Thursday, 26 June 2014

Happy endings not (always) required - Cavan Scott

"Oooh, that's a bit bleak..."

I'd just told a friend of mine the plot of a short story I am about to pitch to a reluctant reader publisher. And he was right. The ending isn't just a bit bleak - it's abysmally bleak. A real kick you in the stomach-type affair.

But I don't think I could tell it any other way. The story needs to ends with a sucker punch. If everything turns out fine and dandy, it would lose all of its meaning.

It has made me think though. This week, I received copies of my latest reluctant readers from Badger Learning - Billy Button and Pest Control. Both of them end with the protagonist in deep water. Come to think of it, my last two books for Badger were pretty bleak too.

It's probably because they've been conjured up from the same part of my brain that used to enjoy late-night Amicus portmanteau movies such as Vault of Horror and From Beyond the Grave. In fact, what am I saying? I still enjoy them today! Horrible things happening to horrible people - and even sometimes nice people as well. The 70s and 80s were full of horrid little morality tales like these, from the wonderfully macabre Tales of the Unexpected to excesses of Hammer House of Horror.

I guess my recent run of reluctant reader books have come from the same stable. Stories to unsettle and to chill.

And why not? Children like to be scared. It stimulates a different part of their imagination and teaches them valuable lessons - that darkness is just as much a part of life as light. And where better than to experience these emotions than safely curled up reading a book.

Indeed, according to Kevin Brooks, recently crowned winner of the Carnegie medal, books should actively show children that life doesn't always include happy endings. He wasn't talking about the cheap scares of 70s horror movies of course, but novels that deal with the harsher sides of life, subject matter that is sometimes difficult to write about, let alone to read.

Quoted in the Telegraph, Brooks says:

“There is a school of thought that no matter how dark or difficult a novel is, it should contain at least an element of hope.
"As readers, children – and teens in particular – don’t need to be cossetted with artificial hope that there will always be a happy ending. They want to be immersed in all aspects of life, not just the easy stuff. They’re not babies, they don’t need to be told not to worry, that everything will be all right in the end, because they’re perfectly aware that in real life things aren’t always all right in the end."

He concludes by saying:

“To be patronizing, condescending towards the reader is, to me, the worst thing a Young Adult fiction author can do.”

I found myself applauding as I read Brooks' words. It's not to say that I never write happy endings - hey, I can do heartwarming as well as bleak - but being over-cautious will just kill your writing dead. And children will see through it anyway. They know all too well what real life is like. 


Cavan Scott is the author of over 60 books and audio dramas including the Sunday Times Bestseller, Who-ology: The Official Doctor Who Miscellany, co-written with Mark Wright.

He's written for Doctor WhoSkylandersJudge Dredd, Angry Birds and Warhammer 40,000 among others. He also writes Roger the Dodger and Bananaman for The Beano as well as books for reluctant readers of all ages.

Cavan's website
Cavan's facebook fanpage
Cavan's twitterings


C.J.Busby said...

Hmm. I'm not entirely sure I agree with either you or Brooks. In an earlier post I argued almost exactly the opposite, in fact:
One thing that worries me about the argument that dark things happen to children and therefore it's remiss not to show those in books, is that I don't think readers necessarily want to see their lives reflected in what they read. Frankly, if they are having a hard time in real life, they're more likely to want relief or an escape from that, into a safe world where things work out OK. If your situation is dire, you need books that give you hope. So the kids that read these grim tales are more likely to be the ones who are enjoying a bit of vicarious tragedy, while knowing they can return to safe, warm, easy lives afterwards. I'm not saying no one should write grim books - that would be absurd - but I don't think it's necessarily laudable and inherently worthier of prizes, for being brave and uncompromising.
There's also an age issue. In terms of your point about how you loved hammer horror, etc. - I totally agree, there's an age when that is a thrill. Your books sound as if they are aimed at 14-ish, and at that age I think it's fine to throw anything at them - the ones that are good readers are probably reading adult books anyway, so why shouldn't reluctant readers get in on some of the gore-fest? But I think for children - under 12 - as opposed to YA - a truly bleak book with no redemption is not something I'd personally ever want to inflict on them.

Nick Green said...

I would agree, but only if there remains the implication of a happy ending outside the walls of the story itself. For instance, if the tragic ending of THIS character is strongly suggested to have some positive wider impact.

Orwell's 1984 is a good example. You couldn't imagine a bleaker ending - and then you realise that you've just read this book, which would be banned under IngSoc - so things can't be that bad yet. It's uplifting by the fact that it's a dire warning, so its ultimate message to the reader is: You still have time. You can be free.

