The “Dickens” Approach

I’d venture to say that the vast majority of Americans have encountered something written by Charles Dickens, even if it’s only one of the movie versions of A Christmas Carol, or perhaps high school English class required reading of A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, or David Copperfield.

One of the aspects of Dickens that has always bothered me about his work is the lack of loose ends. As one New York Times book reviewer wrote years ago, “Dickens seduced his readers with atmosphere and then clubbed them with coincidence. He dreaded loose ends – no one has ever tied up his literary anxieties with more circumstantial knots.”

While Dickens has been criticized for “paper” main characters, excessive sentiment, and a reliance on fortuitous circumstances, what bothered me more was the lack of loose ends. Even as a student in high school, it always seemed to me that life was filled with meaningless death and loose ends.

Over the years, I’ve seen that novelists certainly recognize and often overdo meaningless deaths, if sometimes imbuing deaths with more meaning than they actually have, but some seem to work too hard to tie up all the loose ends, even if that seldom happens in real life, which is far less tidy than fiction.

But today, as in Dickens’s time, a great many readers enjoy having all the loose ends tied up and feel that the only loose ends that shouldn’t be tied up are those that will indeed be tied up in the sequel. This is natural, given that life is indeed untidy, and one of the reasons people read novels is not only to be entertained, but also to be challenged, as well as given a sense of meaning or order in life.

As a result of my feelings about loose ends, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I leave more than a few loose ends in any novel, some of which will never be resolved, and that just might be because I have the feeling that, more often than not, the only order and meaning in life come from what individuals and their societies create, and that no one is capable of tying up all the loose ends in life.

But that also might explain, at least partly, why I don’t have a best-seller like Tale of Two Cities, which, tied-up loose ends and all, has sold more than 200 million copies and is still selling, more than a century and a half after the author’s death.

14 thoughts on “The “Dickens” Approach”

  1. Bill says:

    As you have stated there are always loose ends in your stories. This never bothers me because I get more stories in the long run. Even with loose ends your stories do come to a satisfying conclusion.
    I don’t believe selling a large number of books is dependent on wrapping up loose ends. The first problem is that your work assumes a certain amount of intelligence on the part of the reader and is focused on the reasons and the economics behind the situation. Many very high selling works focus on more base desires including a good bit of gore or sex and often both. Or don’t require any imagination at all.
    Another reason some people become extremely popular is they get lucky and catch a trend as it is starting. Zombies periodically become popular and so someone writing zombie stories when they become popular gets a boost. It seems like you have missed the streaming bubble and no one has picked up one of your works to bring to the screen. Even if done poorly, this causes a large number of people to buy at least one volume of the work even if they are just film reviewers trying to understand what is happening on screen.
    I haven’t noticed any discussions on your website about film makers optioning your books. It may be because you don’t wish to discuss it, or it isn’t happening. I would love to see any of your books become movies or some of the longer series become TV shows.

  2. Dave says:

    Yes, I would love to see the Imager series made into either a film, or TV series. I think it would translate to the screen more easily than the Recluse novels.

  3. Postagoras says:

    According to Wikipedia, Dickens’s books were first serialized in magazines. He reportedly changed stories based on things he heard about the chapters already published. Perhaps that’s why he was so focused on tying up loose ends.

  4. Postagoras says:

    I’d enjoy seeing a movie or streaming series based on any Modesitt work. My only trepidation is that Mr. Modesitt’s characters spend time thinking, which is not really allowed in any kind of video today. His characters also find their true love and romance them over years, which removes all the romantic drama that is in so many of the story lines.

  5. Grey says:

    There was one pretty big loose end in the Grand Illusion: (being intentionally vague for spoilers) a main character’s magic powers in several instances were developing and unheard of visual aspect, yet did not seem to have any role in the story.

    I’m curious, was this included just to add flavor to the story, a narrative thread that got dropped, or perhaps just a bit of misdirection to keep the reader guessing about how things will play out; sort of a ‘reverse Chekhov’s Gun’?

    1. It was more of a hint that even isolates aren’t all the same, just as Nincya Gaaroll and Avraal aren’t identical as empaths.

      1. KevinJ says:

        Well drat. Here I was hoping it would be the anchor for a really mind-blowing sequel!

        Oh well. Loved those books anyway, no worries.

        1. Buteo says:

          I’d bet on any follow-up being about the Silent Revolution, a prequel, given past examples.

          1. KevinJ says:

            I think you’re right.

  6. Buteo says:

    I think Gravity Dreams, with its focus on the need for honesty, would be a timely program for streaming.

  7. R. Hamilton says:

    I think that a few of what might be termed loose ends indicate, as you suggested in one of your replies, a greater variety of characteristics or behavior than just simple categories. That’s interesting enough.

    But they also imply not the promise, but at least the possibility of a sequel, which can feel frustrating (almost a cheat) to a reader if you don’t have any present intent of creating one, although it does leave you options if you change your mind.

    Short stories might be an option to resolve some where novels are not under consideration; I note that some of the Recluce short stories did just that; in a varied collection that might be possible for other universes, too.

    1. Grey says:

      Building on this, and LEM‘s comment above, that while his intent in The Grand Illusion was hinting that were more variations than commonly thought in isolate/empath abilities, that I and a few others misinterpreted it as foreshadowing a grander purpose is in a way his own fault. I have read almost all of the books over many years and one common theme is that they tend to not have very many extraneous details. Hence, when I see something like that, I filed it away in my head as something to keep an eye on.

      (LEM often mentions reviews that are critical of his books as being boring or plodding, but I always find this quite comical; weren’t those readers paying attention?)

      1. Postagoras says:

        I totally agree- I thought that was foreshadowing as well.

        The LEM technique that makes me grin on the repeat reading is when a character facetiously says something like “You might as well go tiger hunting in a black hole”. You can bet that this will happen before the end.

  8. Tom says:

    In a writers discussion of loose ends:

    I found it interesting that the author who intentionally left loose ends also pointed out that they did not “outline” and gave that as a reason some writers left loose ends. Given LEM’s description of his work system he probably leaves loose ends intentionally.

    So: what to do with Markel Roemnal? I was expecting appearance of the corpus delicti in Contrarian but at the end everybody with knowledge was dead via assassination or in action or in Nordla :– perhaps I should think of Markel being in the James Bond scientist slave situation, building the correct version of the structure for the Nordla navy?

    The evidence for Ysella’s action at the year-end ball was, for me, somewhat thinner than usual from LEM, even though the financier of evil can be considered as evil as the murderer or enslaver. Still, perhaps I just missed something. An enticing loose end for me even if it turns out to be without resolution.

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