How do you know your characters are finished with their story?
By Jolyn Lauer
I love this question. I always feel terminally unique when answering it, until I hear/read handfuls of other writers grappling with the same dilemma.
I begin a story much the same way as I end it. The character(s) jump out at me and demand to be heard/seen. They don’t always come with a story attached—that’s my job, to figure out what they want to tell.
When it’s over, it’s over. They stop speaking… or so I thought.
I began my first quirky, cozy-mystery novel, Best Laid Plans, when Jenny spoke to me during my morning shower. “I never meant to kill anyone that morning,” she said.
Following that thread introduced me to an earnest social worker determined to establish a halfway house for female ex-felons, a street-wise ex-junkie and current lesbian bar owner, a crazed but wealthy octogenarian, and a house full of colorful ex-felons bent on putting found buried treasure to good use. I thought I was done. Except… the story ends with the crazy old lady’s promise to wreak vengence—an unintended cliff-hanger.
I published it. Months passed. A few readers asked what comes next.
Walking to work one afternoon, the ex-junkie bar owner said offhandedly, “We all had lives before that book, you know.” Huh?
That seemed to call for a prequel at a time folks were requesting a sequel. From that, An Unlikely Trio emerged, taking us back into the lives of the three main characters and watching Fate have its way, connecting them in the bigger picture. Again, I had no idea where we were going. This book ended with a natural segue into Best Laid Plans, which still begged for some sort of ending beyond the cliff-hanger.
The social worker sidled up to me one morning while I was washing the dishes and said, “Don’t you want to know what happened?” Well, yes, but I didn’t have a clue as to how to figure it out. “The key is in the crazy,” she said.
Eventually, the octogenarian stepped forward to reveal her story. As a therapist myself, I’m fascinated by how people “turn out” from their early beginnings. Her story became one of “the wounded narcissist,” and took me to the conclusion of the book, Gone Awry, stumbling along the way over a horrific plot change that I didn’t see coming.
By the end of the third book, in what had now become a trilogy, we were done. There was nowhere else to go. All the ties between the books had been made, nothing left dangling over the cliff, nothing unresolved.
But then… hindsight being a great teacher and at times my worst nemesis, I wondered if it would have made more sense for all these books to be rearranged and combined into one. Will the journey never end?
I still don’t know if I’m done.
Jo Lauer’s articles and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.
She is the author of “Returning: A Collection of Stories,” and three novels: An Unlikely Trio (Prequel to Best Laid Plans), “Best Laid Plans (A Cozy Mystery), and “Gone Awry. She is also the author of three novellas: Waltzing With the Azaleas, Grapevine, and Sojourner.
Jo is a psychotherapist by day, and lives in Santa Rosa, California, with her stuffed raven, Loudly. Please check out her website at www.jolauer.com.
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