Tuesday, 14 July 2020

The end before the beginning... by Lynne Benton

I hope Kelly will forgive me for piggybacking on to her blog of Saturday 11th July about people refusing to read prologues.  Reading her blog, and the varied and fascinating comments afterwards, gave me the idea for what my blog should be about today!

Some people, it appears, always (or frequently) turn to the end of a book to see how it turns out BEFORE they start reading it!!!  I had a dear friend who used to do this and it drove me nuts – so to discover that she was not alone, and that some others do it too as a matter of course was quite horrifying!  Do they not realise (or care) that the writer has spent many hours/days/weeks carefully crafting the story in order to mystify the reader and possibly lead them up the wrong path before the final reveal at the end which explains the whole thing?  Surely the writer’s efforts have all been in vain if the reader turns to the reveal first – they will read the book with foreknowledge of what will happen in the end.  I know one comment on Kelly’s post pointed out that once our books have been published we have no say in how the reader approaches them, which of course is true, but that’s not the point.  Why would anyone want to read the end of a book before the beginning?  Do they hate surprises on principle?  Or is it just a habit?  And if so, how and why did they pick up this habit?

Like many others, I read everything in a book, including introductions, acknowledgements and prologues – though I do prefer to read the acknowledgements after I’ve read the book (I’m always slightly afraid it will give away some of the plot!)  This applies too to the blurb on the back cover, which again I tend to leave until after I’ve finished the book.  So often it tells me too much about the book, which I would prefer to find out for myself.  But saving things to read till after you’ve read the book is quite different from reading the end before you get there!

Reading most crime novels would be completely spoilt if you read the end first.  The whole fun of reading such books is to try to work out whodunnit and why.  If you knew that before you started reading, it would destroy most of the pleasure in doing your own detective work.  There are, of course, a few books which turn this idea on its head and tell us who the murderer is first, but there's still going to be some sort of shock ending which you don't want revealed too early. It's no surprise that anyone going to see Agatha Christie's play "The Mousetrap" is asked at the end not to reveal the identity of the murderer to anyone else once they leave the theatre.  So why would you want to know the end of a crime novel first?

This reminds me of two incidents which I shall never forget.

The first was over fifty years ago, when a friend and I went to the cinema to see the latest Big Film (which I won’t name, for those who still may not have seen it), and at the last minute her (then) boyfriend decided to come with us.  My friend and I loved the film, and during the interval we both sniffled and dried our tears and looked forward to the second half.  Then her idiot boyfriend said, “He dies at the end, you know!” and couldn’t understand why we both rounded on him and berated him for having told us the ending.  (He seemed quite surprised at our reaction - he said in injured tones, “Oh, I just thought you’d like to know!”  I said he was an idiot – he was also, very soon afterwards, my friend’s ex-boyfriend!)

The other incident was several years ago at a Literature Festival.  At the beginning of the week I’d gone to hear a well-known author talk about her latest book, which I was in the middle of reading.  (It turned out to have a major surprise ending, but of course the author hadn’t given it away in her talk, and for obvious reasons I won’t mention which author or which book it was.)  However, later that same week, at another event at the same Literature Festival, I went to hear a famous actor talking about recording audio books, and in answer to one question he decided to pontificate about one book he’d recently recorded, adding the name of the author and the title of the book – the same  book its author had talked about three days before, and which many in this audience had bought but not yet had a chance to read.  And then, unforgivably, he gave away the surprise ending!  In my memory there was a shocked gasp from the audience, but that may only have been me!  By that stage I’d almost finished the book and had just about guessed the twist for myself, so it wasn’t entirely spoilt for me, but that doesn’t excuse the cavalier way he ruined it for so many of his audience.  Had he not checked that the author had appeared there earlier in the week and would doubtless be selling her latest book?  It wasn’t as if it was necessary to name either the book or the author – he could have said, “in one book I read recently…” but no.  It was all about him and how clever he was, and I’ve never forgiven him for spoiling the book for so many readers!

I’ve just realised that because I’ve been so careful not to reveal the titles of the aforementioned film or book, I can’t illustrate this blog with pictures of either, so I can only use the cover of "The Mousetrap".  However, I still think it’s important to read a story in the right order, and leave the ending, whether it's a great surprise or not, where it’s suppose to be - at the end.


Nick Garlick said...

I once shared a flat with a woman who could never, EVER, wait to find out how a film or TV episode turned out. If she knew I'd already seen it, she would pester me and pester me and pester me to tell her how they ended until I gave in - and I would, eventually, because it was the only way to stop her asking. She had the attention span of a gnat and was one of the most deeply frustrating people I've ever met in my life.

Penny Dolan said...

Oh dear! That actor had probably forgotten - or was no longer aware of the author's presence or earlier talk. He was, rather pompously, reliving the book as it was in his reading.

I will turn to the final pages, when something heart-wringing or terrible is going on to check whether a character is still around, but it doesn't spoil the book for me. I can read on without that awful anxiety. Also I wouldn't stop just because I knew they wouldn't make it. I'd be ready for the moment when it arrived.

But reading the end when you haven't even begun? That is odd - and I do know someone who often does it. She is warm, kind and friendly BUT extremely practical and with a brisk approach to reading and the time she wants to spend on a story that doesn't end well.

Stroppy Author said...

I don't personally read the end in advance though, like Penny, I will sometimes check whether a character is still there at the end. Sometimes, when I'm feeling fragile, it's useful to know how much emotional energy I can afford to invest in a character. I can pull back a bit if they are not going to make it; sometimes there is enough pain and trauma in real life that the ability to limit it in reading is welcome.

I guess it depends what you read for. If you read for plot, you won't want to know. If you read for character or style, the ending is more a matter of mild curiosity — it's more interesting to see how the book is worked out than to know what happens. I don't think there is any need to think of the time the author has put in — the reader doesn't owe the author anything. The author creates suspense for those who like suspense, not to force it on those that don't. Surely dictating to a reader how to read the book is rather like me buying a dress and the designer telling me what I"m allowed to wear with it or where I"m allowed to wear it?

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Peeps be crazy, Lynne. I remember going to a pub quiz a few days after the 6th Harry Potter book came out and someone had called their quiz team 'Dumbledore's Wake'. The entire pub gasped, horrified when they read it out. I can't believe the quiz organisers did read it out actually! I'd have made them change it.

I don't read for plot at all, I quite like books that have no plot and I'm much more interested in theme, writing and character, but I still don't want to know the end before I get there. I want to read the book the way it was designed to be read. If I really like it, I'll read it again, knowing how it will end, because that's a different experience and you can get a lot out of it, but you can always do that later. You can only read it 'blind' once, so why waste that?

Having said that, I don't mind spoilers at all for movies and TV shows, probably because they just don't mean as much to me and they're less of a time investment.

Lynne Benton said...

Thank you all for your comments - I guess everyone has their own opinion on this! (As well as their own stories to tell...)

Sue Purkiss said...

I'm a bit like Penny and Anne in that I sometimes check the ending to see if it's going to be too heart-breaking. Don't think I'd do that with a thriller, though. But I also sometimes look at the end if I'm not really convinced by the book - and then I don't usually carry on reading; though I probably wouldn't have anyway.

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