Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Great Gatsby

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 17, 2015. 

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has received greater recognition in recent years, or even John W. Campbell, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse can all too easily turn into an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, I’ll frequently find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we often see in “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at any given moment, and the resulting actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

“He knew exactly where they were going…”

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"He knew exactly where they were going..."

Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 31. You can read the previous installments here.

When I first saw the cover of The Icon Thief, my debut novel, I’ll admit that I regarded it with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a beautiful book, with a design that stuck closely to the layout that I’d informally proposed in an email to my editor: a view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, surmounted by a red sky, with occult images faintly visible overhead. On the other hand, the images themselves gave me pause. One, on the upper right corner, was the face of a generic cherub; the other, on the upper left, was the pointed tower of a building that I didn’t recognize. Neither seemed to have much, if anything, to do with the plot of the novel itself, and I suspected, no doubt correctly, that they had been included simply to give the cover a touch of Da Vinci Code atmosphere. I didn’t necessarily mind this, but when I showed the cover to three different people, I was asked three times what those images were, and I had to reply that I didn’t know. When I asked my editor about this, he said that he’d check with the artist. Later that day, he got back to me to say that the image on the upper left was a sketch of Peles Castle in Romania. Since I’d never heard of Peles Castle, that didn’t mean much to me. But I was grateful for the information, and I wrote back: “Now all I need to do is set a scene at Peles Castle in a future novel, so I can pretend that the image was a clue.”

At the time, this was simply a joke. I only had a contract for two novels, and City of Exiles had already been plotted out to the point where I couldn’t include a side trip to Romania merely on a whim. The more I thought about it, though, the more intrigued I became. I’d always hoped to turn the series into a trilogy, and the third novel didn’t exist as anything more than a collection of vague notions. It could take place in Romania as well as anywhere, especially since the geographic arc of the series already seemed to be inching eastward, as the action moved from New York across the ocean to London and finally, most likely, to Russia. When I looked into the history of Peles Castle itself, it seemed like it would make for an interesting backdrop for a scene or two. So when I finally began serious work on the book that turned into Eternal Empire, well over a year later, the idea that we’d end up at Peles Castle was one of only a handful of plot points that I jotted down on my initial sheet of notes. As far as inside jokes went, it was pretty obscure, but I liked the idea that the cover of the first novel hinted obliquely at the plot of the third. And even if it was an accident, I could pretend that I’d had something like it in mind all along. (You could even argue that the cherub on the right side of the cover looks ahead to the very different cherubim that play a role in City of Exiles, but that’s purely a coincidence.)

"Peles Castle..."

And I wouldn’t have bothered with this if I hadn’t already known that arbitrary mistakes or accidents can serve as a source of narrative inspiration. Constraints of any kind are always useful, and an accident that points in a particular direction can be as productive a clue as any. For the most part, my novels were thrown together essentially at fancy, as much as I would later try to make everything seem inevitable, and drawing on the first book’s cover for inspiration was another way of using every part of the buffalo. And it’s not entirely without precedent. Authors have often drawn retrospective inspiration from the illustrations for their books, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did with Francis Cugat’s cover for The Great Gatsby. Here’s how A. Scott Berg relates the story in Max Perkins: Editor of Genius:

[Fitzgerald wrote] an emphatic plea not to let any other book have the early dust jacket sketch that Max had casually shown him much earlier. It featured two gigantic eyes—supposedly those of the heroine, Daisy Fay Buchanan—brooding over New York City. That illustration had inspired Fitzgerald to create an image for the book—the billboard of an oculist named Dr. T.J. Eckelburg; the sign had two enormous eyes on it, which would stare from above onto the novel’s proceedings.

