Michael Bay’s (rightfully) maligned Pearl Harbor. And here’s why: I saw it once, wasn’t too impressed, moved on with my life. Then I watched it again. I knew how it ended; I knew one of the best friends feuding over the same girl was going to die saving the life of the other. Been there, done that. Who needs to experience the same ol’ ending again?
And yet when I watched the ending a second time (the expected, familiar ending), I shocked myself. I bawled my eyes out. I’ve seen it multiple times since, and it’s one of the few movies that makes me cry every single time. The fact that I know how it ends makes absolutely no difference. If I hadn’t watched it a second time, knowing how it ended, I would never have reacted to it as I did.
The Truth: Readers Love Knowing the Ending
No doubt you can come up with many story experiences of your own that fit into any one of the previous three examples. As readers (and watchers), we love knowing the ending. This doesn’t mean we’ll let shoddy plotting or clichéd plot twists slide, but it does mean we crave the kind of amazing endings we want to read over and over again, long after the surprise has worn off.
That’s the kind of experience you and I should be creating in our own stories.
The 5 Steps to a Re-Readable Book
I’m a no-clutter freak. If I don’t need something, I chuck it. As a result, I have a simple rule for buying and keeping books: if I don’t want to re-read it, it goes to Goodwill instead of getting a slot on my bookshelf. This is true even of digital books. If I don’t love a book so much that I’m going to want to revisit it time and again, I delete it.
What I’m really saying here is that the best books are those worth more than just six hours of forgettable entertainment. Out of the 50+ novels I read each year, it’s those two or three re-readable ones that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
That’s exactly the kind of book I want to write for my readers. How about you?
Let’s explore five ways to do just that.
1. Create Characters Readers Want to Spend Time With
For me, good books start and end with the characters. That “good book hangover” feeling we all get after a great read is usually because we’ve just had to say goodbye to a bunch of people we’ve grown to love.
Sometimes after closing the cover on a good book, I have this feeling of literal grief at the thought of having to say goodbye–even temporarily–from these wonderful characters with whom I’ve fallen in love. Even stories with less than perfect plots and prose can draw me back in again and again, just because I love the characters so much.
Your job: Get readers to fall in love with your characters so deeply they’ll never forget the first time they met them.
2. Up the Entertainment Quotient in Every Scene
Another thing all of my favorite stories have in common is that they touch me emotionally on some level: either they tug at my heartstrings (like Pearl Harbor) or they make me laugh. In short, they entertain me. They’re not boring. They don’t waste my time. Something interesting happens in every single scene.
In December, I was admiring Michael Curtiz’s classic White Christmas. This is another movie I’ve only seen about a gazillion times, and yet I still find it endlessly entertaining. Why? Because it doesn’t waste a single moment. Every single scene is entertaining: something new and interesting is happening, the characters are saying something funny or honest or heart-warming, the plot is leaping and bounding forward thanks to new catalysts and developments.
I’ll admit there are a few books and movies I revisit just for specific scenes–and skip over the rest. But White Christmas isn’t one them. It’s wonderful from beginning to end, no matter how many times I watch it.
Your job: Evaluate every scene and make sure it gets a 10 out of 10 in the Entertainment category.
3. Make Readers a Promise
As we’ve already discovered, readers don’t care so much about being surprised in the ending as they do the opportunity to anticipate a wonderful climax. From the very beginning of the story and through every chapter to come, you need to be promising readers something wonderful is coming. That promise needs to be so solid and delicious they believe in it as much on their thirtieth read as their first.
Sometimes you can even go so far as to tell your story’s secrets upfront. When you pick up a rom-com, you know the leads are going to fall in love. When you pick up a horror novel, you know there’s going to be a murderous monster. Neither revelation in any way endangers readers’ enjoyment.
In fact, if you were to pretend away the obvious and try to turn the monster’s existence into a plot revelation, readers are more likely to yawn in boredom while you yell Gotcha! over a surprise they already saw coming. In a January 2016 interview with The Writer, novelist Julianna Baggott noted:
I also suggest sometimes that [writers] tell the plot–spill it. If there’s going to be a dead body, mention the dead body, and then the reader will be patient because you’ve made a promise.
Your job: Don’t needlessly withhold surprises just for the sake of surprise. Instead, tell readers just enough about your ending to promise them something wonderful–then do everything in your power to fulfill that promise.
4. Concentrate on Beautiful Prose
Beauty is reason enough to return to a piece of art. We hang lovely paintings in our homes because we want to be able to to see and appreciate them every day. We listen to the same songs over and over because they continue to be meaningful every time.
The same goes for beautiful prose.
Even apart from your characters and your plot, your prose has the ability to enchant readers and draw them back time and again. Melina McGraw’s Battle of Britain literary historical novel After Dunkirk earned a place on my bookshelf as much because of its haunting writing as because of its characters or story.
Your job: Dig behind utilitarian prose to create something beautiful and meaningful in every phrase. Pair that with solid characters and plot, and your story will be unstoppable.
5. Write Two Different Stories Simultaneously
Usually, when you’re writing your first draft, you’re thinking of readers who will be experiencing this story for the first time. You’re crafting your chapters and your story structure to please and wow these first-time readers. And that’s important.
But don’t stop there. You should also be writing a second story: a story for those readers who will return to your book again and again. What will these repeat readers glean from your story on their second and third readings? Sometimes what they glean will be obvious clues they missed the first time around (such as in Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island). But, even more importantly, they should be able to immerse themselves more and more deeply in the rich subtext of your story.
Your job: Make it your goal to create a story so deep and rich and broad in subtext that readers can discover a new nugget every time they experience the story.
The re-readability factor is what separates the books that are just fun entertainment from the books that impact people’s lives on deep and meaningful levels. The only thing stopping a book in the first category from making the jump into that elite second category is a little extra thought and care on the author’s part. I’d say the return is worth the payout, wouldn’t you?
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What would you identify as the single greatest cause for the re-readability factor in your own favorite fiction? Tell me in the comments!
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