The “after” moment in stories

Writing thought of the day, as I work through the final scenes of the almost-final draft of a book.

It’s rarely the moment when sad things happen in a story that makes me cry, as a reader or as a writer. The moment that gets me is the moment when the sad things are integrated into the larger world of the story–by being redeemed, by not being redeemed, by showing how their consequences ripple out, sometimes by simply being acknowledged. It’s the moment when some books say “it’s all going to be okay,” and in other books say “it will never be okay but it’s going to be, anyway.”

As a reader I know this moment by a tightening of the chest, or a sad/happy sigh, or a clicking of something into place. Or because, well, I suddenly want to cry, even though the thing that I would have expected to make me cry is pages and pages (or even chapters and chapters) past.

As a writer … all three Bones of Faerie books, as well as Thief Eyes, have a moment like this for me. I won’t say which moment–because every reader’s experience is different, and there’s no reason my moment should be your moment just because I wrote the book in question.

But the thing about these moments are, they’re all after moments, and not during moments.

It’s not always about tears. As a reader, I find that moments of laughter, or happy sighing, or a faint catch-in-the-throat, or any number of other kinds of emotional release can fill this same place in a book. It’s about a certain sort of emotional completion that can’t always happen while an emotional event is still in progress.

This is, I think, part of why denouements matter. No one wants a book to drag on too long, but it’s just as dangerous for a book to end too soon, because while the outward plot might be complete, the emotional arc needs another beat or two in order to land in the right place. Getting that beat is trickier than it seems.

And knowing where to stop a book is, in the end, as hard as knowing where to start one.

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