What I don't agree with is the idea that books should be bleak merely because life is often bleak. The job of fiction is not merely to reflect life. It must seek - in however feeble a way - to improve it. That is what it is for.

Emma Barnes said...

I was struck by your comment:

"They [children] know all too well what real life is like."

Really? You seem to be saying that it's the bleak books that reflect reality: is this really true of today's kids? To take one example, I could name a dozen books where child characters die of cancer, many prizewinning, from such brilliant authors as Lois Lowry, Morris Gleitzman, Sally Nicolls, Jean Ure...I can't think of any where the child survives. Yet long term survival rates for child cancer in the UK are around 75% - those are children who are considered cured. Where are the novels that reflect this reality?

Brooks says "in real life things aren’t always all right in the end" but this is more a case of it's never all right in the end.

There's a place for darker themes, but I don't think these books are somehow more valuable for that reason, or that they reflect reality more.

Cavan Scott said...

Hello all,

I'm not saying that books that have bleak moments or tackle difficult situations are more 'valuable' or 'worthy' than others - just that writers shouldn't feel uncomfortable writing them.

As for having stories when children over-come problems such as cancer, yes, we definitely need those as well.

As with all things its a balance - we need light as well as dark. Perhaps this should be a challenge for authors to write those life-affirming stories too!

Cavan Scott said...

And yes Cecelia, the books I'm talking about are for 14+ so perhaps we can get away with being slightly bleaker.

The trick with younger readers is to get the balance right. I remember reading a novel about life following a nuclear war when I was 12, after it had been mentioned in an English class. There was some pretty harrowing stuff in there but, yes, there was a little hope as well.

Certainly scared me silly at the time though.

The key to my argument I guess comes in the (always) I popped into the title. I'm certainly not saying that happy endings should be banned, just that sometimes they aren't the natural conclusion of every story.

Cavan Scott said...

Thinking more about your comment Nick that:

"What I don't agree with is the idea that books should be bleak merely because life is often bleak. The job of fiction is not merely to reflect life. It must seek - in however feeble a way - to improve it. That is what it is for."

Absolutely. And that improvement can come from the reader asking, what would I do. In the story I'm working on that's what I'm hoping. In the story, hope is lost at the end, but my probably laughably lofty aim is that the reader will realise why it was lost and how they could avoid such things happening in their own life. That's my 'feeble way' at least.

Becca McCallum said...

Cavan Scott - was the novel you remember reading 'Children of the Dust'? That's certainly what I thought about after reading this post and your later comment. My brother actually mentioned it the other day as he'd read it years ago after I had told him about it (I read it when I was about 12). He said he remembered the first part (where they were all suffering from radiation sickness)as being terribly bleak, even though there was some hope portrayed in the later books.

Emma Barnes said...

Frank Cottrell Boyce has made some interesting comments on the Carnegie/Brooks debate - that regardless of the merits of the winner, it doesn't seem right for the award for children to be going to a book which is YA - and, most people would agree, for the very top of that age group. I think that's a very good point. The debate about "dark" subject matter depends a lot on which age-group you are discussing.

Cavan Scott said...

Children of the Dust! That's it Becca. Blimey, a real blast from the past.

Yes the first part is incredibly bleak, although things get better (i think) when the mutations start taking over. I might have to find it again to dig it out.

C.J.Busby said...

Indeed you didn't say bleak was more worthy, Cav I think my comments (and Emma's?) are more a reaction to the Brooks Carnegie win. And as we have all said, there's a lot of difference in this respect between children and 14 year olds.

Sue Purkiss said...

Interesting discussion! There are some thoughts seething around in my head about whether it's acceptable to say 'Children like/need/can cope with this, that or the other', as if it were a provable fact. Don't writers generally - within some constraints - write what they want to write - what is in them to write? And further - how can you lump children together, as if they all like the same things? I don't like books that are depressing and bleak, but that doesn't mean that there aren't people who do. Not quite sure what I'm arguing here, so I'll stop...

Anonymous said...

Has anyone actually asked children who are going through difficult times what they like to read? (Not that they are all likely to give the same answer.) When my daughter was going through a very difficult time (chronic illness, sel-harm, PTSD) she liked to read books that were harrowing but had some hope. She liked to see her own emotional situation reflected, but to have some reassurance that things might get better for her one day and death was not the only option, even if it often seemed that way. My suspicion is that the children who want to read the unremittingly bleak books are those who are not suffering. They are the vicarious 'fear and pity' readers, those who can get a thrill by dipping their toe in the bleak water because they haven't already been bitten by the sharks.

Nick Green said...

Personally when I'm on the brink of despair I read Wodehouse or Adams or Pratchett. Never fails.