As a result, in Chapter 31 of Eternal Empire, when Ilya follows Bogdan to a cottage that overlooks Peles Castle, he’s following a trail that had been laid down years before. And to some extent, the scene that follows, in which Ilya discovers that his actions will determine whether Maddy will live or die, could have taken place almost anywhere. But there’s a deeper, weirder logic governing the story that I have trouble explaining in rational terms. As I’ve noted before, I had an idea that this novel would begin with the vandalism of a painting that would convey a secret message, but I wasn’t sure what this message would be. I arrived at Delacroix’s Ovid Among the Scythians almost by process of elimination: I wanted the painting to be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since I could write about it credibly without having to pay a visit, and the reference to the Scythians, which ties into the fundamental themes of the series, only sealed the deal. Ultimately, I decided that the secret meaning of the painting’s destruction would hinge on the location it depicted, which happened to be the Port of Tomis—in Romania. And for the life of me, I can’t remember whether or not my desire to use Peles Castle as a setting informed that decision. I can only assume that it did. But I’d like to think that this series simply wanted to go to Romania, and I merely followed its lead. In the end, it turned out to be a short visit. But we were meant to come here all along…

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2015 at 8:58 am

“She had been presented with one setback after another…”

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"She had been presented with one setback after another..."

Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 30. You can read the previous installments here.

Aside from a handful of striking exceptions, a novel is a linear form of storytelling, designed to be read in sequence from first page to last. Yet writers are irresistibly drawn to metaphors from the visual arts to describe what they do, in part because they naturally think in terms of the shape of the work as a whole. As readers, when we refer to a novel as a tapestry or a mosaic, it’s less about our experience of it in the moment than the impression it creates over time. This shape is impossible to describe, but when we’re finished with the story, we can sort of hold it in our heads, at least temporarily. It reminds me a little of Borges’s definition of the divine mind:

The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The divine mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.

One of the pleasures of a perfectly constructed work of fiction is that it allows us to feel, however briefly, what it might be like to see life as a whole. And although the picture grows dim once we’ve put down the book and picked up another, we’re often left with a sense of the book as a complex shape that somehow exists all at once.

It’s tempting to divide books into groups based on the visual metaphors that come most readily to mind. There are stories that feel like a seamless piece of fabric, which may be the oldest analogy for fiction that we have: the words text and textile emerge from the same root. Other stories gain most of their power from the juxtaposition of individual pieces. They remind us of a mosaic, or, in modern terms, a movie assembled from many distinct pieces of film, so that the combination of two shots creates information that neither one had in isolation. The choice between one strategy or another is often a function of length or point of view. A short novel told with a single strong voice will often feel like a continuous whole, as The Great Gatsby does, while a story that shifts between perspectives and styles, like one of Faulkner’s novels, seems more like a collection of pieces. And it’s especially interesting when one mode blurs into the other. Ian McEwan’s Atonement begins as a model of seamless storytelling, with a diverse cast of characters united by a smooth narrative voice, but it abruptly switches to the juxtaposition strategy halfway through. And sometimes a mosaic can be rendered so finely that it comes back around to fabric again. In his review of Catch-22, which is essentially a series of comic juxtapositions, Norman Mailer observed: “It reminds one of a Jackson Pollock painting eight feet high, twenty feet long. Like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere.”

"Wolfe spoke up at last..."

My own work can be neatly categorized by length: my short stories do their best to unfold as a continuous stream of action, while my novels proceed by the method of juxtaposition, intercutting between three or more stories. I’ve spoken before of how deeply influenced I’ve been by the book and movie of L.A. Confidential, which cut so beautifully between multiple protagonists, and I’ve followed that model almost to a fault. From a writer’s point of view, this approach offers clear advantages, as well as equally obvious pitfalls. Each subplot should be compelling in itself, but they all gain an additional level of interest by being set against the others, and the ability to cut between stories allows you to achieve effects of rhythm or contrast that would be hard to achieve with a single narrative thread. At the same time, there’s a danger that the structure of the overall story—with its logic of intercutting—will produce scenes that don’t justify their existence on their own. You can see both extremes on television shows with big ensemble casts. Mad Men handled those changes beautifully: within each episode’s overarching plot, there were numerous self-contained scenes that could have been presented in any order, and much of their fun and power emerged from Matthew Weiner’s arrangement of those vignettes. Conversely, on Game of Thrones, there are countless scenes that seem to be there solely to remind us that a certain character exists. The show grasps the grammar of intercutting, but not the language, and it’s no accident that many of its best episodes were the ones that focused exclusively on one location.

