(This is part 3 of an 8-part series on the ending of the Alex Verus novels. The master post with links to all the other parts is here.)
A story’s theme is the message it conveys, and the underlying meaning that the narrative explores.
Themes are complicated and subjective, and if you ask three people what the theme of a story is, you’ll usually get three different answers. Figuring out which is right is hard, and requires you to think about the story in a lot more detail than you usually would . . . and even if you do that, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the right answer, or even that there is a right answer.
For all these reasons, it’s tempting to avoid thinking much about a story’s theme. It’s hard, it can be boring, and there’s not much reward. As a result, many people, when the subject comes up, will shrug or say they don’t care . . . which is a big mistake. Theme is the heart of a story, and more than anything else, it’s the reason a story exists. It’s sort of like the engine of a car – you rarely see it or think about it, but it’s where all the power comes from. Without it, all you’ve got is an empty shell.
Readers won’t always notice or connect with a theme, but when they do, it has a bigger impact on them than anything else, and it has the power to generate the most intense feelings. If readers like a story’s theme, they’ll fall in love with the book and remember it forever. If they don’t, they’ll hate the book with a fiery passion and will often transfer that hatred onto the author. There are two reasons that authors get death threats, and this is one of them.
So how does this tie into endings?
Well, endings are where a story’s theme becomes obvious. You can kind of hide a theme throughout the body of a book, but as with a jigsaw puzzle, the more pieces you fit together, the clearer the picture becomes. And once it’s clear, then readers can look back at the beginning and middle, and see the book as a whole, and figure out what message the author was sending.
Or to put it another way: the ending is where you figure out what the writer’s got to say. At which point several things can go wrong.
• The writer can turn out not to have anything to say. There’s no real resolution and everything just sort of peters out.
• The writer may have something to say, but it’s incoherent and contradictory. You do get a resolution, but it’s the kind of resolution where the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.
• The writer does have something to say and it’s neither incoherent nor contradictory, but once the reader understands it, they decide that they hate the book, and the writer in general.
But these are all worst-case-scenarios. What’s much more common is that the ending reveals the story’s theme, and it’s just sort of . . . okay. It’s not obviously stupid or offensive, but it’s not particularly exciting or well-executed, either. Throughout the story, your interest might have been kept up by the mystery of what was going to happen and the possibility of something more, but once the ending is revealed and the mystery’s stripped away, it turns out that there wasn’t actually anything more. You end on a vague feeling of disappointment, and that disappointment lingers and makes you less inclined to read another book by the same author.
Another way to think about it is that if consistency makes an ending intellectually satisfying, a story’s theme is what makes its ending emotionally satisfying. It’s the payoff, the final result of all the work you put in to follow the story through its twists and turns to its finale, and whether the theme is well or badly done is what decides whether that work was worth it.
Out of the two things that make an ending good or bad – consistency and theme – theme is the most important by far. A story can be horribly inconsistent, but if the theme lands well enough, readers will love it anyway. It’s common for fans of a series to nitpick incessantly and spend hours and hours pointing out everything wrong with it, to the point that outsiders are likely to ask: “why are you even fans of this if you complain about it so much?” Answer: because they like the theme. If readers like a theme enough, they’ll forgive everything else.
So as you can guess, when I was deciding how to end the Alex Verus series, it was theme that I focused on. Next week, we’ll look at the first of the rejected alternate endings, which I’ve dubbed “Total Victory”.