Today, I read an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune by John Warner--"The sting of a bad end." In it, Warner draws on the work by psychologist and Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman to probe the pain we feel as readers when a book (or worse, a series) we love ends badly.
Paraphrasing Kahneman's theory, Warner writes "...we have 'two selves': our 'experiencing' self and our 'remembering' self. Our experiencing self is just that, the part of us that's present while something is occurring. In Kahneman's formulation, that's the one who would answer the question, 'How are you liking the book?' Our remembering self is the one who answers "How did you like the book?'"
Apparently, our memory of an experience is tempered by our perception of how the experience ends. So we could love every moment of a book, but if we don't like the ending, then we forget we enjoyed reading the rest of the book. (This is all part of a complex decision-making process--take this fun quiz to learn more about how you make decisions!)
As a reader, I can relate to this feeling of intense disappointment when a book doesn't end as I had hoped. A beautifully wrought story should end, well, beautifully. And if doesn't? Well, there's a strong chance I won't read it again (and I'm someone who rereads books frequently). (Of course, maybe I wasn't in the right moment in life to appreciate the ending, but that's another story.)
Warner ends with a plea: "On behalf of authors everywhere, I'm hoping we can add a little perspective and ask everyone to tell their remembering selves to remember their experiencing self, because the truth is that writing a good and fully satisfying ending is really, really hard."
I agree with this. Absolutely. Completely.
But I think there's an answering plea from readers to writers. Don't rush the ending! Be true to your characters! Care about your readers!
How about you? Do you judge a book by how it ends?
8/6/2012 03:51:11 am
I love it when you talk 'cognitive psychology' in your blogs! I agree: both as a memory researcher and as a person who remembers. This also reminds me of a conversation we had about experiencing a story in the moment vs. considering the story after the fact.
8/14/2012 02:30:12 am
I really enjoyed reading Water for Elephants until the last chapter, which seemed like it was written by someone else. Hating the ending influenced how I talked about the book to others who hadn't read it yet. I couldn't quite sell the book, but I did put a plug in for 'experiencing' aspect of it.
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Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.