And I haven’t been immune to the hazards of multiple plots, or the way they can impose themselves on the logic of the story. When I read Chapter 30 of Eternal Empire, for instance, I have trouble remembering why it seemed necessary. Nothing much happens here: Wolfe interrogates a suspect, but gets no useful information, and you could lift out the entire chapter without affecting the rest of the plot whatsoever. It’s been a long time since I wrote it, but I have the uneasy feeling that I inserted a chapter here solely for structural reasons—I needed a pause in Maddy and Ilya’s stories, and Wolfe hadn’t had a scene for a while, so I had to give her something to do without advancing the story past the point where the other subplots had to be. (I can almost see myself with a stack of notecards, shuffling and rearranging them only to realize that I needed a chapter here to avoid upsetting the structure elsewhere.) I did my best to inject the scene with whatever interest I could, mostly by making the interrogation scene as amusing as possible, but frankly, it doesn’t work. In the end, the best thing I can say about this chapter is that it’s short, and if I had the chance to write this novel all over again, I’d either find a way to cut it or, more likely, revise it to advance the story in a more meaningful way. There’s nothing wrong with having a chapter serve as a pause in the action, and if nothing else, the next stretch of chapters is pretty strong. But as it stands, this is less a real chapter than a blank space created by the places where the other parts meet. And I wish I’d come up with a slightly better piece…

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has recently come back into the spotlight, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse always seem like an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, even if I’m retreating from this a bit, I’ll often find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we see in so much “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at the moment, and our actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

Do titles matter?

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The other day, I found myself thinking about sex—in particular, about Sex.com, once thought to be the most valuable domain name on the Internet, until it was caught up in a legal battle so epic that it inspired its own book. Ultimately, after the site’s previous owner went bankrupt, someone paid $11.5 million for the rights, but the site, as it currently stands, is a ghost town (although still not safe for work). And it isn’t hard to figure out what happened. In the early days of the web, investors were furiously snatching up what seemed like lucrative domains, all common words like Clothes or Books, never expecting that our most heavily trafficked sites would have names that sound like complete nonsense: Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Bing. In fact, of the sites I visit daily, none has a domain name consisting of a single recognizable English word.

In hindsight, it’s clear that investors simply misunderstood how people would surf the web, assuming that they would find products and services by randomly typing words into the address bar, adding “.com,” and hitting return. It’s quite possible that some users are still doing this, but for the rest of us, Google provided a much more effective approach. It didn’t really matter what a site was called: as long as it appeared prominently in your search results, you’d find it, even if it was called Kazaa or Flickr or Picasa, rather than Music or Photos.com. Domain names ceased to matter when one’s primary interface became the search engine, rather than the address bar. If the web had been like browsing in a bookstore, with site after site scrolling by, a domain like Sex.com might have been an asset, but that just isn’t how we use the Internet.

These reflections were inspired by an article by John Colapinto in this week’s New Yorker—which is truly an excellent issue, by the way—about Lexicon, a company that does nothing but invent names for products. Lexicon’s triumphs include Pentium, Swiffer, PowerBook, and Dasani, and they’ve transformed the art of naming into a science, down to analyzing the meaning of p vs. b sounds, and quantifying the desirability of alternating vowels and consonants. The real question, though, is whether such names matter at all. Here’s Bernd Schmitt, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School:

Would Amazon be just as successful if it was called Nile? My guess would be yes, because the name is just a starting point for a brand. The most important branding decision is more about brand strategy, distribution channels—where are the customers you want to reach?

And yet it’s hard to believe that names don’t matter. Colapinto points to great novels that nearly had bad titles: would The Great Gatsby have become a classic as Trimalchio in West Egg, or Farewell, My Lovely as Zounds, He Dies? The answer seems to be no—although it ignores the fact that nearly all the great classics of world literature have bad titles—but it only brings us up against a related question, which is whether the function of a novel’s title has also changed.

Because the way we’re searching for books is changing as well. In the old days, many of us found books in the way that early speculators in domain names assumed we’d find things on the web: by browsing, essentially at random, among a vast but finite range of choices. When you’re trying to catch the eye of someone glancing casually over the thriller section of a bookstore, say, the title and cover become essential. Now, though, browsing in its pure sense is on its way out, and we find books in the same way we find everything else: through search queries, recommendations from other readers, and suggestions from sites like Amazon. The title and cover, then, seem much less important than the book’s metadata—its plot summary, its keywords, and even, in many cases, its searchable contents. (Interestingly, and for reasons I don’t entirely understand, the movie industry seems to be moving in the opposite direction, as witnessed by grindingly literal titles like Horrible Bosses and Bad Teacher.)

So do titles matter? Yes, obviously, for readers who still browse for novels in bookstores—and whoever you are, I thank you. They also matter, less obviously, for professional book buyers at bookstore chains, who essentially judge books by their covers when deciding how many copies to order. As for the rest of us, my own impression, having spent a long time thinking about titles for my own books, is that titles have a neutral or negative effect. A good title, in itself, won’t make a novel easier for an online browser to find, but a bad title might turn off a reader who found the book in an Amazon search. Titles, like covers and typography, are an index to quality: a bad title and design usually means a bad book, because a publisher that is sloppy about such issues is likely to be sloppy about more important things. Titles and covers still matter, then—but less as a way of attracting readers than as a means of sealing the deal.

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2011 at 10:19 am

The trouble with endings

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Warning: This discussion, for obvious reasons, contains unavoidable spoilers.

What makes a great ending? There are as many different kinds of endings as there are works of art, of course, but as I look at my own favorites, I find that the best endings often don’t feel like endings at all. The most extreme version, the unresolved ending, has been used in books as dissimilar as Rabbit, Run and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but the best example I know is from The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that I first read when I was fourteen (which, honestly, is about the right age). My feelings about the book itself have evolved over time, but the power of that final paragraph has never entirely departed:

She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspend the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, sings out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.

Such a note of ambiguity can be tough to pull off, however, especially in mainstream fiction. Fowles, a master of the form even in his earliest novels, gets away with it; most novelists, including myself, probably can’t, at least not without annoying the reader. Yet the appeal of the unresolved ending raises an important point. Unless the writer is deliberately trying to emphasize the story’s artificiality, the best endings, like the best curtain lines, seem to promise something more: ideally, it should seem that the author has chosen the most appropriate moment to end the story, but that the story could also go on and on, like life itself.

It’s important, then, for the author to resist the temptation to tie a neat bow on the narrative. While writing a novel, most authors know that they aren’t supposed to editorialize or address the reader directly, that the meaning of the novel should be conveyed through action, and that the story’s themes, if any, should remain implicit in the narrative itself—and yet, very often, all these good habits go out the window on the final page, as if the pressure to explain exactly what the story means has become too great for the writer to resist. Deep down, every writer wants to end a novel like The Great Gatsby, as the themes of the story ascend to the universal:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But Fitzgerald, like Fowles, was a master, and like many of the great masters, his example can be dangerous. For most writers, the rules for good writing are the same from first page to last: understatement, brevity, and objectivity are almost always preferable to their opposites. Indeed, the simpler ending is usually better, especially for a complex story. In film, there’s no better example than Chinatown, where Roman Polanski replaced Robert Towne’s original, more complex conclusion with, in Towne’s words, “a simple severing of the knot.”

For a thriller, in particular, the story needs to end as soon after the climax as possible. The denouement of The Day of the Jackal, the most perfectly constructed of all suspense novels, lasts for less than a page. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by contrast, the action falls for something like 170 pages—which is another reason why I’m not a huge fan of that book. Compare this to the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw, which resolves the action in the story’s final word, while also raising as many questions as it answers:

I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

I can only end, as I often do, by quoting Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, if you’re a novelist, at least a nice place in Chinatown.

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